Bioengineering and the Future: Fixing What Ails You With a Sci-Fi Twist

Hello everyone! Last week I covered robots in all their metal glory, but this week’s post focuses on us squishy mortals. While the robots enjoy a practically ageless existence, we humans tend to break down after a while. We’re also susceptable to genetic mutations and diseases that can have drastic effects on our daily lives.

Enter Bioengineering, The Mad-Scientist favorite! Bioengineering, the science of applying engineering principles to biology and medicine, covers everything from genetically engineering viruses to do our bidding, to mimicking the limbs of insects to build… well, to build better robots. It’s a very broad science, and certainly one for being controversial, but for us science fiction junkies, its a goldmine of ideas. Not only are technologies in this field developing in ways that will treat or even cure diseases in ways we could not even have imagined 20 years ago, but by many of its advances, we stand to extend and enhance our lives by extraordinary measures.

Even I, Lantern Hollow’s resident sci-fi guru, do not understand even a small part of this field. However, there are several examples of these technologies that I have found that really get my gears turning. So, without further introduction, here are my picks for this week’s science fiction ideas offering:

The $70,000 Teenager

Michael Waldron Prodigits prosthetic fingers Singularity Blog
These images demonstrate the prosthetic fingers gripping an object

This one’s not only a neat application of prosthetics, but a real tear-jerker story as well. Michael Waldron was born with a growth disorder that left him with undeveloped fingers on his right hand. While he has adapted readily to life, even playing sports and in the band at school, a new prosthetic achievement has now given him the fingers he never had. The artificial fingers work by measuring the movements of the muscles in his forearm, controlling the pressure-sensitive, servo-driven fingers in a very natural way.  Now, this method would not work in the case of an amputation, but the technology is on the right path. The next step is actually hardwiring the prosthetic into the patient’s nervous system so that it receives the motor control signals straight from the brain, fully replacing the lost limb- however, that technology is still a few years away.


New Eyes for the Blind

This next project segues nicely from the last, both in its similar problem and in the nobility of its goal. The Argus Artificial Retina, an implant-headgear combination, is rapidly developing a means to treat blindness related to retinal damage or dysfunction. For those of you who slept through the class where they covered how the eye works, the retina is a roughly inch-squared patch of dense neurons in the back of the eye that takes the image seen through the lens and processes that information, sending it to the brain. The Argus bypasses this step, imitating the job the retina usually does, and sends that information along the ocular nerve, giving the patient rudimentary sight. For now, the resolution is very crude, in its most recent stage only offering roughly 60 pixels of information in grey-scale, but nearly doubles in effectiveness in every iteration. Essentially, these guys are slowly figuring this out. There are some other technologies that allow better resolution by using the nerves on the tongue as a bypass, but the Argus works much more like the real thing, and has a higher potential for this kind of blindness. Watching this video, it seems to me that once they figure out more about how the retina processes information and how the brain receives it, they will he able to essentially fix this problem.

Using Biology to Fix Biology

So those two examples offer some insight into what is currently possible with prosthetics and implants, but most people would probably agree that restoring them to full health and functionality through natural means would be better. It might not seem as cool as a robotic arm, but in the end, any of us would take flesh and blood over hard plastic and metal. Well, it might be possible to get just that- through the already-present regenerative processes of the human body. Researchers at Northwestern University are close to just that sort of answer. According to this abstract and this article at Singularity, the technology involves the use of “self-assembling nano-fibers for cartilage regeneration”, but the concept looks to be adaptable to myriad other applications. The specially designed material is injected into the site, where it automatically builds tiny tubes out of itself, which then latch onto “Growth Factors” in the body, which then stimulate the generation of particular cells in the area. These effects can be customized, and depending on the cells, even spinal cord injuries could be treated, if not cured in some cases. This technique allows us to make the human body heal far beyond what it is usually able to heal, and that’s a huge step forward. It’s not quite as cool as little nano-bots closing wounds and clearing out your bad cholesterol for you, but technology is an amazing step towards curing many of the world’s most debilitating injuries, as well as significantly improving our longevity.

These are only a few of the amazing advances in Bioengineering I’ve seen in my gallivanting across the Web, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it soon, because hey, you can’t make this stuff up. Either science fiction is inspiring reality, or the other way around, but in any case it gives me a lot of ideas for where the technology might lead in my own stories, and I hope it does the same for you.

Anyone seen these sort of technologies in TV, movies, or in books? I know I have, but what examples come to mind for you? Let me know in the comments below!