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Health tech is going to save your life (for real)

From 3D-printed organs to cancer-fighting nanotech, the most important branch of technology right now is the one that will keep you living longer and stronger.

Bioprinted organs, like this heart structure, could one day treat a multitude of congenital conditions.
Stuart Williams

We are nothing without good health. It's a cliche. It's cheesy. And I believe it passionately.

Health is one of the most important fields in technology -- and the most exciting. Why? Because of life's frailty. Because anything that can possibly hurt us has, or will. And because life is our single most valuable possession.

Every advance is a victory, from cheap delivery systems for otherwise expensive vaccines to a complex brain implant-plus-eyeball-prosthetic that gives people with certain types of blindness newfound ability to see their loved ones in shadows, if not defined in full living color (also see my story in CNET Magazine, Summer 2015 issue).

These kinds of technological advances in medicine are important because they benefit the ailing, but they're also thrilling for the science alone. On TV, on the Web, in the pages of my monthly Scientific American magazine, each new solution seems more amazing than the last.

Tech that heals and wows

How about the scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign who are experimenting with crazy-thin, pliable electronic sheets of silicone (10 nanometers thick, about one-one hundredth the width of a cotton fiber!) that safely bend around organs inside the body, or could one day balloon inside veins, carrying smart sensors that transfer all sorts of internal data? Amazing, right? Somebody thought of doing that.

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Or how about this? Researchers at MIT are working on a "living" nylon bandage that contains nanoengineered organic materials -- like therapeutic drugs or essential proteins -- that release over time. Smart bandages like this can help target-heal wounds and treat problem areas (sort of like this).

A different smart bandage is in the works at a nearby lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. Treated with dye, this traffic-light bandage reacts with oxygen in a visual litmus test that colors the bandage green if the wound is healing well, yellow if it's worrisome, and red if the skin isn't getting enough oxygen -- all without disturbing the fragile, still-knitting tissue underneath.

That's miles more advanced than the typical way healthcare professionals check on how well a wound, like a skin graft for burn victims, heals. "You know the state-of-the-art test is for wound-healing now?," Conor Evans, one of the lead chemists of the traffic-light bandage said. "You smell it." Compared to a red-yellow-green bandage, the sniff test sounds downright barbaric.

Elegantly ingenious ideas like these abound. A lot of researchers are experimenting with 3D-printed organs, stuff that at least one cardiovascular researcher, Stuart Williams of the University of Louisville, calls "bioficial" -- printing cells into living tissue. (If you've seen Marvel's "Age of Ultron", you'll get the gist. Dr. Helen Cho's Cradle machine, which helps rebuild superheroes' damaged tissue, is a similar idea.)

Courtesy of Zongxi Li.

But here's another use in the same vein: Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center are implanting specialized proteins onto a 3D-printed plastic meniscus to spur stem cells into rebuilding that knee cartilage on their own (the polymer part eventually disintegrates). Right now it's been tested on sheep, but results are promising.

Love, not money

I'm wonderstruck by these life-prolonging, life-saving discoveries; they leave me shaking my head with awe and admiration for the mechanical engineers, researchers and assistants who continue searching and testing trial after trial, year after year.

I can't imagine it's always glamorous work, and more than one researcher has told me that out-of-the-box approaches can be hard to fund. For every doctor, scientist or engineer who ever won a once-in-a-lifetime award or scored a national magazine cover for his or her medicine-altering achievement, how many more spend their days struggling for answers or devising cures that never seem to catch hold?

Some of these researchers are people who could have, if they had chosen a slightly different track, taken jobs with high-paying tech firms, thinking up new ways to shrink silicon wafers into ever-smaller packages, or more efficiently collect data about people's lives. I'm glad they didn't.

"In a university, you're doing it for the love of science, not for the pay," said my aunt, Barbara Truitt, a scientist and technician with Case Western Reserve University's genomics lab, which deals with DNA sequencing.

With 40 years of experience under her belt, my aunt designs research experiments and analyzes results. "If I were a legal secretary," she told me over the phone, "I might be paid more."

Truitt spent eight years in college and graduate school combined to train for her field, which constantly changes as new methods and discoveries develop.

"You have to keep, keep, keep up," Truitt said of learning the latest medical developments. "You can't stop."

A few more good years

We're lucky that they haven't stopped, these scientists and mechanical engineers searching to extend life through tech.

Can you remember the last time you felt your absolute worst? Maybe it was the flu, perhaps it was a more serious, lingering condition. For me, a few hours of terrible headache or stomach pain are all it takes to forget what it feels like to feel good, to slap my brain into gratitude at the sense of normalcy I experience most days.

Death will claim us all one way or another: the seizing up, the breaking down, that final heartbeat. And along life's path -- hopefully long, hopefully smooth -- there will be inevitable moments of plummeting health.

I don't want to live forever, and that's not what life-prolonging technologies are about. They're about easing pain and recovering ability, staving off an eternity of lost moments, bringing families and friends together for a few more good years.

If there's nothing more precious than life, then there's no branch of technology more urgent than this.

This story was originally published August 10, 2015.