Warp Speed to Biotech Utopia: 5 Cool Medical Advancements

By Melissa Rudy
Published: February 6, 2013
Key Takeaways

Researchers and engineers are bringing us ever closer to a bionic utopia that will benefit not only our bodies, but also our daily lives.

People are living longer than ever, largely due to breakthroughs in medical technology. What's interesting, however, is that many of the latest life-saving applications feature technology that can also be used in our everyday lives. It's advancements like these that bring our devices ever closer to our hearts - literally - as well as our eyes, skin and other organs. That's because biotechnology, or the integration of technology with the human body, is becoming more commonplace. Putting these advances to work in other applications is just a natural extension of technological discovery. Here's a look at five developments that seem to be straight out of science fiction, but are moving toward medical reality - and beyond. (For another interesting read, check out Astounding Sci-Fi Ideas That Came True (and Some That Didn't).

Bionic Eyewear

The field of bionic eyewear is growing rapidly. Several companies are developing and testing "smart" contact lenses. For example, researchers at the University of Washington are working toward a lens that will monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics, as well as search for warning signs of glaucoma.

In addition to monitoring, these smart lenses use tiny LEDs to display digital information directly to the wearer, with the same augmented reality that some smartphones employ to superimpose digital data onto real-world images. The potential is easy to envision; with this technology, we may not only be able to check email and read text messages through our contacts, but get an update on important health markers such as blood sugar. (It sounds a bit like the next dimension of Google glasses!)

Not surprisingly, Microsoft Research has teamed up with the University of Washington to advance the development of this product, currently called the Smart Lens. The company plans to release these enhanced lenses "as soon as everything is ready."

Self-Healing Skin

The skin is the largest organ of the human body; it's also the most resilient. Our skin provides a protective barrier for our delicate internal components. It's pressure-sensitive, allowing us to experience sensation ranging from the lightest touch to pain, and it's highly efficient at healing itself. As such, it's been very difficult to reproduce, even though the ability to synthetically reproduce skin would bring a landslide of potential for medicine, and many other fields.

Thanks to researchers at Stanford University, synthetic replacement skin has become a reality. The team has developed a material made from a special type of polymer plastic and nickel nanoparticles that is both pressure-sensitive and flexible. It's also durable - and able to heal itself. In testing, when the material was cut in half and then pressed back together, it regained 75 percent of its original strength within the first few seconds. The split piece was restored to nearly 100 percent after about 30 minutes.

One obvious use for this technology is in prosthetic devices. Because this synthetic skin is pressure-sensitive and able to detect things like handshakes and flexing, applying the synthetic skin to prosthetic limbs opens the possibility of creating a much more realistic prosthetic hand, arm or leg. The material could also be used to create self-healing electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. (For more advancements, see 6 Cool Wearable Devices.)

Self-Charging Internal Components

For several decades, the pacemaker has extended and enhanced the lives of people with heart problems. One of the few drawbacks to this device is that it needs a battery to operate. Like all batteries, those that power pacemakers have finite lives, which means that users have to undergo surgery when the battery goes dead. However, engineers at the California Institute of Technology and Princeton University have developed a material that could potentially erase the need for pacemaker battery replacement surgery - and much more.

The team embedded sheets of silicone rubber with ceramic nanoribbons of lead zirconate titanate (PZT), a highly efficient piezoelectric material. The resulting rubber sheet generates power through movement, capturing 80 percent of mechanical energy and converting it to electricity, which can be used by a pacemaker. If used in pacemakers, this material has the potential to keep the devices charged indefinitely, simply through the motions of breathing.

But while one tiny sheet can power a pacemaker, larger sheets of the material have even greater energy potential. They could be embedded in shoes and used to charge cell phones through walking or running. They could even harness the movement of a vehicle's suspension system and keep the battery charged, providing an inexhaustible power supply for future electric cars.

Self-Healing Surfaces

Nanotechnology plays a big role in bio-advances. For example, MIT scientists have developed a nanoscale adhesive based on the tiny hairs that cover the feet of geckos. This substance is what allows these little lizards to stick to surfaces, but scientists believe it could also be used to seal wounds and perhaps even patch internal holes, such as those caused by stomach ulcers. This material is completely waterproof, and could potentially be used to protect electronic devices as well. (For more on nanotechnology, read Nanotechnology: The Biggest Little Innovation in Tech.)

The Wheelchair of the Future

How about a smart wheelchair? Also at MIT, researchers have created a wheelchair that accepts voice commands and learns about its environment. The autonomous chair builds navigation maps using Wi-Fi signals. Clearly, this kind of device would be a great advancement for people with disabilities. And hey, perhaps it'll finally lead to those voice-piloted cars we've all been dreaming about.

Biotech Breakthroughs

Medical advances are being developed at an astounding pace. From decay-fighting microbes that keep your teeth clean, to rocket-powered arms that lend strength to prosthetic limbs, researchers and engineers are bringing us ever closer to bionic utopia. Of course, it takes time to bring many of these advances to the market. Even so, science is creeping ever closer to science fiction, and while not all of fiction's predictions about the future are positive, medicine is one area where it seems the future can't get here fast enough.


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Written by Melissa Rudy

Profile Picture of Melissa Rudy

Melissa Rudy is a versatile copywriter with 12+ years of experience crafting persuasive, polished content for online, print, and mobile channels. Her specialties include content for websites, blog posts, press releases, product descriptions, newsletters, and more. She has a strong background in e-commerce, retail, and social media.

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