Friday, March 6, 2009

Futurama Friday

Futurama Friday: The Future is NOW!
Well, not really, but it sure is close.

If you haven’t been asleep for the last 25 years or so, or been fed on an entertainment diet of Jane Austin melodramas exclusively, then likely you’ve bumped into science fiction in the various and sundry medias. Whether it’s a children’s show about hyper-intelligent kids from the future stuck in our present-day high schools, or ridged and crested aliens issuing sinister ultimatums to human space-farers in impossibly form-fitting outfits, there are iconic images ingrained in our cultural periphery. From silvered starships twinkling with unnecessary lights swooping past the screen, to flames dancing around a command crew right before some obtuse rewiring of equipment saves the day, these images are as familiar to most people as the gas station brands you pass by daily, but perhaps don’t shop at. Aware, yet unaware at the same time.

One iconic image from our imagined futures is that of a doctor (no matter what species) clad in skin-tight silver, waving a whistling widget above a patient, rays of futuristically-colored light bathing a wound that miraculously heals. As often as science fiction gets it amazingly, and consistently wrong, once in awhile it does get it right, and our reality shapes itself to our imaginations.

Researchers at the school of Physics and Astronomy at Tel Aviv University are well into research into science-fiction medical technology. They are well into human clinical trials using lasers to weld, or solder human tissue together. If that seems completely counter-intuitive, it is.
Everyone knows what a laser is, even if they couldn’t explain it technically. A laser is a beam of light, but light that’s been altered for very special properties, most of which we’re aware of. A laser beam is often called coherent light. If you light a flashlight in the dark, light bursts from the bulb in an ever-widening cone, which, because the light spreads out over distance, gets “weaker” the further away from the light (or power) source. So while a flashlight is great for rummaging around in a darkened car for beer money, it’s not so good for checking out owls in a tree a hundred feet away.

Stars are really just the same (though they produce a lot more “kinds” of light than a flashlight bulb does, or even the bulbs we use in our homes, as any pot grower can tell you: you need special bulbs that produce more kinds of light to grow weed) only further away. There are stars that are so much more massive than our sun, trying to grasp the scales is almost (but not entirely) impossible. They are also orders of magnitude (each order is roughly 10 times larger than the previous order. 100 is an order of magnitude larger than 10. 1000 is two orders of magnitude larger than 10.) brighter than our sun, but because they are so far away, they look dim. We only get a little bit of the light they produced. All the rest has spread out to other parts of the universe, just like our flashlight has spread its light out all over the trees, so only a little bit falls on the owl we’re looking for.

Now, as anyone who’s risked their parent’s ire by snaking their mom’s magnifying class knows, it is possible to take some of that light, and reverse the spread. Light’s pretty flexible, really, even if trying to define what it is essentially is an astoundingly difficult task conceptually (which is why we won’t here). Light bends, and pretty darn easily at that. Light bends (and slows down!) a little when it passes through our atmosphere, or through glass, or quite a bit when it passes through water (rainbows another day, I promise). Have a properly shaped piece of glass, and you can bend light so it “spreads” the opposite way, or concentrates it (only to a point though. You’re just changing the direction light travels, and even through a magnifying glass it will spread out again). Trust me kids, it’s worth the spanking to wander around outside with a magnifying glass on a clear summer day. It’s amazing the power such a small amount of light has. Curiously, I’ve only ever known boys who turn this power onto ants, or caterpillars, wielding the fiery power of destruction upon them in a disturbing bit of megalomania. Interesting.

I suspect it might have been this kind of not-so-charming experiment that set the mental gears of some pre-pubescent scientists spinning, setting them to wonder if there was a way to keep light concentrated. Indeed, it is possible!

I’ll spare you the physics of lasers, if only because I’m still working through them, and haven’t gotten to the point of confidently being able to translate them easily. But we do know it’s possible to concentrate light so that it doesn’t spread out like regular light (at least, not to the same extent that regular light does. I’m simplifying here to an almost ridiculous degree, but at the same time, one doesn’t need to know the physics, and chemistry [nearly the same thing] of mixed and heated eggs, flour, sugar, and milk to enjoy cake). We’re surrounded by lasers.

Laser light’s applications all depend on how much power is put behind them. Very weak (low power) laser light can be used to send data through fiber optic cables when it’s pulsed, or send cats into a wild frenzy if jiggled on a wall. It can be reflected in certain ways, and read to encode music, or movies. It can also be given a tremendous amount of power to weld metals together, or slice cleanly through them. Even if we likely will never run into a cutting laser, we know they exist, and it’s the cutting power of lasers (whether through automotive steel, or the hulls of alien starships) that makes using a laser to replace stitches so counter-intuitive.

Lasers are already widely used in medical procedures, from use as precise scalpels in non-invasive surgeries (snake a small tube fitted with a laser into a little hole in the body, and a surgeon can make internal incisions deep within the body without cutting a person wide open) to cutting and reshaping the eye to improve vision. But laser have always been used for cutting tissue. It makes no sense that you could “weld” or “solder” biological tissue with one. Apparently, it does.

Since 1994, teams from Tel Aviv University have been researching lasers for just such a counter-intuitive use. The terms welding and soldering are also surprisingly accurate. To one degree or another, lasers generate heat (it’s energy, after all), and it appears that precisely controlling this heat has surprising effects on different kinds of tissue. At carefully controlled temperatures, certain tissues actually weld together, though on the abstract I found from Tel Aviv U, they admitted that the biological mechanisms responsible are “not fully understood.” Soldering requires the presence of a biological medium (albumin was mentioned specifically. This is an umbrella term for any water-soluble protein. Egg whites contain certain kinds of albumin. I wonder if the soldering process is akin to making a fried egg on a cut?) introduced to the cut, which under the right temperatures welds the edges of the tissues together.

This has awesome implications. The team claims that this method dramatically reduces scarring, is easier to learn that suturing, and can reduce infection as no foreign bodies are introduced (such as a needle and thread), and because it forms a watertight seal. They do admit some technical challenges, the most daunting being that the temperatures have to be calculated precisely for each and every procedure, but experience will build a database to write software based upon it, so computers could likely determine that in the future. Really, how cool is this?

Imagine the lives that could be saved by repairing internal hemorrhaging without slicing open the torso. The risk of infection reduced to negligible concern, recovery times measured in hours instead of days or weeks, and scarring from “major” surgery reduced from a throat to navel scar to two or three mere pinprick-sized holes. The need to stock closets of suturing supplies reduced, the amount of antibiotics reduced, and especially the amount of pain medication radically reduced. I’ve long advocated that reducing the cost of health care will be done via technology (and elimination of needless insurance), not by socializing it to artificially control its cost. Case in point!

It may be such that one day, every home medical kit will have a little wand that moms wave over scraped knees, and other boo boos, and kids will watch fascinated, tears forgotten, as their wounds close up like magic. No more need for antibiotic ointments, or ripping off band aids in teeth-grinding anticipation. It may, sadly, deprive scab-pickers of their vocation, however. How one evaluates that loss is decidedly personal. What I still wonder, however, is when doctors will start wearing the silver jumpsuits. Probably the same day they use their personal jet-packs to fly into work.

Links for more information:
This has a short video giving you the bare bones.
This is the abstract from Tel Aviv University. More technical, but just general enough.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Skeptical Sunday

Working on one right now. Hope to get it posted while it's technically still Sunday. Let me ask my readers, which is basically you, Gretchen, are there any subjects you'd like me to tackle, something near and dear to your hearts?