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From drones to smart pills, 2018 saw significant tech advances in medicine

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Robots, A.I. algorithms, and drone deliveries are increasingly found in just about every industry and profession. Why not the medical world, too? To that end, 2018 saw an impressive convergence of cutting-edge technology and groundbreaking medical research.

It is, of course, crucial that any new technology is properly investigated before it finds its way to patients, but — when the right steps are taken — these tools can be a game changer when it comes to health and wellness. Here are some of the biggest medical tech stories that caught our eye this year.

Medical drone deliveries

We’re still not at the point where most of us can get a book or DVD (if people still buy those!) delivered by drone, but drone-based medical deliveries nonetheless made big strides in 2018.

A pioneering medical trial by the University of Maryland demonstrated that drones could be used for safely transporting a potentially lifesaving transplant organ. They did this by putting a kidney in a cooler and flying it underneath a DJI M600 Pro drone to see if it suffered any damage. It didn’t — and the organ actually experienced fewer vibrations than it would when being transported in a fixed-wing plane.

Zipline

Meanwhile, Zipline unveiled a new, faster drone for delivering vital medical services such as blood supplies. For the past two years, Zipline has delivered blood for vital transfusions to remote clinics in Rwanda. The company’s new drone — which it claims is the fastest commercial delivery drone around — will make this mission more efficient. It’s got its eye on offering similar services in the U.S., too.

Wonders (and blunders) of gene editing

2018 was a significant year for advances in CRISPR gene editing. Operating in animal (predominantly mice) models, researchers demonstrated how severe obesity, autism, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, dementia, cocaine addiction, and other conditions can potentially be treated with careful use of gene therapy.

While these advances were generally met with favorable responses from the scientific community, a reported experiment coming out of China most certainly was not.

In the most infamous “medical advance” of 2018, researchers in China reportedly delivered the world’s first twins who had been genetically altered as embryos to remove a gene associated with potentially fatal diseases such as HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The news received immediate backlash and intense criticism from around the world. Provided that the report is accurate (details have been far from forthcoming), this nonetheless represents a major landmark. Just not a landmark many hoped would be reached without far more research.

Bioengineered tissues and organs

There’s a massive shortage of available transplant organs. One potential solution would be to be able to grow new ones in the lab. While we’re not yet at the point at which this is entirely possible, 2018 moved the research in the right direction. The field of 3D bioprinting continued to make strides through the demonstration of 3D-printed human cardiac tissue.

3D-printed prototype for bionic eye

One of the other significant advances from our perspective was the creation of bioengineered lungs at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. These were then successfully transplanted into pigs, allowing them to breathe normally with no medical complications.

Transferring that research to clinical trials for humans is likely to take another five to eight years of preclinical testing. It’s an important advance, however.

Smart pills

Our phones have been smart for a decade now, our watches for a bit less than that, and our homes are getting smarter all the time. Why not smart pills as well?

That’s what researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, demonstrated this year with the creation of a functioning electronic capsule which, once swallowed, measures gas biomarkers as it travels through the gut. As it does this, it gathers information relating to food, gut environment, and more — before transmitting it out of the body to a smartphone or other device. It could be useful for diagnosing diseases from irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease to potentially fatal ones such as colon cancer.

While it’s not quite ready for prime time, researchers have completed a successful phase 1 trial on 26 healthy individuals, proving the capsules’ safety and efficacy. Another not dissimilar project — also from researchers in Australia — explores how the smart pill experience could be “gamified” for the benefit of users.

Medical robots

Medical robots are getting better all the time. This year, neurosurgeons and otolaryngologists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine reported performing the world’s first robot-assisted spinal surgery. This complex procedure involved the use of robot arms to remove a tumor from the neck of a 27-year-old patient.

Pediatric HAL®: The World's Most Advanced Pediatric Patient Simulator

For the procedure, neurosurgeons entered the patient’s body through the neck and cut the spine around the tumor. A team of three (human) surgeons then utilized the surgical robot to remove the tumor through the patient’s mouth. The spinal column was then reconstructed, using a hip bone and additional rods for stability.

“There are two components that make this work so exciting,” Dr. Neil Malhotra, one of the surgeons involved in the procedure, told Digital Trends. “One is that it permits us to switch from palliation for certain types of tumors to, in some cases for the first time, seeking cures. For the second point, this approach is less traumatic for the patient, which means a better recovery.”

Algorithm that predict mortality

No, no one in their right mind is suggesting replacing flesh-and-blood doctors with algorithms. However, machine learning tools definitely have their predictive place in modern medicine. With that in mind, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this year granted its clearance for an algorithm that’s used in hospitals to help predict (and, hopefully, prevent) sudden patient deaths.

The Wave Clinical Platform works by monitoring patients’ vital signs and sending alerts warning about impending heart attacks or respiratory failure up to six hours before a patient suffers such an event. What makes the system so smart is that it not only monitors multiple biometrics for patients, but analyzes these in conjunction with one another. For example, a minor decrease in a patient’s respiratory rate wouldn’t usually be enough to trigger an emergency call. But if it’s accompanied by a spike in blood pressure, this could suggest something far more worrying.

A clinical trial among elderly patients at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center showed that a group using the technology experienced fewer unexpected deaths than those who did not.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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