Do you remember “The Bionic Man” on television? How about reading all about Iron Man’s latest adventure in a comic book? Ever watch that Star Wars episode where Darth Vader chopped off Luke Skywalker’s hand which was replaced by a fully-functional bionic one? These days, Luke’s hand and The Bionic Man’s technologically advanced prosthesis are not so far-fetched, nor is Iron Man’s suit. Science fiction and health seem to be on a par when it comes to technology.
Science Fiction and Health Meet
Medical science has, over the last number of years, taken huge leaps forward with the introduction of new technologies. What we have only read in books or seen in movies, has become the norm. Today, much like in the case of Star Trek, medical professionals may be able to use new technology to ‘replicate’ new human tissue or determine the state of your health.
A California biotech firm, in 2014, was able to use three-dimensional printing in order to replicate liver tissue. Although meant for research, it is possible that they could, in the foreseeable future, use this technique to encourage cell regeneration or replace parts of existing tissue in the human body.
Interestingly, the Wake Forest School of Medicine has indicated that different replacement tissues and organs have already successfully been engineered and used on humans – successfully. Amongst the successfully engineered organs and tissues, they include the skin, esophagus, muscle, trachea, bladder, and blood vessels. Organs like the heart, liver, kidney, and pancreas are apparently the next challenge.
When Dolly the sheep was first cloned, a public outcry followed – as well as a swell of support that cited this as a medical breakthrough. In 2014, a story on National Public Radio published a story about a new medical procedure capable of preventing mitochondrial disease. Apparently, DNA from three people (two women and a man) could be utilized to create a single embryo. It is currently estimated that up to 4,000 children are born with the mitochondrial disease each year in the US alone. This disease affects vision, hearing, internal organs, and brain. This genetic disorder may become a thing of the past if potential parents are screened for it beforehand and use is made of genetic modifications.
Technologically Advanced Prosthetics
There is probably no medical field that has seen science fiction and health meld as in that of prosthetics. Gizmo, a science and technology website, reported in 2013 that a new nerve electrode system was in the offing that would allow those with hand amputations a prosthetic hand that would allow amputees the sensation of touch. These prosthetics would use a separate system attached to the remaining nerves that encourage direct sensory feedback to the brain. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had previously, in 2006, mentioned the significant advances they had made with regards to upper-limb technology, citing cases whereby amputees were able to control their new prosthetics by means of their mind.
These days, retinas to improve your eyesight and cochlear implants to improve your hearing are increasingly becoming the norm and not the exception.
The first heart transplant in 1967 by Professor Chris Barnard in South Africa took the world by storm, with many describing it as an act against nature while others hailed it a medical breakthrough. Other organ transplants, such as the kidneys, lungs, and liver had taken place before this. Those who are amputees or who suffered from severe facial scars due to burns, now have a light at the end of the tunnel. According to reports, it is possible to transplant arms from one person to another, while burn victims may be able to receive new faces via transplants from deceased donors. Their new facial features, however, would resemble that of their donor.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a robotic device helping those paralyzed in their lower extremities to walk again. The brace, which is motorized, is fitted in such a way that it supports both legs as well as a portion of your upper body. The motors allow movement of the leg joints, i.e. ankles, knees, and hips. Those who are paralyzed and who use this device, are able to sit, stand, and walk without help.
Tetraplegics, i.e. those paralyzed from the neck down, may gain some control over their hands, according to PubMed Health. An electrical device implanted into the part of the brain controlling hand movements that are linked to implants in the arm may give them the limited movement of the arms and head. This research is, however, still in the initial stages.
Vaccines for Cancer
A number of cancer vaccinations are seeing the light aimed at either helping with the treatment of cancer, e.g. metastatic prostate cancer and metastatic melanoma, as well as to prevent cancer due to certain infections, e.g. chronic hepatitis B that may cause liver cancer, and the HPV virus which causes cervical cancer. Although the latter two do not actively fight against or prevent cancer, they are said to fight against the infections that cause them.
The Scanadu Scout
This small, handheld piece of technology is the perfect blend of science fiction and health. Held between forefinger and thumb, the device is able to register your physiological information when placed against the forehead. It is heralded as a breakthrough with regards to self-diagnosis, e-health technology, and data mining.
