On the original Star Trek, Dr. McCoy (a.k.a. “Bones”) carried a sensory device called a tricorder to record and relay medical information. Soon, thanks to Qualcomm’s $10 million XPrize competition, that neat fictional gadget could become a health care reality.
Over the last five years, teams from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, India, and Taiwan have competed to develop their own functional tricorders—portable tools able to diagnose health conditions and take real-time vital signs like blood pressure. The winning design will be announced in early 2017, with the hope that, eventually, individuals will be able to use it at home, “to assess and manage their health independent of a hospital or doctor’s office.” Live long and prosper, indeed.
2. (CAR) T-cell Immunotherapies
There have been such tremendous advancements in treatments for blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, that the five-year survival rate for children with Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is now over 85 percent. And starting in 2017, those kinds of numbers may leap even higher.
For the first time, pending FDA approval, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy will be made available to “high-end” cancer centers around the country. In this kind of cellular immunotherapy, white blood cells called T-cells are extracted from a patient, treated at a special laboratory, and then returned to the patient to fight cancer cells. Trials on kids with ALL have proven very successful, with high rates of complete remission. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society notes that studies of CAR T-cell therapy on multiple myeloma,chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) have also been “very promising,” as well.
3. Augmented Reality
When Pokémon Go burst onto the scene this past July, millions of everyday Americans got their first taste of augmented reality (AR), in which a computer digitally enhances the sights and sounds of real-life environments. While some AR tools have already made inroads into health care—like AccuVein, which maps out patients’ veins for phlebotomists and nurses—the incredible technology will become even more widespread in 2017, as it:
teaches doctors and medical students how to do certain surgeries, procedures, and dissections
helps patients envision their own conditions, treatments, surgeries, and recoveries
maps out the locations of health care providers and life-saving equipment (like defibrillators) for the public in case of emergency
It’ll be years before they’re a reality, but AR implants for the eyes and ears are coming down the pike, too. Google and Samsung have already filed patents for lens implants intended to monitor glaucoma and deliver medicines.
4. Synthetic Blood
From prosthetic limbs to artificial hearts, pacemakers to ear implants, we’ve figured out how to replace darn near every part of the human body. But until fairly recently, blood was a bit of a pipe dream. Not so anymore.
In 2017, England’s National Health Service (NHS) will conduct early safety trials, in which about 20 people are given small amounts of synthetic blood made from stem cells. The short-term goal is to create red blood cells to treat specific conditions and illnesses, like sickle cell anemia. The long-term goal? NHS scientists hope to make enough for transfusions for people with rarer blood types.
5. Mobile Stroke Treatment Units
When a stroke hits, every second counts; it’s estimated you lose about two million neurons each minute after the event, and the longer you go untreated, the worse the damage to your brain. That’s why a Mobile Stroke Treatment Unit (MSTU or MSU) could be a lifesaver.
Usually staffed by paramedics, a nurse, and a medical imaging specialist, among other emergency personnel, an MSTU is essentially an ambulance dedicated to the fast diagnosis and treatment of strokes. When a dispatcher calls in a stroke, the MSTU is mobilized to the patient’s home. Once it arrives, the team is able to determine whether a stroke is caused by a blood clot, administer a drug to dissolve that clot, and then bring the patient to an appropriate hospital.
Early studies of response time are promising, and there are currently units in Cleveland, New York, Houston, and Denver, with more coming every day. In fact, one source reports that by late 2017, an MSTU will be available to more than 40 percent of major-city emergency rooms.
If there’s one advancement medical experts and the press seem most excited about, it’s interoperability, or, the ability of health care information technologies—like a hospital’s digital systems—to communicate with each other. For those who have wondered why the billing department can’t get on the same page as your doctor, this is the breakthrough for you.
Set to debut in 2017, Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) is a kind of tool dedicated to saving money and lives by improving the speed and efficiency of health data transferal. Essentially, instead of transferring entire documents, which causes a backup, FHIR transfers specific bits of health care information—a word, a code—from one place (ex: your doctor) to another (ex: billing). This means health care workers don’t have to go through tons of extraneous information to get the data they want, making your experience faster and your records, more accurate.
On a more personal level, the technology will make it easier to create health apps, as well, which could filter down to patients in years to come.
7. Ultrasound Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 current seniors will die with the condition or another dementia. And while we’re still a long way from a cure, there’s one encouraging treatment set to begin human trials in 2017: ultrasound therapy on amyloid plaques, which clump around neurons and are believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s.
Back in 2015, Australian researchers found the sound waves generated by ultrasounds cleared amyloid plaques (pictured) in mice, 75 percent of which performed better on memory tests afterward. There was no damage to the surrounding tissue, and the treatment could be much cheaper than drugs that perform similar functions, reports The Wall Street Journal. Of course, duplicating the results in humans is a much harder endeavor, thanks to our thicker skulls and more sophisticated brains. Still, researchers are optimistic about the long road ahead.