Despite centuries of technological advancement, modern medicine treats almost all diseases with the same fundamental process. A problem is identified, then diagnosed. An intervention is performed to solve the problem, and the patient returned to normal. This procedure works well when a virus can be easily destroyed, or a tumor simply removed, and as technology improves, medicine becomes increasingly effective in producing normal, healthy patients. When a condition is chronic, though, the procedure cannot be so simply applied. Those with mental disorders may never stop taking pills and checking their symptoms. Serious allergies can send a patient to the hospital over and over again. Diabetics have to become adept at self-medicating, managing their illness with regular treatments for years.
This system could all soon change. A new concept of medicine is emerging, one that supplements the body’s own anatomy to provide constant treatment. The goal may no longer be for patients to leave the hospital normal, but to leave with additional systems in place to meet their specific needs.
The most promising target for this sort of treatment is diabetes. Diabetics are unable to produce the hormone insulin, necessary for digesting sugars in food. Up until now, the usual treatment for diabetes requires personal injections of insulin using a pump after each meal, being careful not to give oneself too much or too little, which could lead to dangerous imbalance in blood sugar. In a healthy body, insulin is produced by the pancreas, which detects the level of blood sugar and automatically produces the appropriate amount of insulin.
In January of 2013, the first successful artificial pancreas was developed by Ahmad Haidal of the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal, combining an insulin pump and a blood sugar sensor with a complex algorithm to ensure the right levels of blood sugar at all times. The device has yet to be made available for the public, but preliminary tests show it to be at least as effective as traditional methods, and certainly easier. However, the potential of bionic treatments goes even beyond replacing dysfunctional body parts with prosthetics.
Martin Fussenegger, professor of biotechnology and bioengineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, is leading a fledgling movement for a new way of treating neurological disorders. The brain is an intricate set of connections between psychological and biological factors, interacting in dizzyingly complex patterns that can sometimes spiral out of control. In September of last year, Fussenegger provided proof of concept that these patterns can be augmented by new technology to help regulate them.
Scientists grew mouse cells in a petri dish, genetically modified so that they would produce the protein alkaline phosphatase when exposed to a certain type of light. Then, a device, which contained these engineered cells and a laser that produced that specific light, was embedded into mice. Human subjects wore a headset that measured the electrical activity in their brains and sent this information by radio to the device in the mice. By mentally concentrating or relaxing, the human subjects were able to raise and lower the level of protein detectable in the mouse’s blood.
These experimentations may seem like a pointless exercise, but the implications of such a device could be far-reaching. In the future, a human subject would possess a meter measuring brain activity as well as a linked device within the brain. Attacks of mental disorders like epilepsy or migraine are debilitating, and often unpredictable. This device could detect specific brainwave patterns before an attack and release the necessary proteins to treat them. Instead of removing an underlying problem, the patient gets a new system in their body that regularly deals with their symptoms, which essentially reverses standard models for treatment.
However, promising as they may be, these bionic treatments are far away. The closest Fussenegger’s team has come to success is a method of treating allergies by detecting histamine levels the body produces before an attack and linking them to proteins that alleviate symptoms; even that procedure is only in preliminary stages. Effective bionic treatments currently remain the stuff of science fiction, but they are no longer beyond imagination. In the future, we may use medicine not simply to cure disease, but to advance the body beyond need of cure.