For decades, science fiction writers have imagined futuristic devices that eventually made their way into the real world. Think 3D printers in Star Trek, video calls in The Jetsons. In recent years, the healthcare industry has led the way when it comes to taking inspiration from sci-fi.
Here is our pick of the revolutionary technologies that could be coming to a hospital near you soon, from exoskeletons to nanorobots.
How sci-fi tech influences healthcare — table of contents:
- Brain-computer interfaces
- 3D bioprinting human organs
- Advanced sensors
- Robotic prostheses
Exoskeletons have long been a staple of science fiction. Ellen Ripley saw off aliens with hers in the 1980s, while Tony Stark was just another soulless billionaire before he donned his in 1968.
In recent years, companies have been investing in developing exoskeletons for industrial applications rather than dispatching xenomorphs. One obvious example is car manufacturing. Here, the devices take some of the load off workers, reducing fatigue and enabling them to keep on the assembly line for longer.
More interestingly, exoskeleton companies are also creating hardware to help patients with mobility problems to walk again.
Among them is California-based Ekso, which makes a suite of robotic exoskeletons for individuals with conditions such as acquired brain injury, multiple sclerosis and stroke. Those patients often have weakness or paralysis in their legs, making it hard or impossible to walk without assistance.
Exoskeletons can take up some of the slack, helping patients achieve better posture and gait, and stabilising them while they walk.
They can also help people relearn how to walk following illness or injury. The systems are programmable, with physical therapists and doctors able to adjust levels of support as walkers regain function.
And, in the case of permanent disability, the exoskeletons’ motors and sensors help people to stand, sit and walk on the flat. Iron Man may have used his exoskeleton to fly, but in the real world, using one to walk again feels every bit as ground-breaking.
Exoskeletons are one way of helping people restore mobility after a significant injury or disease; brain-computer interfaces could offer an equally interesting path to helping people regain lost abilities.
Brain-computer interfaces are exactly what they sound like. Hardware either sits outside the skull or on the surface of the brain. It then translates nerve signals into messages that computer hardware can interpret and act on. Or, to put it another way, brain-computer interfaces let users control hardware with their thoughts alone.
In certain conditions, such as spinal cord injury, there’s a break in the nerve circuit between a person’s brain and their limbs. This may make it impossible for them to move their arms, legs or both.
BlackRock Neurotech, based in Utah, has been building brain-computer interfaces for over a decade. Users have electrodes inserted onto the surface of their brain, which pass the nerve messages they pick up onto prosthetics or peripherals.
Users of the BlackRock system who have lost use of their arms, for example, have used their thoughts to guide a cursor on a screen to write an email or play a videogame, and control a prosthetic arm to paint. The company is also working on the possibility of using brain-computer interfaces to restore lost sight and sense of touch.
3D bioprinting human organs
Creating replacement human body parts isn’t a new idea, in either sci-fi or medicine, but it’s one that’s so far been incredibly difficult to pull off in the real world.
Lots of companies already offer 3D-printed human tissues — using them for research into cancer or to test new meds — but getting beyond making tissue and into printing organs has proved the real challenge.
There are a number of reasons for that. Printing hollow structures such as blood vessels remains tricky; finding the right scaffolding to reinforce the organ during printing has been challenging; and keeping living cells alive and in a good state of repair while forcing them out of a 3D printer nozzle is no mean feat.
But there have been success stories. Take New York-based 3DBio Therapeutics, the first company to 3D-print human tissue that’s being tested in humans.
3DBio Therapeutics creates living tissue implants to repair the outer ears of people born with microtia, a condition where the ear doesn’t form properly or grows with a section missing.
The company biopsies the ear of a patient and isolates cartilage cells from the sample. The cells are cultured and printed into the shape of the desired ear, which can then be surgically implanted into the patient – giving them a whole new ear, biologically identical to their own.
The trope of people being miniaturised to fight disease from inside the human body has given rise to a handful of sci-fi staples, from Fantastic Voyage to Innerspace. But why use miniaturised people for the job, when you can send minuscule robots instead?
LA-headquartered Bionaut has produced tiny robots that can be sent deep within the human body — into tissues and tumours alike — to carry out medical tasks. Operators move them through the body using an external magnetic field until they’re in the right spot. Once in place, they can activate their payload.
One use for the individual microrobots is to drop off medications, making sure drugs are in exactly the right place in the body where they’ll be most effective. The robots can also be used for taking biopsies, or keeping track of their surroundings within the body — monitoring the biochemical environment, for example.
Bionaut devices can even be used for microsurgery, where they can be driven into tissues for minimally invasive procedures.
The company is in the preclinical stage of testing for applications including neuro-oncology, where the robots will drop off payloads of chemotherapy into brainstem tumours.
Other potential applications include treating conditions where the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is impacted, causing pressure in the skull to build to dangerous levels. Traditionally, patients would need surgery to install a shunt to redirect the fluid and drop the intracranial pressure. However, the company is hoping Bionauts could be used to create an alternative outlet for excess CSF to drain away – no shunt required.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of staying in a hospital overnight, you’ll also have had the further misfortune of having your observations — pulse, temperature etc — taken several times a day. What if there was a more sci-fi way of doing it? A patch that you could just apply to your body and it would automatically take all those observations and send them right back to your doctor? Don’t worry, Colorado-based Alio has got you.
The company’s wearable SmartPatch can pick up all sorts of medical biomarkers (such as heart rate and temperature) along with a handful of other data that would normally need a blood test. For example, levels of haemoglobin and potassium in the blood.
All that information gets picked up by the patch and pinged back to doctors, who get alerted to abnormal results. That means problems are detected earlier, and patients can spend more time at home instead of in the hospital. All while having the security of knowing they’re being monitored for any deterioration in their disease.
Robotic prosthetics litter the sci-fi landscape, from Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker to the Avengers’ Bucky Barnes and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa.
New Hampshire-headquartered Mobius Bionics has created the world’s first prosthetic upper limb with a powered shoulder – a device named the “LUKE arm” in a hat-tip to its sci-fi progenitor.
The LUKE is aimed at people with arm amputations and hopes to replicate some of the functions of the lost limb.
The prosthetic has ten separate powered joints across the shoulder, wrist, arm and hand. Between them, they can create five different grips, from the three-fingered hold of a doorknob to the thumb and forefinger grip that you might use to do up a zip.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the LUKE arm is its input options. As well as more traditional input options, including electrodes on the surface of the chest skin that can pick up messages to be relayed to the arm, the LUKE can also be controlled by the wearer’s foot. By rocking their foot, the individual can control the movements the arm makes (the input gets turned off when they’re walking, in case you were wondering).
- Top companies disrupting healthcare with artificial intelligence (2023)
- Craig Backs, CureCoach: “Outwork anybody you see as competition”
- Katherine Wells, CEO of Serenity: “We need to follow our passions wherever they pull us”
Generative AI is about more than just automating sales and marketing. It’s about making it more personal, too.
Amazon and Microsoft trade blows over cloud competition
Chetna Gogia, Chief Human Resources Officer at GoKwik: “Go deep in acquiring the right knowledge before you advise on HR practices to management”
In this Coffee with HR interview, we speak to Chetna Gogia, Chief Human Resources Officer at GoKwik. She has over 20+ years of experience leading HR functions across various sectors