From cell phone apps that measure blood sugar levels to desktop printers that spit out new body organs, technology has come a long way in its role in health care. On July 25, The Science and Entertainment Exchange hosted Medical Miracles: Cutting Edge Health Technology at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. The evening, which was moderated by humorist and radio commentator Emily Levine, looked at some astonishing recent breakthroughs in medicine that could one day help us all live longer.
The night began with Dr. Ken Kamler (M.D.), a leading expert who is renowned for performing surgeries under extreme conditions. Some of his most extreme work has taken place during his adventures to Mount Everest. This caught the attention of NASA, as the inaccessibility of Mount Everest is similar to that of outer space. Kamler began collaborating with NASA to find new ways of treating astronauts while in orbit. One way would be to train astronauts to perform their own surgeries under extreme conditions, including the infamous “vomit comet” (an airplane in freefall to simulate true weightlessness). Recent developments in robotics could also allow doctors on Earth to perform surgeries in space. For example, doctors could design an operation that is beamed up and performed by a robot, similar to a player piano. This research will not only change how we take care of space travelers, but also of people here on Earth who reside in remote locations.
Dr. Leslie Saxon (M.D.), the Executive Director of the Center for Body Computing and the Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine at USC, is looking at how technology can bring patients and doctors closer together. As wait times to see specialists increase, Saxon saw an opportunity to use cell phone applications to help doctors receive real-time updates on their patients’ health statuses. This includes a glucometer that attaches to an iPhone to allow patients to measure, document, and share blood sugar levels. Also, with the support of an NFL Charities grant, Saxon’s team was able to (for the first time) measure the heart rates of every player in a football game, a sport where sudden cardiac death is an unfortunate reality. But there is also a fun side to these innovations: imagine being able to monitor the heart rate of your favorite players and compare it to those of their competitors while you are watching the game!
Dr. Paul S. Weiss (Ph.D.) is a nanoscientist, chemist, physicist, and engineer whose interdisciplinary expertise is allowing him to challenge the question: how small can you go? In pharmacology, researchers continue to face various challenges: targeting drugs to the site of action before being removed by the body, requiring unique drugs to treat the same condition in different organs, etc. Weiss is studying another way of approaching this problem: nanoscience. One of the goals right now is to develop a drug-containing particle with markers on its surface that, when recognized by the body, are directed to the right place. In the future, this could even allow for one drug to be used regardless of which organ needs to be treated, simply by modifying the marker that is used.
Dr. Anthony Atala (M.D.), Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, rounded out the evening with a fascinating discussion on the future of organ transplant. In Dr. Atala’s research, he examines the use of “scaffolds” in combination with a patient’s own cells to grow new organs outside of the body. These organs are conditioned and trained, and later transplanted into the patient. A small-scale example involves taking a tissue sample from the patient, harvesting the cells and spraying them back onto burn wounds to grow new skin. More complex examples are still being studied, and involve creating entire 3-D structures. Did you know that a huge proportion of donated organs are discarded due to incompatibility? With Atala’s methods, it could be possible to wash and repopulate these incompatible organs with the patient’s own cells, thereby reducing wastage. But the coolest idea would have to be the desktop printer that prints layers of cells onto a gel matrix, gradually building it into an organ, like a heart. Although many challenges – like costs and regulatory issues – lie ahead, this and all of the research presented remain important opportunities that will affect how technology can continue to improve our health and our lives.
Erica Lang is currently a graduate student studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her background is in Biology and Pharmacology, and she has worked in both the academic and industry settings. Erica was recently awarded the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Scholarship, and believes that her past experiences and appreciation for the field will help her to champion for more science-themed projects in film and television.