The Future Now

Story: Kara Pound | Photography: Chris Redd

In 1816, French physician Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope. The 1920s saw a development of vaccines for Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tuberculosis and Tetanus among other diseases. In 1963, American Thomas Starzl performed the first human liver transplant. And the 1980s witnessed tissue engineering, laser cataract surgery and DNA fingerprinting.

Over the past two centuries, advances in medicine and medical technology have changed our quality of life. With the help of doctors, medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies, Americans are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the average expected human life span of an average male is currently around 76 years old and the average female is a little over age 81. An increase from the 1970’s average of 67 (male) and 75 (female) – no doubt due to advances in the medical field.

In thinking about the past, one can only wonder what additional medical advances the future holds. Will cloning take the place of gestation? Will bionic arms become commonplace prosthetics? Will we all have microchips implanted in our wrists that act like an all-in-one debit card and Smartphone?

Only time will tell. In the mean time, there are many exciting and unique (and sometimes futuristic sounding) medical advancements that are happening right now.

One is the bionic eye. Last year, an American company named Second Sight received FDA approval to begin marketing a bionic eye called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. Essentially, it’s an implantable intraocular (meaning inside the eye) device that allows images from glasses with a built-in camera to be converted into electrical impulses and then wirelessly sent to the implanted device.

“The device then stimulates the eye to send a signal along the visual pathway of the brain, so that the brain can transform the signal into visual images or patterns,” explains Seaborn M. Hunt III MD, a Board Certified Ophthalmologist specializing in advanced laser cataract surgery with astigmatism correction and premium multifocal lens implants.

Hearing the term “bionic eye” conjures pop culture references such as Steve Austin in “The Six Million Dollar Man” or even the movie “The Terminator.” But this is far from the truth.

“Those bionic eyes had normal video images with zoom capabilities and informational data screens; doing much more that a normal eye could possibly do,” says Dr. Hunt, an Ocala native who established his private ophthalmology practice here in 2001 and performs surgery and surgical consultation for numerous other practices in the area, explains.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, today’s version of the bionic eye, instead takes the image from the camera and creates an electrical stimulus that the eye then sends to the brain, and, in return, the brain perceives patterns of light that the patients must ‘learn to interpret’ as visual patterns.

“The patient does not really see a true object image as a normal eye does,” says Dr. Hunt. “A normal optic nerve may have over a million nerve fibers, and the ‘bionic eye’ is only stimulating a small cluster of these nerves.”

So what does this really mean? Is it a cure for blindness? Will it restore sight to the visually impaired? Unfortunately, not exactly. A Smithsonian Magazine article titled, “7 Medical Advances to Watch in 2014,” explains:  

“This doesn’t restore what would be considered normal vision, but it allows people with the disorder retinitis pigmentosa to identify objects, and even perceive color. Researchers believe that these types of implants may one day be able to restore some level of sight to people with macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the U.S.”

Dr. Hunt feels that even though the bionic eye is considered “advanced technology” and that the results are a “very crude pattern of light and not a true image,” everything – even new ways to see – has to start somewhere.

“As with most technology, it may start slowly but then can snowball quickly into seeing much better and more efficient,” he says. “I think we stand to learn a lot from the patients that have this implanted device and how they adapt. That will help guide future product developments.”

So just how quickly will Ocala be embracing this new technology? Not any time soon according to Dr. Hunt who says that there are only 12 centers in the United States that have been approved to begin recruiting patients for the device; the closest being in Miami and Atlanta.

There are dozens of advances in the medical industry that are creating headlines around the globe. Another one to have a big impact in 2014 is 3D printing, a process for making three-dimensional objects through additive processes in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control.

According to the Smithsonian article, “Last year Cornell scientists printed out an artificial outer ear that looks and works like the real thing. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and M.I.T. have used printers to produce blood vessels, while scientists at Wake Forest have developed a way to print skin cells directly on to wounds.”

There’s also gene therapy where a person’s genes are actually re-engineered to fight diseases and then put back into the back. Though considered experimental, gene therapy has shown effectiveness in treating patients with leukemia and other blood cancers.

Then there’s the full face transplant. Only three years have passed since the first full face transplant was performed and the surgery is still extremely rare. But that isn’t stopping scientists, medical researchers and physicians from undertaking a procedure that seemed impossible just a decade ago.

Another new and exciting advance in the medical field is called cancer immunotherapy, which essentially means harnessing the body’s own immune system to help fight cancer. Science magazine even chose the treatment technique as Breakthrough of the Year for 2013.

“Cancer is like a gang who is trying to take over a town,” Maen Abdelkarim Hussein MD says of one of the major leading causes of death in the United States. “Your immune system is your police or army. The cancer tries every way possible to disguise, corrupt or weaken it, and immunotherapy is like trying to fix this and reverse it.”

Board Certified in Medical Oncology, Hematology and Internal Medicine, Dr. Hussein currently practices at the Tavares, Villages East, Leesburg and Ocala locations of Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute. He is a leading authority on cutting edge treatments – participating in numerous trials through his practice as well as the Sarah Cannon Research Institute.

In expanding on his “cops vs. gangs” analogy, Dr. Hussein explains that the gangs (or cancer) are consistently trying to evade the cops (the immune system) by tricking them into taking a donut break or covering their eyes with special glasses that make it hard to identify the gang members.

“How do we overcome this?” Dr. Hussein asks. “We take off those glasses or take away the doughnuts so that the cops can be strong again and take care of business. Another way to accomplish this is to give the police some specialized training in fighting a particular gang.”

This specialized training, says Dr. Hussein, comes in the form of immunotherapy. “Training the police is like the T cell being genetically modified to target certain cancers. Similar to that is the vaccine Provenge [only FDA approved immunotherapy for advanced prostate cancer], which gets the immune system exposed to a cancer gene and activates it and then gives it back to the patient.”

According to Nature, an international weekly journal of science, “Cancer immunotherapy was born in 1891, when a New York surgeon named William Coley began injecting bacteria into patients’ tumors in the hope of triggering an immune response to the infection that would also attack the tumor.”

So does immunotherapy work? And if it’s been around for so long, how come it hasn’t been perfected?

“It does work,” says Dr. Hussein. “I think it still needs a lot of tuning.” This, he explains, is because a drawback of immunotherapy is that the immune system in a cancer patient can become too strong and cause immune system overactivity where the body attacks and damages its own tissues (autoimmune disease).

But while immunotherapy is still in its infancy, Dr. Hussein says, “the future is bright. I think the future of cancer therapy is to enhance the immune system and to find the driver for the cancer cell [target] and block it. Each cancer has some mutant protein factors that keep it alive and make it malignant. That’s what we need to control.”

As far as a medical advancement like immunotherapy creating buzz in the local community, that’s already happening. Florida Cancer Specialists is currently offering clinical trials with immunotherapy for different types of cancer at a few of the practice’s near-by locations. They’re also conducting dozens of other clinical trials in cancer research prior to medication being approved by the FDA.

“Cancer can be a debilitating disease,” Dr. Hussein admits. “We are coming closer to better managing and controlling it. At FCS we treat every patient with a personalized care path, because each cancer patient has different needs depending on how their disease presents.”

These are just a few of the exciting advances in medical technology and treatment techniques to create a buzz in 2014. From full face transplants and gene therapy to a retinal prosthesis system that stimulates the eye to send a signal along the visual pathway of the brain, what once seemed out of grasp or even futuristic is becoming a reality in medicine.

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