Modern medicine

By Rachel Eldred

Modern medicine
As the prevalence of some diseases rise and other conditions fall back, MiNDFOOD finds out what you need to know and looks at the new technologies in medicine.

The good news is, since 2003 the number of people with coronary heart disease, stroke, anxiety and depression has dwindled, and the number is expected to continue to fall as we head towards 2023. The bad news? Diabetes and dementia are on the rise. Cancer, too. Type 2 diabetes, in particular, is on a sharp incline. Greg Johnson, CEO of Diabetes Australia, describes it as an epidemic.

“In Australia, type 2 diabetes prevalence doubles about every five to seven years,” he says. Diabetes, types 1 and 2, is also seen as an epidemic in New Zealand, with 50 people diagnosed with diabetes each day.

As the baby boomer generation ages, it’s no surprise that there is an anticipated increase in dementia, a term for a decline in mental ability that interferes with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type. The Australian government has made dementia a national health priority, and in New Zealand cases are expected to double every 20 years.

In 2012, the European Union awarded neuroscientist Henry Markram 1 billion to build a simulation of the human brain over the next 10 years, which anticipates new treatments for brain diseases.

Meanwhile, forecasts show an increase in cancer cases up until 2036, yet it is less of a death sentence today than it was 40 years ago. That trend looks set to continue, with prevention a top priority. This  includes a sustained focus on early detection, improved treatments and education.

Heart disease is still a prevalent issue, though we can expect to see more debate on its cause. On Australian TV show Catalyst recently, Dr Maryanne Demasi challenged the view that saturated fat causes heart disease by raising cholesterol. In the United States, heart surgeon Dwight Lundell has asserted, “The discovery a few years ago that inflammation in the artery wall is the real cause of heart disease is slowly leading to a paradigm shift in how heart disease and other chronic ailments will be treated.”

One of the more fascinating developments in modern medicine is the use of robotics for surgery. In Australia and New Zealand, the Da Vinci surgical system is used for urology procedures.

In August 2013, the first robotic hysterectomy via single site incision in the southern hemisphere was performed at Westmead Private Hospital in Sydney; the procedure was less invasive with a reduced recovery time. The cost of robotic surgery is still prohibitive, but over time we can expect to see more robotic procedures performed.

Expect to hear more about regenerative medicine, which allows damaged human tissue and organs to be repaired and/or replaced by engineering cells.

At a TED talk in 2011, surgeon Anthony Atala showed how a 3D printer could use living cells to create a transplantable kidney. Though still some way off from clinical use of the “transplantable kidney”, Atala introduced Luke Massella, recipient of an engineered bladder.

Thinking machines

In 1964, popular science fiction writer Isaac Asimov penned a piece for The New York Times, where he envisaged a visit to the World’s Fair of 2014. He wrote: “The IBM exhibit at the present [1964] fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers which are shown in all their amazing complexity … If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence?”

Fifty years hence and machines have revolutionised the way we work, the way we communicate, even the way we think, but they still haven’t taken over the world – no matter what you may think of the “robotic” performances of some of our politicians.

The small, handheld devices that many of us carry have enabled us to outsource our minds, with instant access to whatever we need to know right in the palms of our hand.

Our modern-day machines can provide wonderful support, but can they offer companionship, empathy, intimacy and love?

In a TED talk in February 2012, Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaks about “sociable robots” that are designed to be companions.

Turkle tells how she undertook research in nursing homes, bringing in these robots for the elderly.  “One day I came in and a woman who had lost a child was talking to a robot in the shape of a baby seal…” she says. “It comforted her and many people found this amazing, but that woman was trying to make sense of her life with a machine that had no experience of the arc of a human life … People experience pretend empathy as though it were the real thing … [but] as that woman took comfort in her robot companion I didn’t find it amazing … I felt myself at the cold, hard centre of a perfect storm: we expect more from technology and less from each other.”

Asimov wrote, “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

Yet as much as we’ve hoped for a robot that can assist with housework, it has yet to materialise in any big way. Japan has developed a robot maid that can wash your clothes and vacuum, but the developers say it will be another decade or two before it can be mass produced.


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