Flash back in time to the 1960s. You are standing in a very white room where a man is talking frantically to a young lady in a white gown. You feel very out of place for two reasons: a) this is obviously a private conversation, and b) this is a completely different century! But don’t worry, because no one can see you, person-from-the-future. Now unashamedly eavesdropping, you gather that the man is terrified about a surgery he is about to undergo because his friend had once gone through a tumor removal and it had not been pleasant. The nurse addresses his concern by pulling out a long, silver-colored device from a cart beside her and explaining that the instrument she is holding is a cryosurgical probe, or cryoprobe. What the man is about to undertake is not the dreaded traditional surgery, but an alternative called cryosurgery. In cryosurgery, the cryoprobe, which contains liquid nitrogen or argon gas, forms a ball of ice crystals to freeze nearby cells, so that after the surgery, the diseased tissue that is now frozen will thaw and be absorbed by the body. There would be no need for the traditional removal of tumors involving a scalpel. The man still looks a little cynical, but he is clearly much more relaxed now.
Now your fantastical powers take you to another point in the 1960s, where you once again find yourself in a hospital room. Only this time, there is a life on the line. Surrounding the surgical bed, several surgeons are about to perform a very risky operation. The man on the bed needs a heart transplant, but there is no human heart available right now. The surgeons only have access to a chimpanzee heart. Just a few years ago, such a mission would have been impossible, with the only successful transplants of organs being a kidney transplant between identical twins. Now though, there are drugs that are able to keep the immune system from rejecting foreign cells. This creates a whole world of possibilities in how body parts can be replaced (although the success rate after the transplants is a whole other factor). Thanks to the immune system-repressing drug, the surgeons are able to substitute a human heart with a chimpanzee heart until a more suitable donor is located.
Moving further forward in time, you observe the wonders of the first artificial heart, the incredible development of several live-virus vaccines, the convenience of a dialysis machine, and the advantages that the portable electrocardiograph brings, among many other noteworthy inventions. But how were so many life-changing mechanisms created in the last 50 years? The key word is: engineering. Knowing that patients felt negatively toward standard surgery procedures, engineers set out to find a more effective way to remove tumors using the latest technology and science. They found that liquid nitrogen had the property of rapidly freezing upon contact with live tissue, and that it could be stored in liquid form at an extremely low temperature. Also, using liquid nitrogen resulted in little scarring afterwards, so it was a safer than previous procedures and suitable for many different purposes, including use in sensitive areas such as the ear, around the eyes, and the nose. Without the designing, experimenting, and building that the engineers did, the cryoprobe wouldn’t have been able to change so many lives.
All of the other events you witnessed in this essay wouldn’t have been possible without engineering either. If the reasons for why transplants were unsuccessful weren’t studied, then no one would’ve known that the immune system was the problem and that in order to make transplants work, there needed to be a way to suppress the immune system’s natural reactions. Engineers figured out the problem and developed a way to overcome that obstacle by applying their math and science skills, just like how they did with the first artificial heart, vaccines, dialysis machines, portable electrocardiograph, and other medical endeavors. The possibilities are endless when it comes to engineering. As long as there is a problem, there will be a solution.
Flash forward in time to the 2060s. You are standing in a spacious place adorned with a lusciously soft bed and other personal items that would make it seem like a luxury master bedroom of 2014, if not for the walls of technology. You gasp as you realize that this is how standard bedrooms in the future look like. Facing one of the walls is a woman. She appears to be conversing with a doctor located on the other side of the wall about a possibly cancerous tumor, even though the doctor is obviously in his office, and not in the room next door. The discussion is over in 5 minutes, as it can easily be concluded that the best way to deal with this is to send a nanobot into the patient and determine what needs to be treated. In a motion that has been performed numerous times, the woman reaches into a nearby storage bin and pulls out a nanobot, scans it using a special area on the wall and waits until the doctor activates it based on his diagnosis. When the nanobot is all programmed, the woman pops it into her mouth and watches as a diagram of her internal body shows up on another wall. The doctor studies a glowing red dot where the nanobot has located a cancerous tumor and prepares another nanobot to deliver a specific medicine that will kill the tumor. All the woman has to do is swallow this nanobot too, and the tumor will be destroyed without a need for surgery. Meanwhile, the woman prepares to pick up her prescription nanobot.
At the next scene, you are in another high-tech room. However, this is certainly not a bedroom, as there are synthetic organs lining the storage bins. A man lies on an operation table as a surgeon leans over him, preparing to perform a heart transplant using an artificial heart. You walk over to the storage bins and notice that the organs are all submerged in special liquids that contain advanced versions of the immune system-suppressing drug as well as other chemicals in the formula to keep the organs fresh and ready to be transplanted. There are synthetic replacements for every organ imaginable, except for the brain. Before you can even comprehend this little part of the wondrous world that is the future, you are taken to observe another mind-blowing concept.
A family of four sits at a round table in the middle of a dining room. In front of each of them sits a cup of yogurt. The two kids are whining, making a big deal about how they don’t like yogurt. The parents have already finished their cups and are trying to tell the kids that this yogurt is special. It’s not just a normal yogurt; it contains many vaccines that prevent all sorts of health problems, including some sorts of cancer. The kids don’t find that very convincing, because they have never gotten sick before and no one that they know of has experienced any health issues either. The parents finally bribe their children into eating the yogurt by rewarding them with a trip to the candy store.
By now, many thoughts are whirling around in your head, the first and foremost being, Wow, these kids are spoiled. But then you start thinking about all the awesome futuristic health technologies and wonder, How is all this possible? This can be answered with yet again, engineering. In the first scenario, nanobot technology is in full effect, and has the ability to diagnose and treat certain problems. The wall technology is an advancement of the computer technologies and has the same concept as Google Glasses, except in a larger scale. The second futuristic concept involves advances in biomedical engineering, with engineers developing completely functional organs from manmade materials. In the last scene, you saw how the concept of how vaccines work was applied to create a completely painless way of immunization. By putting antidote molecules on a probiotic cell found in yogurt, the vaccine will travel straight to the “headquarters” of the immune system, which is the small intestine, resulting in a much faster and more powerful immune response compared to the response from injections.
And the best part is all of that is not even close to everything that lies in the future of health. The possibilities are endless when it comes to engineering. As long as there is a problem, there will be a solution.