As the rate of technological advancement shows no sign of slowing, more and more treatments are emerging that would once have belonged in the realms of science fiction.
Patients are already becoming familiar with robotic and automated aspects of healthcare, and as these treatment methods are made to work on a smaller and more accurate scale– they will have even more potential to help people.
Most biological interactions occur at microscopic or nano levels, so developing ways to accurately work at very small levels will help to provide less intrusive and more targeted treatments.
Here are five of the most interesting biotech advances at the micro-scale that could change healthcare forever
Pills for painless injections
Millions of people live with diabetes and have to inject themselves with insulin multiples times a day to keep control of their blood sugar.
On top of that, one in ten people are estimated to have a needle phobia.
It will come as welcome news to all of them that scientists have developed a way for injections to be delivered via ingestible miniature hypodermic needles.
The tiny spring-loaded needles can be swallowed within a pill that will self-right to ensure if faces downwards into the wall of the stomach.
Sugar holds the needle in place, which then dissolves in the stomach and frees the needle to deliver the drug into the stomach wall.
As the needle is so small and the stomach wall is not very pain sensitive, the injection is painless and the stomach heals very quickly.
Test on pigs have been successful, showing the insulin could be delivered into their bloodstream by the miniature needles.
If this method can be shown to be successful in humans, it could be an extremely useful discovery.
Robots that can navigate inside the human body
The idea of shrinking humans to a size small enough to navigate through the body has long been a point of fascination for science fiction writers.
Whilst the miniature human is still some way off, the miniature transport is already here.
A tiny robot small enough to sit on a fingernail with plenty of room to spare has been designed to be remotely navigated through a variety of body tissues.
If the robot can without causing any damage has promising implications for delivering drugs to specific, hard to reach areas.
The ‘ViRob’ created by Microbot Medical can be remotely operated to crawl through delicate spaces within the human body such as blood vessels, the digestive tract, and the respiratory system.
It’s small but strong, so can move through the body whilst also being tough enough to withstand damage and prolonged use.
Sub-millimetre surgery precision
The accuracy of drug delivery is especially important for cancer treatments, as we only want to kill the cancerous cells and do as little harm as possible to the healthy cells.
Chemotherapy can have unpleasant side-effects for patients, so any method that can more accurately target cancer cells will be welcomed.
One such way could be the CyberKnife being developed by Accuray.
It is a robotic way to non-invasively deliver radiation therapy to cancer patients, able to target cancerous tumours with sub-millimetre precision.
Due to its accuracy and non-invasive nature, it is particularly useful for targeting tumours in hard to operate places such as the brain, spine, kidneys, and prostate.
The robotic arm is able to account for slight patient movements, ensuring the radiation is only targeted to the right cells.
Drug delivery by algae microbots
Sometimes, nature had already provided the best solutions to medical problems.
Scientists have discovered a way to manipulate a type of microscopic swimming algae into potentially carrying drugs in the human body.
Drugs are attached to the algae in magnetic polymer beads, which can then be used to steer the algae by applying a magnetic field.
The algae then swim through tissue by lashing their tail.
This has been successful in the lab and could be an interesting avenue of research.
Algae are a particularly advantageous organism to use, as unlike bacteria they do not rapidly multiply or produce toxins.
They are also completely biodegradable, unlike some types of synthetic miniature robots.
Research is also ongoing at a scale even smaller than the micro-level, and there are high hopes for what advances in nanotechnology could mean for medicine.
There are very interesting implications for imaging, sensing, drug delivery, and much more.
Molecular nanotechnology is a highly theoretical field of study looking into nanorobots that could actually re-order matter at a molecular level scale to repair damages and infections.
This one perhaps won’t be changing medicine anytime soon, but is a fascinating area of research nonetheless.
This is beyond current capabilities, but in the future it could give rise to life extension through the repair of processes thought to be responsible for ageing.
Some have theorized that this technology may be able to indefinitely repair and regenerate human tissue.
The scope of what can be achieved in medicine with micro and nanotechnology is vast, and will surely have a growing impact as time and technology progress.
About the author
Marcus is a freelance biotechnology writer based in the U.K. Feel free to check out his website: http://mrwhitewrites.com/ or connect with him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mrwhitewrites