3 Ways Real Health Care Is Catching Up to Sci-Fi Health Care

Companies like Qualcomm, Accuray, Hanger, and Organovo are making some sci-fi health-care creations for the real world. Let’s take a look at a few of their most interesting products.

Jan 11, 2014 at 2:45PM

Health care has always been a prevalent theme in sci-fi films and TV shows.

From the original Star Trek to modern films like Elysium, screenwriters and directors have imagined utopian or dystopian worlds where diseases can be instantly cured, severed limbs robotically restored, and new replacement organs artificially created.

In the past, that future seemed fantastic, but in recent years, available technology has steadily caught up to our sci-fi fantasies. Thanks to companies like Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), Accuray (NASDAQ:ARAY), Hanger (NYSE:HGR), and Organovo (NYSEMKT:ONVO), those past predictions are now coming true.

Let's take a look at three major ways real health care is catching up to its sci-fi counterpart.

1. The real Star Trek medical tricorder
When many people think of health care in science fiction, they think of the Star Trek medical tricorder -- that wondrous handheld omni-tool that diagnoses diseases and collects data from a patient with a simple scan.

At CES 2012, wireless chipmaker Qualcomm, in coordination with the X PRIZE Foundation, launched a $10 million competition to produce the first medical tricorder.

The competition asked participants to create a handheld device to diagnose a set of 15 diseases and measure health metrics such as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and body temperature. The proposed device is also expected to accumulate and store data wirelessly over the cloud.

Silicon Valley company Scanadu is in the clear lead. The company unveiled a prototype of its tricorder device, known as the Scout, in November 2012.

The Scout can instantly scan a wide variety of health parameters, including pulse transit time, heart rate and variability, electrical heart activity, and blood oxygenation. It can also help a doctor diagnose a wide variety of diseases ranging from abdominal cramps to shingles.

At this week's CES 2014, Scanadu finally unveiled its final hardware design for the Scout, which runs on the same operating system used by NASA in the Mars Rover.

Image

The Star Trek tricorder (L) and the Scanadu Scout (R). Sources: Wired.com, Engadget.

The Scout just needs to be held up to a patient's temple for 10 seconds to obtain a complete reading. Scanadu hopes that the Scout will hit the market by the end of 2014 after FDA approval.

2. Curing cancer with machines
Neill Blomkamp's 2013 film Elysium featured a magical medical pod that could cure cancer in less than a minute. While that device is an obvious Hollywood fantasy, it has roots in real medical technology that is available today.

Over the past decade, cancer treatments have improved dramatically on the pharmaceutical level, with immunotherapy and targeted therapies, and on the mechanical level, with advanced oncology machines.

Accuray's flagship product, the CyberKnife Stereotactic Radiosurgery System, is one of these machines. The CyberKnife uses tiny lasers to deliver highly concentrated doses of radiation into the body to kill cancerous cells. The process, unlike chemotherapy, spares healthy cells and requires no physical incisions -- making it a pain-free, minimally invasive option for patients with inoperable or surgically complex tumors.

Image

Elysium's medical pod (L) and Accuray's CyberKnife System. Source: Technolife360.com, Pitt.edu.

Accuray also manufactures the TomoTherapy system, which uses 3-D CT imaging to accurately locate the position of the tumor before initiating radiation therapy. The machine calibrates the intensity of the radiation beam to the size and shape of the patient's tumor and delivers the radiation in "layers" to prevent any excess radiation.

3. We can rebuild you
We should also mention how much prosthetic limbs have improved over the past few years. In the past, amputees were given plastic prosthetics that could not be controlled beyond the most basic movements.

Fully functioning prosthetic limbs, such as those seen in The Six Million Dollar Man, Star Wars, or Almost Human were long thought to be a sci-fi fantasy.

However, prosthetic limb maker Hanger has turned those dreams into reality. The company's C-Leg uses feedback from multiple sensors that report back the processor 50 times per second to make real-time adjustments to the position of the prosthetic knee and leg. The result is a cybernetic leg that allows amputees to run and ride bicycles.

An even more impressive device is Hanger's i-LIMB prosthetic hand, which uses the electrical signals from a patient's remaining limb to control the movement in the hand. This process, known as myoelectric technology, could previously only generate a single grip pattern.

