Story | 08/18/2022 10:48:55 | 11 min Read time

3D organs developed in space and cells that create energy: The future of health-tech

Peter Firth

Contributing writer

Stuff that sounds like sci-fi but improves our well-being? These three fields of health-tech will make us feel better and live longer.

Healthcare has never looked like this before. Researchers are trying to create new hearts, livers and lungs on demand. Tiny nanorobots might one day live within us, obliterating viruses or cancer cells as they emerge. Sooner than this, implanted devices will provide physicians with real-time diagnostics on what is happening inside the body. In the fast-approaching future, rather than just living longer, we will live better.

In 2022 the world is recovering from the economic and social trauma of the covid-19 pandemic. But while the legacy of the virus is keenly felt in energy crises, supply chain issues and stunted economic growth, it had an enhancing effect too. Specifically, in the healthcare sector and study of biomedical science. Consider that consulting firm McKinsey estimates that by 2040, new technologies could reduce the total burden of disease by 6 to 10 per cent.

The great scientific effort to improve health is progressing faster than ever. Next, we alight upon three innovations that are likely to revolutionize how we care for our bodies.

1. If another pandemic hits, nanotechnology helps us fight against it

The thought of autonomous microscopic devices amassing in your insides to cure or prevent diseases might feel like the stuff of sci-fi. But in recent years a massive amount of research hours has been spent looking at the applications of nanotechnology. However, nanotechnology isn’t about tiny robots as much as it is about materials, particles and taking a closer look at current healthcare technologies.

Professor Peter Dobson OBE, Emeritus Fellow at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, spent part of his career examining the applications of nanotech in health. He mentions an important application that could truly prove its worth the next time humankind is hit with a global health crisis: better lateral flow tests. Yes, like the plastic test pads we’ve gotten familiar with during covid.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that nearly 15 million people died as a result of the pandemic. The damage wreaked by the virus could have been somewhat mitigated if accurate testing could have been rolled out more quickly. Professor Dobson’s research with UCL is about ensuring a faster, more accurate form of testing in future public health emergencies. The secret appears to be in the paper.

“The right combination of nanoparticles and paper strip used on the lateral flow tests can improve the speed and accuracy of testing,” says professor Dobson. “By changing the nanoparticles used on the paper from gold to nanodiamonds the team has improved the sensitivity of tests by 100,000 times over.”

Nanorobots the size of a human egg cell could roam within us, picking up data on what’s happening inside our bodies.

Moving on from pandemic mitigation: at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), scientists have been deep diving into nanotech (specifically nanorobots) for decades. Recently, they created machines the size of a human egg cell – as thin as a single hair.

Experiments have shown that these have been able to sense their surroundings, store data and carry out rudimentary tasks. There’s hope that this might lay the foundation for swarm devices that could carry out jobs like travelling through the digestive system to undertake diagnostics, or flow through blood vessels eradicating plaque.

Professor Dobson isn’t sure that we will see innovations like this anytime soon. But he likens them to smart pills (or digital pills). Once you swallow a smart pill, it picks up data on things like acidity as well as images as they make their way through the digestive system.


2. Scientists are testing materials for 3D printed organs in zero-gravity environments

Organ transplants can save and transform lives. However, there aren’t nearly enough kidneys, hearts, livers, and lungs to go around. The World Health Organization estimates that while some 130,000 organ transplants take place each year, this meets just 10 per cent of demand. Fortunately, research suggests that we’re closing in on a solution to this problem.

A vanguard of companies is ploughing time and resources into creating cellular matter similar to how 3D printers create shapes from wood filament or plastic. In 2018 a lab at the University of Newcastle made history by printing the first human corneas.

The experiment was merely a proof of concept, but it did show something incredible: it could both cure corneal blindness and give their sight back to those who have suffered from accidents.

This is where things truly take an unexpected turn: advances in space flight could hold the key to unlocking the potential of 3D printed organs. On Earth, gravity can squash highly delicate biomaterials. Tissues under construction collapse under their own weight. But in a zero-gravity environment, materials can float freely and maintain their shapes.

The International Space Station (ISS) together with technical partners has launched the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF) in 2019.

Right now, scientists are tinkering with cellular matter while orbiting the planet.

Scientists’ creations will undergo a strengthening process that will make them robust enough to withstand the Earth’s gravity.

3. Internalized medical devices help us understand what’s actually going on inside our bodies

When you think of medical devices, your mind quickly goes to things we can hold: sensors, sutures, scanners. But what if they were devices that could be ingested or implanted inside our bodies (but for your well-being, not dystopian surveillance purposes)? Research shows that we’re nearly there.

