Tools of Engagement: New Technology in the Laboratory

Exciting new developments in medical technology have the potential to transform your laboratory.

Healthcare and technology have always gone hand in hand. The great discoveries of the ages have all improved the physical well-being of mankind in some way — from the capturing of electricity to the introduction of the smartphone. None of today’s hospitals and research facilities could operate at an optimum level without power, and many of them are incorporating iPhones and tablets into medical devices, patient diagnosis, and data analysis.

The rate of invention has multiplied as advances build upon each other and make new findings faster and easier than ever. Among the many technologies sweeping through medicine, a few standouts have emerged as game changers, likely to revolutionize endocrinology and healthcare as a whole.

Nanorobotics

The 1966 film Fantastic Voyage portrayed a seemingly impossible technology when a microscopic submarine was injected into a man’s bloodstream to find and remove a blood clot in his brain. While the shrink ray that resized the watercraft remains a piece of science fiction, the filmmakers nearly predicted the nanobots in use 48 years later.

About five years ago, researchers at the Micro/Nanophysics Research Laboratory at Australia’s Monash University developed a nanorobot one-quarter of a millimeter in length with the ability to swim through the bloodstream. A number of new projects popped up since — paving the way for an imaginary miracle device to become a reality.

Scientists intend to make the tiny bots perform a number of tasks, such as scraping plaque off of artery walls or finding cancer cells and injecting them with drugs. But, until recently, one major problem has stood in the way: battery life.

The nanorobots in most laboratories can only hold a miniscule battery that loses power in minutes, making it nearly impossible for the bots to complete their programmed task. At the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, researchers are putting the finishing touches on what appears to be the tiniest, quickest, and longest-lasting nanomotor yet. Their little robots can last up to 15 hours and fit inside a single cell. The microscopic motor was recently the subject of a paper published in Nature Communications.

If the Texan research team can push their nano device through to clinical trials, then physicians may soon have access to a futuristic tool for highly targeted drug deliveries to diseased cells. Patients would simply have to swallow a pill or receive an injection to put the miniscule bots to work, like the fictional scientist and his blood clot in a B-movie from almost 50 years ago.

3-Dimensional Bioprinting

Need a new organ? In a few years, you may be able to order one from the printer. Naturally, you will not be stopping by the local Kinkos, nor will you call up a tech geek friend who built his own 3D printer in his garage. Rather, a few biotechnology companies have been incorporating human tissue into multi-dimensional printing in hopes of placing artificial organs on the market in the not-too-distant future.

3D printers use computer models to build anything from toys to blood vessels out of the material they are loaded with, such as plastic or human cells. A professor of bioengineering at Rice University, Jordan Miller, PhD, took his 3D printer to Washington, D.C., in May 2014, to demonstrate the possibilities. Right now, Miller recreates human blood vessels using sugar, but has the technology to build vessels and organs from cultured human cells.

It will be years before the methods for 3D-printing organs is perfected, but researchers like Miller are trying to help policy makers better understand their work in hopes of overcoming media sensationalism and preempting regulatory hurdles.

Other scientists, like Paul Frisch, PhD, of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, are using 3D printers to build replicas of patients’ hip, spine, and knee bones. This makes it easier to identify the location and size of abnormalities, like tumors. Potentially, hip replacements and the like could also be built in his lab.

Organovo, a biotech company in California, is working on a range of therapeutic uses of 3D-printing human tissue. Recently, the company’s primary focus has been liver tissue. Pharmaceutical companies are about to begin using their printed liver tissue for drug testing, which could lead to a better understanding prior to market release of how some medications affect the human liver.

3D printers have clearly come a long way from their introduction in the 1980s. With increasing practical applications for this technology popping up, funding for research will surely continue to increase, and custommade organs and bones could reach hospitals within another couple decades.

Decision-Support Software

With a shortage of primary care providers and specialists alike, physician-extenders like nurses and physician’s assistants have become more important than ever to the practice of medicine. To help practitioners make efficient, accurate diagnosis and find the proper course of treatment, doctors have teamed up with software programmers to build decision support systems.

These programs incorporate into electronic health records (EHRs) to track and analyze patient information. They sprung up alongside the federal requirements for “meaningful use,” which necessitate a data-driven approach to healthcare.

KLAS, the primary independent evaluator of EHRs, describes the five elements of a clinical decision support system (CDS) as: “order sets, multi-parameter alerting, nursing care plans, reference content, and drug information databases.” Essentially, they provide a vast index of knowledge that helps keep patients safe and make practitioners’ jobs significantly easier.

Archimedes IndiGO, for example, is a CDS that combines clinical information with an individual patient’s physiology and medical history to create a tailored treatment plan. IndiGO makes recommendations based on both health factors and insurance coverage to find drugs and other treatment options covered under the patient’s plan.

Many decision support software options are competing for market share, and the best among them each off er unique characteristics and methods for revolutionizing the medical practice. Like EHRs, time will determine the systems that become industry standards. According to KLAS, “these CDS tools are only just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential.”

The same can be said for all three technology sets. Nanorobotics, 3D printing, and decision support software are rapidly advancing, but still in their adolescence. Only a single aspect of their future is ensured: We will be hearing a lot about them in the years to come.

— Mapes is a Washington D.C.–based freelance writer
and a regular contributor to Endocrine News.

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