Researchers at Harvard University have made biocompatible, nanometer-scaled transistors that can be used to take highly precise electrical and chemical readings inside cells. The bioprobes are much more sensitive than the passive electrodes that have been used to make intracellular measurements in the past.
These scientists are also working with tissue engineers toward the goal of interfacing these nanowires to prosthetic devices. This would help amputees control artificial limbs. One can also imagine using such nanowires to jump over damaged sections of spinal cords that leave people paralyzed. If one can control an artificial limb why not use the same technology to reestablish control over a neurologically isolated limb?
Of course, nanowires into cells have other potential uses such as to transmit information about the biochemical state of some tissue or of blood. With nanosensors attached the nanowires could be hooked up to transmitter devices. What would listen to those transmissions? How about your smart phone? Or how about your house's main server computer when you are at home?
The technological advances are zooming along. What I worry about: Regulatory barriers to using embedded sensors to monitor your metabolism in real time. Regulators in both New York and California are blocking direct-to-consumer genetic sequencing services. Well, your genetic information is static information you were born with. If a state government can think you do not even have a right to that information (and if you have to ask a doctor for it you do not have a right to it) then what are they going to say to real-time embedded testing laboratories in your own body? Um, how about Nyet, nope, nein, no way.
There is a battle brewing between the regulatory state's desire to control the flow of biological information about your body and your right to know what is the state of your body. The controllers want you bow to a highly regulated medical priesthood to get that information about yourself, and then only the information they will allow you to know.
So far the forces for openness and freedom have not made much of a showing in opposition to the regulators. I think this is a state of affairs that needs to change. The potential health benefits from advanced embedded (and worn) monitoring sensors are huge. With future sensor technology e could get notified when we come into contact with toxins, when we are suffering from malnutrition or dehydration, when a pathogen has started to invade our bodies, or when our metabolism has changed in a way that suggests a heightened risk of stroke or heart attack. Embedded sensors could compensate for an aging body in many ways and even control an artificial liver to compensate for decay in natural processes of metabolic regulation.
Likely many other applications are possible. But to usher in that era of highly personalized genomics and real-time personal medicine we need to redraw the boundaries of regulation to enable us to unconditionally know more about ourselves. The flow of data from our bodies into our smart phones and PCs ought to be as free as the data flows across the internet.
After nearly a decade of working on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) for medical implants, a startup based in Bedford, MA, called MicroChips has prototypes for its first commercial products. By the beginning of January, the company plans to start animal trials of a device for healing bones damaged by osteoporosis. In a year and a half, it hopes to begin human trials on an implant for monitoring glucose levels in diabetics.
The first product, a device for delivering an anti-osteoporosis drug automatically, could allow patients to replace 500 daily injections with a single outpatient implant procedure. The glucose sensor, by continuously monitoring glucose levels, could reveal spikes in blood-sugar levels that go undetected using conventional sensors. Such spikes, if not treated, can contribute to organ damage, including blindness.
MEMS devices will become fancier with more built-in sensors and more elaborate algorithms for dispensing drugs. Eventually external instructions sent via radio signals will be able to control drug dispensing.
There's a future genetic engineering step that goes beyond MEMS and will reduce the need for MEMS: Livers and other tissue will get genetic engineering done to them to turn them into synthesis factories for drugs. That will eliminate the need for periodic replacement of MEMS chips. But genetic engineering won't be appropriate for delivering chemicals that have complex synthesis steps that aren't easily replicated inside of biological cells. So MEMS will have a future even once gene therapy becomes very powerful.