The i-LIMB dramatically improves that technology by allowing patients to freely move all five fingers. Patients with the i-LIMB can dial the phone and type -- tasks that would have seemed impossible a mere decade ago.

Image

Hanger's C-Leg (L) and i-LIMB (R). Source: Company website.

Meanwhile, 3-D bioprinting company Organovo has tickled the fancy of scientists across the world with the possibilities of 3-D printed organs and limbs. Organovo's first product, a 3-D-printed liver assay for pharmaceutical testing, hasn't been approved yet, but that hasn't stopped scientists from exploring the possibilities.

A team of scientists from the University of Nottingham in England recently demonstrated that artificial bones can be printed from a polymer and a gel-like substance known as alginate. After printing this "bone," the 3-D printer coats the surface with adult stem cells, which can grow into various tissues and muscles.

That experiment indicates that we could be advancing beyond the realm of sci-fi altogether -- as impressive as Hanger's prosthetic limbs are, imagine if limbs could be bioprinted as perfect replacements.

The Foolish takeaway
The medical tricorder, cancer treatment machines, and prosthetic limbs -- these are just three incredible new technologies that are changing how doctors treat patients.

As computers get even smaller and more powerful (as Intel recently demonstrated at CES 2014), patients' lives will be significantly improved by innovative new technologies.

What other innovative new medical technologies will shake up the health-care world over the next few decades? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

Another exciting company to keep an eye on
There's a huge difference between a good stock, and a stock that can make you rich. The Motley Fool's chief investment officer has selected his No. 1 stock for 2014, and it's one of those stocks that could make you rich. You can find out which stock it is in the special free report: "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2014." Just click here to access the report and find out the name of this under-the-radar company.

Fool contributor Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

1 Key Step to Get Rich

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better. Whether that’s helping people overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we can help.

Feb 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

To be perfectly clear, this is not a get-rich action that my Foolish colleagues and I came up with. But we wouldn't argue with the approach.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich" rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

"The Motley Fool aims to build a strong investment community, which it does by providing a variety of resources: the website, books, a newspaper column, a radio [show], and [newsletters]," wrote (the clearly insightful and talented) money reporter Kathleen Elkins. "This site has something for every type of investor, from basic lessons for beginners to investing commentary on mutual funds, stock sectors, and value for the more advanced."

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better, so it's nice to receive that kind of recognition. It lets us know we're doing our job.

Whether that's helping the entirely uninitiated overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we want to provide our readers with a boost to the next step on their journey to financial independence.

Articles and beyond

As Business Insider wrote, there are a number of resources available from the Fool for investors of all levels and styles.

In addition to the dozens of free articles we publish every day on our website, I want to highlight two must-see spots in your tour of fool.com.

For the beginning investor

Investing can seem like a Big Deal to those who have yet to buy their first stock. Many investment professionals try to infuse the conversation with jargon in order to deter individual investors from tackling it on their own (and to justify their often sky-high fees).

But the individual investor can beat the market. The real secret to investing is that it doesn't take tons of money, endless hours, or super-secret formulas that only experts possess.

That's why we created a best-selling guide that walks investors-to-be through everything they need to know to get started. And because we're so dedicated to our mission, we've made that available for free.

If you're just starting out (or want to help out someone who is), go to www.fool.com/beginners, drop in your email address, and you'll be able to instantly access the quick-read guide ... for free.

For the listener

Whether it's on the stationary exercise bike or during my daily commute, I spend a lot of time going nowhere. But I've found a way to make that time benefit me.

The Motley Fool offers five podcasts that I refer to as "binge-worthy financial information."

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. It's also featured on several dozen radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable ... and I don't say that simply because the hosts all sit within a Nerf-gun shot of my desk. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers contain timeless advice, so you might want to go back to the beginning with those. The other three take their cues from the market, so you'll want to listen to the most recent first. All are available at www.fool.com/podcasts.

But wait, there's more

The book and the podcasts – both free ... both awesome – also come with an ongoing benefit. If you download the book, or if you enter your email address in the magical box at the podcasts page, you'll get ongoing market coverage sent straight to your inbox.

Investor Insights is valuable and enjoyable coverage of everything from macroeconomic events to investing strategies to our analyst's travels around the world to find the next big thing. Also free.

Get the book. Listen to a podcast. Sign up for Investor Insights. I'm not saying that any of those things will make you rich ... but Business Insider seems to think so.


Compare Brokers