Can we delay death with tech? These advances hold promise.

3D-printed organs. Handheld ultrasounds. Nanobots that crawl your blood vessels to destroy plaque. This is the not-so-distant future of medicine.

By Michael F. Roizen, M.D., Peter Linneman
Published 22 Mar 2023, 09:48 GMT
Heart surgery on humans will one day be revolutionized through using tiny robots to crawl our ...
Heart surgery on humans will one day be revolutionized through using tiny robots to crawl our arteries and remove plaque.
Photograph by Illustration via PIXOLOGICSTUDIO, Science Photo Library

You already have a good idea of how a heart attack happens: Plaque builds up in the walls of your arteries, acting like a roadblock as it narrows those pathways and disrupting blood flow. Ultimately, the arteries narrow so much that the heart can’t get enough blood. Oxygen is cut off, resulting in a heart attack or stroke.

We have a number of ways to treat heart attacks, by clearing or rerouting the arteries through stents or bypasses. But those methods come with a heavy cost: catheterisation, open-heart surgery, extensive rehab, a compromised circulatory system. But new technologies—such as plaque-removing nanobots—are being discovered that will ultimately help us to live longer, healthier lives.

Here are a few in development and in our future.

In this computer simulation, a nanorobot in a blood vessel finds plaque and removes it.
In this computer simulation, a nanorobot in a blood vessel finds plaque and removes it.
Photograph by Illustration by Volodymyr Horbovyy, iStock, Getty Images Plus

Organ or tissue regeneration

A Harvard professor is working on a technique that would allow the ACL (a ligament in the knee) to heal on its own, rather than via replacement with a tendon from another person or animal, or from another part of your body.

This technique involves inserting an hourglass-shaped sponge filled with the patient’s blood and growth factors and reactivated stem cells to act as a bridge between the two torn pieces. The bridge parts grow and reconnect the tear, so you don’t have to go through an intrusive repair using other soft tissue.

The implications here go beyond simply improving sports performance; the procedure might also help reduce the incidence of later-life arthritis that often follows current ACL repairs.

This knee has undergone several anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction, with surgical screws hold the ligament ...
This knee has undergone several anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction, with surgical screws hold the ligament graft. Someday we might be able to use our bodies ingredients to grow new ligaments without having to use an implant.
Photograph by Petershort, Getty Images

Artificial organs

We may be inching closer to what might be considered the gold standard of longevity advances: a genetically regenerated heart or artificial heart. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic believe that if they had unlimited dollars, they could be less than three years away from growing a heart and inserting it into humans.

Science and technology will revolutionize our ability to live longer, younger, and better. So says The ...
Science and technology will revolutionize our ability to live longer, younger, and better. So says The Great Age Reboot: Cracking the Longevity Code for a Younger Tomorrow, written by Michael Roizen with Peter Linneman and Albert Ratner. Published in September by National Geographic, it is available where books are sold.

We’re already sort of seeing this happen with the work on 3D printed organs—producing mechanisms and materials that can function like tissue (even lung-like tissues, which develop COVID-19 like real lungs do and so can be used to study potential treatments and antivirals). An Australian company recently developed a robotic device that prints a person’s own skin cells, which could be used to repair skin damage from wounds or burns.

Just imagine a computer code for all your body parts stored in the cloud—and you could use that information to create 3D-printed versions that could be swapped in as necessary. Cut that bone cancer out and replace the bone in question with a new version of equal shape, size, and strength and with the same connections to ligaments, joints, and other bones. That could be possible within 10 years. 

Protein manipulation

What if you could engineer an organ or body part to regrow, or could manipulate the way the body normally works? In Korea, for example, researchers are testing anti-ageing drugs that alter the activity of proteins in roundworm cells; they work by telling the body to convert sugar into energy when cellular energy is running low. The lucky worms got a life span boost with this technology. 

Fix-it tools

A good way to think about how technological advances can benefit longevity is to consider how far we’ve come in the area of heart valves, which wear out over time. About 10 percent of people 85 to 95 years of age (and more for people older) will have to have valves repaired or replaced, while 25 percent of people over 65 already have some kind of change in the function of the valves.

The procedure to replace valves used to involve open-heart surgery, which, because it required stopping the heart and using a pump to circulate your blood, carried grave risk. Six months after open heart-valve surgery, 17 percent of patients had a decline in mental function.

Today, minimally invasive surgery can replace a valve by feeding it into the heart through a blood vessel. Granted, it’s still heart surgery, so it’s still serious, but this common procedure allows a much faster recovery period.

We’ll need to replace many more valves if people live 20 to 30 years longer, so it’s good news that the science of replacement seems to be getting ahead of our ageing.

High-tech toys

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, updated technology, improved data collection, and the like will also be game changers in how we think about our health—and what we can do. We already have apps that can connect us to doctors for immediate consultations—telemedicine, essential during the COVID-19 shutdown. These apps allow remote medical care, which was previously impossible.

But what happens when next-gen technology takes hold? Better collection of data could lead to better development of drugs. Wearable technology could not just track what you’ve done but predict your future. Artificial intelligence could predict that a valve will wear out before it causes you any problem. More accessible diagnostics could mean delaying problems down the road.

A Yale genetics researcher has developed a handheld ultrasound device. While it doesn’t quite have the high definition of the £81,000 ultrasound machine, the £1,630 device could make scanning easy and common for wellness visits. Such scanning should help doctors know on whom to push prevention or who to motivate to make healthier choices.

Delaying death, for sale

We will see explosive growth in all corners of the tech industry. A recent report from CNBC said that the “delaying death” market is expected to grow to £480 billion with emphases on such things as big data, artificial intelligence, gene editing, food engineering, and cure-diseases medications (called “moonshot medicine”).

And while the initial costs of these “delaying death” breakthroughs will be high, as with past innovations, their real cost will fall rapidly over time. What was once science fiction becomes an expensive reality, then ultimately an easily affordable, widespread practice.

These changes will extend our healthy life span, improve the quality of life from middle age onward, and most likely at least double our prime years. We may not end up with one magic pill or one-stop shop for living younger longer, but all of these advances combined will contribute to a 360-degree approach to longevity.

You never know what new technology or which new development will be the one that will save or change your life—and help you be younger today and down the road.


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