'Revolution is at hand' for breakthroughs in medicine

May 27, 2011 By Marni Jameson

Someday soon, thanks to advances in medicine, a surgeon will operate on a patient who is not in the same room, but thousands of miles away.

Particles that are one-10,000th the thickness of a strand of hair will hurl through bodies on seek-and-destroy missions attacking tumors and stopping diseases in their tracks, while leaving healthy tissues unharmed.

Your one-of-a-kind genome will dictate your prescriptions.

These are only a few of the advances in medicine Americans can expect in the next 10 years, as new technologies change health care. Revolutionize is not too strong a word.

Far from wishful thinking, these breakthroughs represent well-developed, well-researched and, perhaps most important, well-funded technologies that will make medicine more effective, less expensive and more tailored to individual patients.

And they're on their way to a near you.

Remote surgery:

Already surgeons use robots by proxy to remove prostates, perform hysterectomies, ablate thyroid glands and open blocked arteries. Doing lets surgeons be more precise, make smaller and it takes a load off their feet.

Rather than stand for hours over an operating table, surgeons performing robotic surgery sit at a video-arcade-like console, where their hands and feet drive robotic arms.

For now, they do all this while sitting just a few feet away from the patient.

However, the next frontier of robotic surgery will see surgeons operating on patients hundreds, even thousands of miles away, said Roger Smith, for the Nicholson Center for Surgical Advancements in Orlando, Fla. This means a world-class surgeon in Munich could perform a complex on a patient in Miami.

Telesurgery also has great military applications, said Smith. Surgeons will soon use robots on battlefields or military ships to perform remote surgery.

To get there, computer scientists are working on more reliable connectivity and a shorter lag time between a surgeon's movements and what actually happens.

"Fast reaction is important anywhere a slight movement has a big effect," said Smith.

Genome-based medicine:

Notice: Your code is about to be cracked.

Now that scientists can sequence the human genome, one day everyone's genome will be sequenced, said Dr. Ranjan Perera, director of the genomics laboratory at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in Orlando.

"Doctors will then use our mapped genome not only for diagnosis, but also for prognosis - to see what diseases we're set up to get," he said.

"If we can identify what is going on in the body 20 or 30 years before disease develops, we can do much more to stop the progression."

Individual genetic blueprints also will allow doctors to customize medications based on what will work best in our bodies, Perera said.

This field - called pharmocogenomics - is available now on a limited basis, said Dr. Jane Barlow, vice president of clinical innovation for Medco Health Solutions, in Franklin Lakes, N.J. She anticipates patients will begin to broadly benefit from gene-based medicine over the next five years.

Small answers to big problems:

Thinking small, scientists specializing in nanomedicine are on the verge of using very small keys to unlock cures to the world's worst diseases.

Today's scientists work at the molecular and atomic level with nanoparticles, to harness these biomachines that detect and bind to diseased cells. The nanoparticle then fuses with that sick cell and delivers its cargo - drugs or imaging agents, said Dr. Jamey Marth, a researcher at Sanford Burnham's Center for Nanomedicine, in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Already, doctors are using nanomedicine to deliver targeted treatment to cure prostate cancer. "Being able to target a drug to the right place is one of the holy grails of nanomedicine," said Marth.

Nanomedicine is closing in on the ability to discover the origins of disease, diagnose it before symptoms appear, treat it early by delivering drugs right to the tissues and lengthen life, he said. "In biology and medicine, a revolution is at hand."

Drugstore diagnostics:

Exhale. Soon that's all you will have to do discover if you have lung cancer - or don't.

Doctors at Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio, and Montefiore Medical Center, in New York, are among those researching a breath test to detect lung cancer, eliminating the need for more invasive biopsies.

Other health-test kits are also on the way so consumers can test themselves for a variety of illnesses.

"In 10 years, we can reliably count on a readily available exhale-risk test that assesses and accurately detects lung cancer," said Dr. Simon Spivac, chief of pulmonary medicine at Montefiore.

"The exhaled breath condenses and, when cooled, turns to liquid. We can study these droplets using sophisticated gene sequencers to see if they have biomarkers that indicate cancer," he said.

Meanwhile, at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando, researchers are developing a urine test to detect bladder cancer. Currently, the only way to diagnose bladder cancer is to insert a camera up the urethra to look inside the bladder.

Like the lung cancer breath test, a bladder cancer urine test lets scientists analyze output from the organ, said Dr. Steve Goodison, director of the Cancer Research Institute at MD Anderson. The National Cancer Institute and the state of Florida are funding his research.

He estimates the bladder cancer test will be available to clinics within five years. The test would also yield "tens to hundreds of genetic biomarkers," which would let physicians know exactly what they're dealing with.

"As we detect cancers sooner, and have panels that allow us to treat cancers more accurately, we'll soon get to the point where cancer will become a chronic, manageable problem not a lethal disease," he said.

Wireless health:

However far you think wireless technology has come, it's still the Wild West as far as medical applications are concerned. "We have the whole frontier still ahead of us," said Thad Seymour, vice president of health and life sciences for the Medical City, in Lake Nona, Fla.

