The problem with the future is that it's always another day away. We're bombarded with tantalizing glimpses of incredible medical and scientific breakthroughs, always just around the corner.
But the truth is that many of these technologies are moving off the drawing board and into the concrete testing phase. In some cases, they're even being tested on human beings in late-stage clinical trials.
More than that, each piece of technology here is ready to move out of the realm of research institutions, government grants, and private equity... and into the publicly traded arena.
"Printed" organs: Even today, organ transplantation and replacement is a dicey proposition. There are stringent criteria for organ waiting lists, leaving some out in the cold. And once a patient receives a transplanted organ, after a donor dies or goes under the knife, that patient must take powerful immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.
In short, it's an imperfect solution. But 3D printing, which has already begun to revolutionize manufacturing, may be the solution.
Currently, 3D printing makes prototypes in metal and polymer, but recent advances in cell culturing mean that a "prototype" can be made of cells. A patient's own stem cells could be programmed to develop into liver cells, for instance, and those liver cells can be "printed" in a soup and developed into a laboratory-grown liver, ready for implantation.
All at a stroke, waiting lists and the risks of organ rejection are done away with, replaced by a theoretically limitless supply of tailor-made organs. Beyond the vital, lifesaving potential of these organs, 3D printing will allow functional human organs to be studied and worked on by medical students, giving these doctors-in-training a real edge over their predecessors.
In fact, 3D printing technology is going to have near-limitless spinoffs in these new medical and technological applications. It will act as a wellspring for many novel techniques.
The Six Hundred Dollar Man: Beyond organ transplantation and replacement, there exists the possibility of healing deafness and blindness.
A Johns Hopkins/Princeton team has only recently created a fully functional, working bionic ear, and with relatively inexpensive materials. The ear itself is made of 3D microdroplet-printed stem cells developed into skin and cartilage, just like the homemade version.
The truly interesting technology comes into play for the auditory sensing capability - the properties that make the ear "hear" and transmit impulses to the brain. A 3D printable plastic has been used to create a piezoresistive sensor that changes resistance when bent or vibrated or otherwise stressed.
These impulses closely mimic how our own ears turn vibration into sensory input. The next step is how to "wire" the device directly into the brain. The challenge facing the team is how to create a cellular matrix that remains stable over time, and how to adapt the grown ear for blood supply and enervation.
Test tubebeef: That's right, they've put Ol' Bossie in a test tube.
Next week in London, the world's first test-tube beef burger will be cooked - and perhaps eaten - before an audience. This is not from the 99-Cent Value Menu - this burger has an estimated cost of $384,000.
The burger itself will be made from over 3,000 rice-sized "grains" of test tube beef made from the stem cells of a cow slaughtered long ago. In vitro beef currently costs a gut-busting $1 million per pound to produce. The six-figure slider is really meant to act as a proof of concept, to show that it is possible to grow, process, and consume the lab-grown meat.
There is a significant amount of niche research being done to learn how to control cholesterol and fat content, as well as to tweak the nutrient composition of the meat. The benefits, if humans were to master this process, would be incredible.
There would be no need, for instance, of large factory farms or land-clearing, no need to feed the cows. The risk of foodborne illnesses like e. coli and salmonella would decrease so much as to be practically meaningless.
Test tube meat could be one method for feeding the world's hungry nutritious food at a cheap cost - once the economies of scale take over. For the rest of us, it could mean delicious, healthy beef, 100% guilt-free. Eventually, science will be able to grow, for whatever reason, nearly any animal's muscle tissue.
Lung Cleaning Service: Human lungs are among the most difficult to transplant. The waiting list is long, the diseases necessitating lung transplants are severe, and the operation is difficult.
Too often, when a candidate lung becomes available, the lung is damaged by whatever disease or injury took the life of the donor. Out of 100,000 on the waiting list in any given year, just 1,800 transplants are performed.
But a new technique could potentially slash the rolls of those waiting for the transplant procedure. Ex vivo lung perfusion... In layman's terms, this means removing the donor lungs, scrubbing them of infection and damage and proceeding with transplantation.
During the process, a patented blend of fluids is pumped through the lungs, keeping them nourished and supplied with oxygen. If necessary, powerful medications are pumped into infected areas, knocking out anything that could be transmitted to the recipient.
This four- to six-hour process will dramatically increase the available supply of lungs for transplant. It is thought that more than 40% of lungs that would have been rejected before will be made available. This revolutionary technique is already approved in Canada and the European Union, and a massive, multi-center clinical trial is underway in the United States.
Synthetic vaccines: It's easy to make the case that vaccines are the most important medical breakthrough of the past 200 years. Diseases that used to stalk humanity, killing millions, are a thing of the past.
Polio, smallpox, even rabies, are all rapidly diminishing threats - if they haven't been completely eradicated thanks to vaccines.
But in our world, viruses are continually evolving; new threats emerge for which new defenses must be found. Most vaccines require at least some form of the virus that they're intended to fight, either live or inert, and this can pose a risk.
Although it's worked splendidly these past two centuries, there is a better way. Fortunately, medical science is, for the present, right on the curve. A new field of vaccine research has yielded man-made proteins - synthetic vaccines.
Scientists subject these proteins to evolutionary pressures not necessarily found in nature in hopes that they can be tailor-made to fight a virus.
Last year, researchers tested synthetic protein EP67 on mice, and found that the protein killed influenza - if administered within 24 hours of initial exposure. This is a wide-open field with tremendous potential to fight influenza, HIV/AIDS, hantavirus -- even the common cold.
Before too long, these marvels not only will let you live longer, but also give you an opportunity to invest in the companies bringing them to market.