If you grew up reading science fiction from the golden era of pulp and wide-eyed planetary optimism, then you've no doubt noticed that you are more or less already living in the shining future those authors wrote about. We ended up with computing power and biotechnology far beyond their imagining rather than near-free energy and space travel, but the results are just as impressive. On the whole we're better off with the direction taken by reality over fiction: massive low cost energy generation and distribution technologies wouldn't do anything to slow down the aging process.
Following the latest cancer research news, I'm generally struck by just how much a lot of it sounds like the engineer-oriented science fiction inventions of yesteryear. For example, researchers can now place homing nanoparticles in the brain that destroy tumor tissue - and only tumor tissue - when heated by low-intensity radiation beams. Scientists can also also filter out metastatic cancer cells from the bloodstream using a range of techniques. Neither of these approaches would look out at all out of place in a Lensman novel. But nonetheless here we are:
In an article published in the January issue of the journal Nanomedicine, the researchers suggested the use of an outside-the-body filtration device to remove a large portion of the free-floating cancer cells that often create secondary tumours. The scientists have formed a startup company and are working with a medical device firm to design a prototype treatment system that would use magnetic nanoparticles engineered to capture cancer cells. Added to fluids removed from a patient's abdomen, the magnetic nanoparticles would latch onto the free-floating cancer cells, allowing both the nanoparticles and cancer cells to be removed by magnetic filters before the fluids are returned to the patient's body.
Rice University bioengineers and physician-scientists at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have successfully destroyed tumors of human brain cancer cells in the first animal tests of a minimally invasive treatment that zaps glioma tumors with heat. The tests involved nanoshells, light-activated nanoparticles that are designed to destroy tumors with heat and avoid the unwanted side effects of drug and radiation therapies.
Gold nanoshells, which were invented by Rice researcher Naomi Halas in the mid-1990s, are smaller than red blood cells. Nanoshells are like tiny malted milk balls that are coated with gold rather than chocolate. Their core is nonconducting, and by varying the size of the core and thickness of the shell, researchers can tune them to respond to different wavelengths of light. Houston-based biomedical firm Nanospectra Biosciences, which holds the license for medical use of Rice's nanoshell technology, began the first human clinical trial of nanoshell phototherapy in 2008.
We no longer live in the world our parents grew up in, for all that it's easy to forget just how far medical science has progressed in our lifetimes. This progress is speeding up; the new and better is arriving ever faster. Somewhere out there in the future is a cancer with your name on it, and as we live ever longer thanks to other advances in medicine, it will become very important that the next generation of cancer therapies be made highly reliable and very safe.