The idea of external devices becoming internalized as part of the body has incredible potential

says Dr. Johana Kuncová-Kallio, director of UPM Biomedicals. “Consider the idea of contact lenses that secrete a drug into your eyes so that you could have seamless treatment without the stinging of eye drops.”

In the future, we will see this sort of approach toward patients with diabetes. Currently patients must use either insulin pumps or take regular injections, but Dr. Kuncová-Kallio predicts that the patient’s own cells could be implanted in a gel to form a new pancreas. The organ, in turn, would produce insulin for the patient on demand.

“This would effectively mean that the patient would be unconscious of the fact that they even had diabetes,” she explains.

While the Internet of Things already provides real time data on everything from whether your fridge needs to be refilled to city infrastructure, it’ll soon offer us better information about what is happening inside our bodies. For instance, internal stents are used to open up narrowing blood vessels, allowing uninhibited flow. In the future, they could also be used to transmit blood flow data. The Georgia Institute of Technology is currently testing such a device.

The electronic system is designed to wirelessly deliver hemodynamic data, including arterial pressure, flow, and pulse rate, to an external data acquisition system. It is tiny and thin, and it can be delivered anywhere inside the body, explains Woon-Hong Yeo, Director of the Center for Human-Centric Interfaces and Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Typically, when someone has a vascular disease, they go through multiple imaging processes so that physicians can see what's going on and make a diagnosis. Then based on the diagnosis clinicians treat with a stent,” he explains. After that, however, there is no existing mechanism or methodology for continually monitoring the treatments.

“Our system can work as a monitoring tool that can offer real time detection of vascular hemodynamic signals," Yeo says.

While Georgia Tech’s invention doesn’t require a battery or power source, larger implants will. Unfortunately, batteries consist of chemicals that are hazardous. MIT and the Technical University of Munich might have a solution that will enable the next generation of powered devices for the body. Researchers have created a tiny fuel cell that uses glucose in body fluids to create electricity.


Three more things before you go: Wonders to be on the lookout for

  • A digital twin for the human heart. Artificial intelligence allows researchers to create a digital twin of a specific organ or area of enquiry in the body is being trialed. The Living Heart Project is a crowdsourcing initiative where researchers are banding together to create a digital twin of the human heart. This means healthcare professionals can predict how the organ would respond to specific treatments or drugs.
  • Cancer detection from the surface of your skin. Rather than having to extract tissue samples and dispatch to a lab for analysis, The Stevens’ Institute of Technology’s skin cancer detection tool works just by scanning the surface of the skin. Preliminary tests have found the technology to be 97 per cent effective when it comes to detecting cancerous tissue. Soon it is expected to be miniaturized into a handheld device.
  • Exact dosage for painkillers. Empa, a healthcare research organisation based in Switzerland and Sweden has developed a way of using AI to predict the precise dosage of painkillers for patients. Currently synthetic opiates such as fentanyl are administered in a trial-and-error process. Empa has developed a predictive model that determines the exact dose needed.

The process of scientific enquiry isn’t one of sudden breakthroughs, or great leaps forward. It is a process of improvement, failure and iteration. With the research and science community galvanized by the harm wreaked by the covid-19 pandemic, we can expect an upsurge of health tech innovations in the coming decades.

An invention helps match a type of cancer with the right drug – and its main material is wood

The most researched area of health today is cancer. But the thing is: there are many types of cancer, and just as many types of drugs, says Dr. Johana Kuncová-Kallio, director of UPM Biomedicals. In previous decades, figuring out the correct combination of a type of cancer and the most suitable drug left too much to chance.

“You can use DNA screening, where the presence of a specific gene determines the treatment,” Kuncová-Kallio says. “But it has been noted recently that using this method alone results in just 7 per cent of the patients really benefitting from the treatment. There needs to be finer diagnoses.”

Dr. Kuncová-Kallio’s team and its research partners are currently working on a new way of finding the right drug for specific cancers. UPM Biomedicals has come up with a wood-based innovation for cancer and drug research, among others. GrowDex(R) hydrogel plays a central role in finding cures for many types of cancers.

Here’s how it works: Rather than assuming the correct treatment, physicians conduct a test to figure out which drug is likely to work the best. First, the surgeon extracts a sample from the patient’s tumor and its cells are cultured in the wood-based hydrogel. Then the cells are exposed to different drugs. The ones that most successfully destroy the tumor cells are recorded.

“This method, if rolled out widely, could mean that patients avoid months of ineffective treatment,” Kuncová-Kallio says.


Learn more about UPM Biomedicals



Peter Firth

Peter Firth

Contributing writer | Peter Firth writes about business, tech, climate, science and society. He has worked as creative strategist at The Economist Group and as news editor with publishing brand Monocle. He’s also founder of Evelyn, a thought leadership and ghost-writing agency.
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