The latest, state-of-the-art pacemakers no longer need invasive surgery or wires. They are so small that they are inserted into the heart by means of a catheter through your leg veins. Implanting them leaves no scars and does not have the risk of infection the older models posed to recipients.
Adrenal Fatigue, Science Fiction and Health
New advancements in the medical field pose endless possibilities for those suffering from Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). This condition, the result of stress (physiological, psychological, or environmental in its nature) may be debilitating, and depending on the stage of adrenal fatigue, resulting in a very low life quality.
Symptoms of the more advanced stages of adrenal fatigue (i.e. stage 3 and stage 4) include:
- Suppressed libido
- Sluggish digestion
- Decline in metabolic rate
- Bedridden due to lack of energy
- Sudden, penetrating pain occurring in the lower back, abdomen, and/or legs
- Severe vomiting
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- A possibility of Addisonian crisis (rare)
People experiencing these symptoms would most probably have seen a medical practitioner before reaching the Addisonian crisis, which could lead to death.
The latter stages of adrenal fatigue are the result of overworked adrenal glands that are no longer able to fulfill their function, i.e. producing the necessary cortisol (and other hormones) to meet the demands of stress. This stage sees not only the adrenals impacted, however, but all organs and glands within the body responsible for hormone production, including the brain, ovaries, testes, etc. It also can compromise the gut and the body’s immune system as the latter stages of AFS see a total dysregulation in the body’s neuronedometabolic (NEM) stress response.
The NEM starts in the brain with the hypothalamus. This small gland, when a threat is perceived, sends chemical messengers to the pituitary gland that in turns sends messengers to the adrenals to increase cortisol production. Together, these three glands form what is commonly referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. They are thus responsible for the cascading effect produced throughout your body in times of stress. It is when this system is compromised that one faces the latter stages of adrenal fatigue and its consequences.
Science Fiction and Health – 3D Print Adrenal Glands?
Reports indicate that scientists have successfully transplanted a 3D thyroid gland into a mouse. Not only was the procedure a success, but the 3D print thyroid gland is fully functional. A further advantage of this procedure is that no immunosuppression therapy is needed beforehand. This is because the newly created 3D printed organs or glands are made from the patient’s own cells. There is no threat of your body rejecting these organs or glands due to incompatibility issues.
What promise does this hold for those with adrenal failure?
As this technology expands, adrenal glands, just like the thyroid, may successfully be created and transplanted. This implies the end of adrenal failure due to over taxation. The downside, though, is that, unless nothing is done to address the problems causing AFS, the ‘new’ adrenals may head for the same fate.
Adrenal Gland Transplants – No Longer a Dream
A case study that had a 5-year girl suffering from adrenal insufficiency had an adrenal gland transplant with her mother as the donor. The adrenal tissue was transplanted into her rectus abdominis muscle. This was in 2010. Three years after her surgery, her allograft was still fully functional, and she did not need any form of medication, including steroid supplementation.
This bodes well for those suffering from AFS and its consequences.
Brain Implants – Science Fiction and Health Producing ‘Cyborgs’?
Science fiction and health have the potential to help those suffering from anxiety and depression. Depression, a condition strongly associated with AFS, may have many causes, but the most common is a dysregulation in the feel-good hormones of the brain. This dysregulation is often one of the results of adrenal fatigue and normally the result of cortisol overproduction causing hormonal imbalances.
Recent, ongoing studies suggest that deep brain stimulation by means of implanted electrodes in the brain’s pleasure centers may offer a solution to depression. By stimulating these portions of the brain, your natural ‘feel good’ hormones are released, combatting depression. Of those taking part in the studies tested thus far, most have seen an improvement. Studies are still ongoing as to why it does not work on all test subjects.
Science Fiction and Health – A Technological Solution?
It would seem that technology is meeting health at an increasing rate. And those who are designing these technologies are not necessarily people in the medical field. Instead, they are the movers, shakers, and technology futurists. The application of their technology in the field of medicine, however, is far-reaching and ever-increasing. Who knows, someday exchanging dysfunctional body parts and organs may be the norm. This poses the question, though, how far are we willing to go?