September 2014

How the future will make us healthier

The things that are going on in research laboratories sound like they came straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel: living organs generated by printers and bionic eyes implanted in human skulls. Apps have already become a vital support for patients and doctors alike.

Artificial sight

In 2012 a virtually blind Australian woman was the first person to be implanted with the prototype of a bionic eye. The «eye», which is intended only for use in the laboratory and has very limited functionality, should in future restore at least partial sight to the severely visually impaired. To begin with, the «eye» has been equipped with 24 electrodes and is implanted in the area of the choroid membrane. It stimulates the surrounding retina with electrical impulses. The visual information is transmitted to the brain, where it is then pieced together to form an image. The bionic eye is designed for people suffering from a severe form of hereditary vision impairment known as retinitis pigmentosa or from macular degeneration. The latter is one of the most common causes of blindness in old age. The implant should help patients distinguish contrasts more sharply and thus allow them to be more independent and mobile.

Camera in pill form

A gastroscopy is not a pleasant experience. Now, researchers in Japan are exploring the possibility of «swallowing» the procedure: a capsule endoscope called «Mermaid» that swims through the intestinal track from the oesophagus to the colon, taking two photos per second as it goes. Mermaid has a "tail fin" that it can use to steer itself for up to ten hours. It measures 1cm wide by 4.6cm long, and is powered by a micro-battery and an electromagnet that enables doctors to operate the device by remote control for more precise manoeuvres.

Injections without needles

Researchers in Boston have developed a device that injects medication directly underneath the skin using a laser beam. A computer chip precisely controls the speed and pressure of the beam. The instrument can be combined with measurements of skin thickness and elasticity so that pressure and speed can be geared precisely to a patient's individual characteristics. It has also been designed to identify skin variations. This should ensure that the patient receives the injection, and not a doctor or a nurse by mistake.

Organs fresh off the printer

Scientists are experimenting with a technology that should enable the shortage of donor organs to be resolved with the help of 3-D printers that generate real organs from living cells. Researchers in North Carolina are growing cells from tiny strips of tissue using stem cells. They create a framework that mimics the structure of the tissue, then a modified inkjet printing processes is used to fill in the gaps. When treating burn wounds, skin cells are loaded into a cartridge along with vital additives so that they can be «printed» directly onto the wound. Scientists at Washington State University have also converted an inkjet printer into a 3-D printer that prints material that closely resembles human bones. In future, doctors and dentists should therefore be able to order customised bone material for their patients.

Smart apps

Weight, stress levels – thanks to the influx of new apps on the market, the trend of taking our own measurements is booming. Smartphone users have an ever-increasing selection of health apps to choose from. Wearable measurement devices and sensors transmit the physical data automatically to their smartphones and facilitate processing of the information received. Diabetics, for example, have access to a range of extremely useful apps that make it easier for patients to manage their own illness. The «Diabetes Companion» – a blood sugar diary with motivating animations – is carving out a good reputation among experts. The values entered can be sent by e-mail or saved in a dropbox. The «GoCarb» app, which is currently in development in Berne, calculates the carbohydrate content of food, making it easier to plan meals.

Editorial and updating of texts: Juliane Lutz / Source of texts 1-4: Credit Suisse, Global Investor 2.12