In the 1966 sci-fi classic The Fantastic Voyage, a team of specialists -- including Raquel Welch -- board a submarine that is somehow then shrunk down to one millimeter in size and inserted into a scientist's body for the purpose of removing a life-threatening blood clot from the man's brain. In an example of life partially imitating art, I begin this "All in a Week's Work" with news about a major technological breakthrough in the field of medical robotics.
It's in the blood
Researchers from the Nanorobotics Laboratory of Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal demonstrated that they had successfully wirelessly guided a tiny microdevice inside an artery at a speed of 10 centimeters a second.
The test was only conducted on an animal, so it's a little early to get excited about its potential use on humans. Still, the researchers report that they are currently working to reduce the size of future devices so that they can navigate inside smaller blood vessels.
If successful, the technology might someday be used by companies such as Medtronic
It is also possible that the devices could deliver preventive medicine. By rendering pacemakers and other medical devices obsolete, these microdevices might represent more of a disruptive threat to those companies than a short-term opportunity.
And if microdevices are not disruptive, it is possible that another technology could be. This past week saw the first report that doctors had successfully rejuvenated post-heart attack patients by injecting them with stem cells.
Because the results are from early clinical trials, I would discourage investors from reading too much into the short-term implications of the study. But the progress is promising, and it suggests that the future of heart disease treatment could be radically different than it is today.
It's a worm, it's a caterpillar ... no, it's a robot
In another interesting development, a multidisciplinary team of researchers at Tufts University reported this past week that they are studying the hornworm (which is actually a caterpillar) to better understand how it can twist its body in any direction and climb tree branches. What the researchers hope to achieve by studying the insect is a better idea of how they might create a tiny robotic device that mimics the hornworm's movement, yet is still small enough to patrol the human body and diagnose and treat disease.
If successful, it is the type of equipment that could allow a company like Intuitive Surgical
Other potential applications include using larger bio-inspired robots to find land mines or repair equipment in hard-to-reach or dangerous locations. Such applications would be of obvious interest to a company like iRobot
It's no game
In a growing sign of how pervasive computer games are becoming, The New York Times reported on Friday how Nintendo has gained a leg up on Sony's
The article reported that Erickson Retirement Communities -- which manages 18 facilities for 19,000 seniors all across the country -- is now installing Wii consoles at each location. The article also reports that a "seniors-only" Wii bowling league was formed this past December in Illinois. The founder of the league said the first session proved so popular that participants stayed for six hours.
And the benefits of video gaming don't stop there. Scientific American reported this past week that more than 40,000 PlayStation 3 users have joined Stanford's Folding@home project and are using the power of their PS3s' computers to speed up simulations of how proteins might be contributing to Alzheimer's, as well as to screen the proteins against small molecules to identify future drug candidates.
Foolish final word
Microdevices patrolling arteries, caterpillar-like robots roaming the battlefield, senior citizens flocking to Wii bowling leagues, and teenagers using their PS3s to do battle with Alzheimer's might all sound like scenes ripped from a bad Hollywood sci-fi thriller. But as this past week has demonstrated, they are now science fact. Therefore, I would encourage investors who are hoping that their investment portfolio will someday help fund a fantastic voyage of their own (during retirement) to continue to stay abreast of today's science and technological developments. What sounded implausible yesterday could very well be feasible tomorrow.
Interested in looking back at the past few weeks' progress? You can catch up here:
iRobot and Intuitive Surgical are Rule Breakers selections. If you are interested in other cutting-edge technology -- be it biotech, nanotech, or robotics -- consider signing up for the Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter. A free, 30-day trial can be all yours -- just click here.
Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology, recently completed his latest book, which deals with the exponential growth of a number of different technologies. He owns stock in Intuitive Surgical, iRobot, and Microsoft. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.