Four technologies that could change the face of medicine
The way that health care and medicine are delivered years from now could be vastly different from what we know today, says Canadian futurist Nikolas Badminton.
Robotics, fibre optics, and nanotechnology are all poised to revolutionize the way that diseases are cured, conditions are treated, and how patients are cared for.
Here are some of the technologies that excite Badminton the most that could change the face of medicine.
Robotic exoskeletons are devices that add small computerized motors into standard orthotics, such as leg braces, to help those with paralysis or mobility disabilities to move without the need for a wheelchair or other devices.
“Exoskeletons are just additional technology that we attach to our limbs that help us move like we were always meant to move,” Badminton told CTV’s Your Morning on Friday.
The first iterations of this technology are already in use in such places as the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, where a system called EksoGT helps patients stand and walk.
While the current technology has been somewhat limited until now, Badminton expects that to change soon given the exciting research currently underway.
A team at Simon Fraser University’s Bio Mechatronic Systems Lab, for example, has designed a full mobility, wearable robotic exoskeleton called Exomotion. It is a lower limb robotic system with the full range of motion for hips and ankles, allowing for a completely natural walking motion.
Exomotion has been working with the Canadian-based Rick Hansen Institute, and the research team was recently awarded $50,000 by the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge Discovery Award to continue development.
Electronic vision restoration
The field of electronic eyeglasses is another exciting example of how advanced technology can help manage conditions that once had few treatment options.
The eSight system, for example, is allowing many who are legally blind to see, using a device that resembles a virtual reality headset. The system captures high-definition video and then optimizes the images into a viewable format, adjusting the image depending on the user’s eye condition.
“So you can imagine, this is a revolution for people with blindness,” said Badminton. “They can get back to work with more certainty, they can do things and like everyone else, they can see normally.”
The eyewear system can be calibrated to help those with macular degeneration, glaucoma, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), retinal detachment, cataracts, and many other conditions.
And though each eSight system is expensive -- costing close to US$10,000 per set – the technology is constantly improving, which may allow the price to come down.
Nanobots are tiny robots – so small that 15,000 of them can fit across the width of a human hair, says Badminton -- that can be injected into bloodstreams to target and attack rogue cells, such as cancer.
In one recent study, DNA nanobots were used to deliver medicine into mice that had been seeded with human breast cancer tumours. The medicine created blood clots in the blood vessels leading into the tumours, causing the tumours to die – without damaging any of the healthy cells nearby.
Researchers from Polytechnique Montréal, Université de Montréal and McGill University are working on similar technology using bacteria-based nanobots containing metallic crystals that can be guided by a magnetic field to bring anti-cancer drugs into tumours.
Badminton says the potential that this technology might be used in people one day is very exciting.
“It looks positive that this is something that could be used in human organisms,” he said, but added: “I think we have to be really careful about this technology and work out what happens once it’s done its job and stays in the system for a little bit.”
Elder care robots
Badminton is also excited by robotic technology currently being used to help care for aging seniors in Japan.
Japan has a well-developed robotics industry, but also dwindling workforce and an aging population. So many nursing homes are already using human-like lifting robots to help transfer frail residents out of bed and into wheelchairs, or ease them into baths. The robots don’t replace human, but instead free up personal support workers to concentrate on residents’ other care needs.
“The average caregiver lifts someone about 40 times a day, so this would really help in keeping humans to do more empathetic pieces of the puzzle,” Badminton said.
Here in Canada, one nursing home in Toronto recently tested a robot that can do another function: look for the signs of dementia. The robot is programmed to draw seniors into conversation so it can detect subtle changes in speech and vocal patterns that might indicate dementia.
And in Japan, some nursing homes are using animal- or human-like robots to offer seniors companionship, using realistic motions and expressions to engage seniors and combat loneliness.