2015 has been huge for biotechnology — the intersection of tech, medicine and the human body.
A Chinese lab discovered it could edit human genes; researchers unveiled how the human brain could screen digital notifications; an optometrist thinks he can give you superhuman vision; people with paralysis are getting a new lease on life. The list of scientific innovations that will literally change lives grows longer with every month — some so crazy they feel like science fiction. And the year's barely more than half over.
Scientists edited a human embryo.
A team of scientists Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, China, successfully modified the genome of a human embryo using the latest controversial gene-editing tool, CRISPR/Cas9, which could be used to repair defective DNA in plants and animals.
The research was performed on 86 nonviable (meaning they weren't going to become living people) human embryos, and even though it wasn't a landslide success, 28 of the 86 managed to hold onto an inserted replacement gene for the defective, blood disease-linked one the embryos had.
Yes, the technology is controversial — we're talking about editing humans a la Gattaca, after all. But as the technology improves and larger conversations about genome-editing ethics come to light, it could be a massive change in the tide of how our bodies, as we know them, operate.
We could have an unlimited supply of donor organs — from pigs.
Thanks to American researchers, hospitals may soon be able to get their donor organs from genetically modified pigs. Researchers have been producing the GM pigs to harvest organs injected with human genes, in hopes to help one of the research's financiers, Revivicor CEO Martine Rothblatt, whose daughter has a possibly fatal lung disease. The organs have already been able to survive in baboons, which is remarkable, since bodies tend to reject foreign organs, killing the host.
The technology is already here. It just needs to further testing to be safely used in humans. But as that technology improves, it could mean a less dismal organ-donor list, and human chests full of life-saving pig parts.
Software can read your brain and block out distractions.
Researchers from Tufts University have developed a piece of software called Phylter that acts as a "silent" button on your technology when you're concentrating hard on a task. It works by using fNIRS (functional near infrared spectroscopy) sensors to detect the blood flowing in your brain, showing where you're directing your attention. When Phylter senses you're focused, it mutes any incoming alerts, push notifications, calls, texts, you name it — until you stop focusing on the task at hand.
Unfortunately, it only works when you're already zoned in on an assignment, so if you're having trouble focusing on something, it will continue to send you notifications. But this technology, maybe in a less goofy-looking wearable, could be how we approach working in the future, helping us stay locked into jobs and not letting frivolous messages contribute to our own "busy trap."
Researchers developed a robotic butt to let medical students practice screening humans for cancer.
No, the research team from the University of Florida, Drexel University and the University of Wisconsin aren't going to start cutting off human butts and replacing them with robo-rumps. They created Patrick, a piece of software that mimics the discomfort of a nervous patient. With its connected, four-sensor plastic butt, it helps doctoral students practice administering prostate exams without having to practice on the (extremely wary) real thing.
"Patrick expresses fears when the learner brings up the need for a prostate exam," Benjamin Lok, the computer scientist leading the research, told the Mary Sue. "Thus the student needs to learn and practice empathy. How many of us have gone to the doctor and wished they had worked on their bedside manner skills?"
It's not exactly genome-editing levels of scientific breakthrough, but it's a technology to help on the lower level of medicine, something that, until now, was just considered an inevitable pain in the butt. Now that pain can be delegated to a computer.
Doctors can 3-D print ultrasounds for blind mothers.
Using ultrasound image data, doctors in Brazil were able to print 30-year-old Tatiana Guerra's unborn baby so she could feel what she couldn't see.
Three-D technology has been making leaps and bounds for a while; this development, the ability to print to-scale, accurate models of our insides, could not only help other blind women like Guerra see their unborn children, but it could help give doctors a better idea of internal complications by being able to print a tumor-affected organ to get a better sense of how to approach it during surgery.
An optometrist created a lens to give us superhuman vision.
Garth Webb, founder of medical technology company Ocumetrics, claims to have developed what he's calling the Bionic Lens, a product that would allow someone to have vision three times better than 20/20. What people with 20/20 vision can see clearly from 10 feet away, people wearing the surgically implemented lenses would be able to see clearly from 30 feet.
While the idea of cutting into your eye doesn't sound great for a lot of people, it could be a massive upgrade during cataract surgery. Maybe down the road, it could even be implemented in optical laser surgery procedures, meaning something as minimally painful as Lasik surgery could leave patients with superhuman vision, ushering in a new era of stargazers and superheroes.
A neuroscientist helped a man serve himself a beer for the first time in a decade.
Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena built a device for Erik Sorto, a 32-year-old man paralyzed from the neck down, so he could control a bionic arm with his mind. He did what anyone who could finally pick things up of their own accord: He drank a Modelo.
The device read Sorto's intentions, so instead of thinking "open hand, reach out hand, lower hand" and so on, he just had to think "pick that up and drink it."
It could be the answer to paralysis, especially regaining the ability to do a lot of taken-for-granted tasks, and give power back to the people who've lost it.
An orthopedics company developed a subconsciously controlled bionic leg.
Icelandic orthopedics company Ossür has a few models of bionic limbs, like legs, feet and knees. But they all gave an extremely cool feature: tiny implanted myoelectric sensors installed in the subject's remaining muscle tissue, making it so whenever the user thinks about a movement, the sensors react and make the part do what its flesh-and-blood counterpart would.
What's great is, unlike other bionic limbs that involve really intentional, exhausting thinking to move, this just involves thinking about the activity, not the individual mechanics of the activity.
As the technology becomes more common, it could be a non-frustrating answer to the long time it might take to get the hang of thinking through the entire process of movement and getting back to normal life.
A Swedish designer built a LEGO space ship hand for a boy needing a limb.
In July, a Colombian boy named Dario was the proud recipient of a customizable prosthetic limb system called the IKO Creative. Using a motor attached to sensors, the prosthetic could read Dario's motion signals in his muscles to move the space ship — or tractor, or LEGO hand. Really, whatever Dario wanted his hand to be, all he had to do was build it.
"What if kids could use their imagination to create their own tools according to their own needs?" Torres asks on his project's website. "Disabled kids' needs are not always related to physical activity but often alternatively the social and psychological aspect; what if kids could make their own prosthetics and have fun at the same time? Learning. Creating. Being kids."
These are the reasons we need to support university labs. Time and time again, they've proven to be where the most life-changing research comes from and will keep originating for years.