Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fantastic Voyage?

Fantastic Voyage - nearing reality
 I've not been able to resist comparing the technological breakthrough announced by a London-based research team with the classic Sci-Fi movie Fantastic Voyage.

Now August is known in media circles as the silly season - just when journalists are desperate for a story about an amazing medical breakthrough.

So there is a danger we grab at any breaking story and hype it up. How significant is the news from London?

Well it's still a long way from the 1966 movie, which starred Raquel Welch.The movie and a later movie inspired by it Innerspace involved the miniaturisation of human beings in their physical form. Nobody believes that will ever be possible.

magnetised stem cellBut it's a big step towards the dream. The dream is that doctors will one day be able to board a vessel and navigate inside the human body to make repairs at cellular and atomic level.

They have been getting progressively closer, using wires and fibre optic cables. What's been done now doesn't involve wires and is much smaller in scale. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre - that's one millionth of a millimetre. So in laboratory conditions, doctors have successfully injected individual cells - stem cells - and guided them to a specific destination.

The technique has been tested as a treatment for the arteries but it is also the ultimate destination for cancer researchers - the possibility of planting drugs directly inside a cancer or directly on a cancerous cell circulating in the blood stream.

According to  Professor Quentin Pankhurst, of the London Centre for Nanotechnology: “Magnetic particles have been used as MRI contrast agents for more than a decade, and are both safe and convenient for use in the body.

"Using them as tags on cells and using external magnets to capture them in the bloodstream is, however, an entirely new prospect which may open the door to many new possibilities for targeted cell and drug delivery.”

So the new technique gives doctors a way of steering the craft, the Proteus, in the movie. It doesn't yet give them an improved way of piloting it ie a new set of eyes within the body.

But it's now possible to think of the Fantastic Voyage taking place through VR ie that a doctor will sit in a cabin manipulating cells, drugs and minuscule surgical tools within the body. It may not be long coming!

Here's the Englemed report on the research.

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