Soon wireless technology will play a major role in fixing health care's two biggest challenges: reducing costs and improving quality, he said. Devices in the works will allow more Americans to receive better care for less money.

Specifically, applications are on the way that will help society better manage chronic disease, prevent illness, improve fertility and help seniors age in place.

"A lot of chronic disease management hinges on compliance," said Rob McCray, president of Wireless Life Science Alliance, a non-profit trade association. "Doctors want to hear when a patient isn't complying, so they can intervene."

One way may be through a wireless radio pill made of organic food materials. Expected to cost about one cent each, the pill, when swallowed, starts transmitting data, starting with whether the patient swallowed the radio pill. Then it logs when and whether the patient took his medicines.

Apps already exist to help the health conscious count calories or steps, and, for diabetics to track blood sugar. Soon integrated devices will bring all that together, and wirelessly download to your computer data about your activity, blood pressure, weight, calories in and out, and medications taken, providing you a portal into your behavior, and a tool to make healthy adjustments, said Seymour.

Women struggling with infertility can wear a wireless patch that will let them know the minute they're fertile. Technology also will help seniors stay in their homes longer thanks to motion detectors, video monitors and other devices that will help adult children check in on aging parents.

"Technology isn't holding us back," said Seymour. "Cost is."


Related Stories

Recommended for you

Want to win at sports? Take a cue from these mighty mice

July 20, 2017
As student athletes hit training fields this summer to gain the competitive edge, a new study shows how the experiences of a tiny mouse can put them on the path to winning.

A sodium surprise: Engineers find unexpected result during cardiac research

July 20, 2017
Irregular heartbeat—or arrhythmia—can have sudden and often fatal consequences. A biomedical engineering team at Washington University in St. Louis examining molecular behavior in cardiac tissue recently made a surprising ...

Engineered liver tissue expands after transplant

July 19, 2017
Many diseases, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, can lead to liver failure. More than 17,000 Americans suffering from these diseases are now waiting for liver transplants, but significantly fewer livers are available.

Lunatic Fringe gene plays key role in the renewable brain

July 19, 2017
The discovery that the brain can generate new cells - about 700 new neurons each day - has triggered investigations to uncover how this process is regulated. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Jan and Dan Duncan ...

'Smart' robot technology could give stroke rehab a boost

July 19, 2017
Scientists say they have developed a "smart" robotic harness that might make it easier for people to learn to walk again after a stroke or spinal cord injury.

New animal models for hepatitis C could pave the way for a vaccine

July 19, 2017
They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the case of hepatitis C—a disease that affects nearly 71 million people worldwide, causing cirrhosis and liver cancer if left untreated—it might be worth ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (7) May 28, 2011
That all sounds promising. But, at the moment, I wouldn't hold my breath.
1 / 5 (7) May 28, 2011
In fact, I wouldn't hold my breath for at least another 60 years.
5 / 5 (1) May 28, 2011
I suspect we might still be a long way away from a revolution. These advances may not mean much without a better understanding of our basic biology, which given all the variables, will likely require being able to model on a computer, at the sub-molecular level, the functioning of (at least) an entire human cell.

We can't even simulate the folding of a single protein in a computationally efficient way. It may be possible to reduce the computational load of folding once the folding process of a protein is known, but for truly personalized medicine, the capacity to determine the effect of a slight variation in a protein may be significant.

In this light the greatest advances might come from the field of computational biology.
1 / 5 (6) May 29, 2011
@Onceliverance How nice of you to downrate my posts without saying why. Is it because you believe these things will actually happen within the next few months? What I'm basically saying is that with each of these breakthroughs, it will take time... An excruciating amount of time before they become mainstream. If you don't agree with that, well, then you obviously have no idea how it works. And I'd pass you a tissue if I could.

I'm sorry if you can't handle the truth. Or if the truth hurts you. But, simply put -- it's not going to happen tomorrow. And these things tend to take time. And I'm not going to sit around for the next 60 years waiting for a revolution in medicine.
1 / 5 (4) May 29, 2011
I didn't say it wasn't promising, or it wasn't going to happen. I am looking forward to this stuff. All I was basically saying is that the time until it becomes mainstreamed, and widely used is understated by the article. So, go ahead Onceliverance - give me another 1 rating because you know I'm right and you can't deal with it.
not rated yet May 29, 2011
I suppose the 'end justifies the means' in this 'revolution' ? A doctor wrote on the web how he witnessed one day in the hospital a doctor 'learning how to operate' using the robot HE had. He watched while the doctor was three hours LONGER in the operating room and how the patient died. His 'take' was he wasn't too impressed with the willy-nilly operating with robots.
not rated yet May 29, 2011
He watched while the doctor was three hours LONGER in the operating room and how the patient died. His 'take' was he wasn't too impressed with the willy-nilly operating with robots.
Yes well the majority of established surgeons don't perform modernized procedures. The future waves of surgeons are being trained on this equipment in school, meaning that your "ends justifies the means" logic doesn't hold sway.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.