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6 Modern Medical Marvels

Medicine has come a long way since the four humors and miasma theory. Today’s medical advances incorporate futuristic technology like human-robot interfaces, lab-grown cells, and interspecies transplantation to help patients live healthier and more rewarding lives. Here are a few recent breakthroughs.

A Bionic Nose to Smell the Roses

More than 20% of the general population may experience the loss of their sense of smell, known as anosmia, at some point in their lives. Anosmia can be caused by an injury or disease, and it’s a common symptom of COVID-19. Now, a neuroprosthetic nose being developed by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Smell and Taste Disorders Centercould help people with long-term anosmia by restoring their sense of smell. The device works by transforming odor into radio waves and transmitting the signal directly to the brain, bypassing the olfactory nerves. The concept is similar to a cochlear implant: Users wear a small sensor that picks up an aroma in the air and transmits it to a tiny processor, which turns it into a specific frequency and sends it to a receiver implanted in the user’s brain. The receiver then sends the signal to electrodes that stimulate the brain as if the user were smelling the odor. If the final product makes it to market, this bionic nose may one day help people smell again.

3D-Printed Hearts to Help Doctors Test Treatments

Everybody’s heart is different, and the tricky part of treating heart disease is figuring out which treatments are best for a specific patient. Over the past few years, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been developing 3D-printed hearts to help cardiologists save lives. First, specialists take images of a patient’s heart and then convert them into a digital model. They can 3D-print the model using a flexible ink, creating a malleable ticker that is anatomically and mechanically identical to the patient’s. Doctors can even 3D-print arteries and valves and manipulate the parts to test various treatmentsfor the patient’s condition. Though they’re not meant for transplanting, the hearts have the potential to help doctors quickly tailor treatments (such as choosing the right kind of synthetic valve to implant) to individual people.

Lab-Grown Retinal Cells That Act Like the Real Thing

Researchers supported by the National Eye Institute had a recent breakthrough in the fight against vision loss. They not only grew real human retinal cells in their lab; they were able to coax the cells into forming synapses, the connections that allow the retina to capture images and eventually send them to the brain. In their experiment, the scientists grew stem cells into the different cells that make up the eye’s retina, such as light-sensing rods and cones, which eventually formed rudimentary organoids (tiny tissue cultures derived from stem cells). Then they broke them up into individual cells, severing any synapses that had formed, and injected the cells with a molecule that would show whether new synapses grew. After just 20 days, the different types of cells had formed the circuits and were “talking” with one another. That is raising hopes for restoring people’s sight through transplantation. Retinal cells aren’t the only organoids that researchers have been able to create from human stem cells, though: Liver, bone, skin, muscle, and even brain organoids have been grown in labs.

Robotic Hands With the Sense of Touch

Robotic prostheses for people who have lost their arms or hands have been around for over a decade; wearers can control the devices by using muscles in their shoulders or just by thinking about specific movements. But a common complaint among users is that the prostheses don’t feel natural. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs recently succeeded in creating prosthetic hands with sensors that “touch.” When a person grasps an object with the sensor-enabled hand, it transmits the sensation of touch to the wearer’s nervous system via an implanted receiver near the spine. People who have participated in experimental studies report a tingling feeling similar to the natural sense of touch. Researchers believe that the sensors will help users with robotic hands perform actions more efficiently, and the bionic body parts may also reduce phantom pain associated with limb loss.

Curing Genetic Conditions With Gene Therapy

Since the development in 2012 of CRISPR-Cas9, a molecular tool that can fix faulty DNA by activating or deactivating genes or removing them altogether, scientists have been trying to use the tool to cure genetic diseases. Through much trial and error, as well as controversy, a handful of treatments based on gene therapy have now been FDA-approved. One genome-editing therapy treats an inherited blood disorder called beta-thalassemia, in which the body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells and thus isn’t able to deliver enough oxygen to muscles and organs. The single-dose treatmentgenetically modifies some of the patient’s own blood cells so that they function correctly. Researchers are hopeful that a similar genome-editing approach will also cure sickle cell disease, an excruciating genetic blood disorder affecting mainly people of African descent. A clinical trial for a CRISPR-based sickle cell treatment has shown “prolonged benefit” for participants, according to a report in STAT.

A Brave New World of Animal-to-Human Transplants

The chronic shortage of human organs for transplants led a team of surgeons to take what some might view as a dramatic step. In 2022, in a medical first, a patient with severe heart disease received a brand new heart from a pig. The 240-pound, genetically modified animal had been raised for the purpose. The surgery, which took place at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was successful: the patient survived the procedure and was breathing on his own a couple of days afterward, with the heart pumping appropriately. However, the patient died two months after the surgery, likely due to a porcine virus that was transferred along with the heart; the patient’s weakened immune system couldn’t fight it off. Despite the unhappy outcome, many consider the experimental operation useful toward making xenotransplantation an option for people needing new organs.

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