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

the earth biogenome project wants to sequence all life on sequencing genome brazillian lab
Ascom / MCTIC

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 rwanda
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.

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.

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.

Emerging Tech

Global Good wants to rid the world of deadly diseases with lasers and A.I.

Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates, aims to eradicate diseases that kill children in developing nations. It tackles difficult problems with high-tech prototypes.
Smart Home

Researchers are once again trying to science the gluten out of bread

If you've ever found gluten tough to stomach, help may be on the way. Researchers and farmers are exploring solutions that include gene-edited bread, as well as alterations to carbs and fiber.
Emerging Tech

The Great White Shark’s genome has been decoded, and it could help us end cancer

In a significant step for marine and genetic science, researchers have decoded the genome of the great white shark. The genetic code revealed a wealth of insight into what makes these creatures so successful from an evolutionary standpoint.
Gaming

Here's our Champion's guide to picking the best character in Apex Legends

Apex Legends' use of heroes with different abilities helps separate it from other battle royale games. To help you choose your legend, we've put together a legend guide detailing their abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

NASA to launch SPHEREx mission to investigate the origins of our universe

NASA is launching an ambitious mission to map the entire sky to understand the origins of the universe. The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission will launch in 2023.
Emerging Tech

Probes exploring Earth’s hazardous radiation belts enter final phase of life

The Van Allen probes have been exploring the radiation belts around Earth for seven years. Now the probes are moving into the final phase of their exploration, coming closer to Earth to gather more data before burning up in the atmosphere.
Emerging Tech

How can digital art created on obsolete platforms be preserved?

As the lines between art and technology continue to blur, digital art experiences become more commonplace. But these developments are raising an important question for art conservationists: How should digital artworks be preserved?
Emerging Tech

Statistician raises red flag about reliability of machine learning techniques

Machine learning is everywhere in science and technology. But how reliable are these techniques really? A statistician argues that questions of accuracy and reproducibility of machine learning have not been fully addressed.
Emerging Tech

Chandra X-ray telescope uncovers evidence of the universe’s missing matter

Where is all of the matter in the universe? NASA's Chandra telescope has uncovered evidence of hot gas strands in the vicinity of a quasar which could explain the missing third of matter which has puzzled astronomers for years.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? You totally can with these top-of-the-line drones

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.
Emerging Tech

Here’s how Facebook taught its Portal A.I. to think like a Hollywood filmmaker

When Facebook introduced its Portal screen-enhanced smart speakers, it wanted to find a way to make video chat as intimate as sitting down for a conversation with a friend. Here's how it did it.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s space observatory will map the sky with unprecedented detail

NASA is preparing to launch a cutting-edge space observatory to create the most detailed map ever produced of the sky. Doing so will involve surveying hundreds of millions of galaxies. Here's how it plans to do it.