Medical science has made some shocking developments in the past twenty years. For the first time, our technology is reaching the point where we have to question our moral right to "play God". It could even turn out that medical science will revolutionize the 21st century to the same degree that computer science revolutionized the 20th century. At the same time, present factors of society lay new challenges on the health care industry. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the frontiers being explored in the health care field as well as some new economic and political developments that affect the industry, and perhaps even forecast what kind of impact they will have on the health care careers of tomorrow.
Stem cells. Boy, does this topic raise some debate! Embryonic stem cells are looked to at least as a potential cure for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, and possibly other neurological disorders as well. But if we were to routinely start using stem cells as treatment, the moral implications would be that we are essentially aborting a fetus, taking one life to save another. Of course, stem cells aren't quite a fetus yet, and that's where the debate is raging in this gray area between what we know, what we think we know, and what we have yet to find out.
The scientific research of stem cells is currently hogtied by the political debate. The science is way ahead of the money, with research labs having a difficult time getting funding for such a controversial field. One thing many have pointed out is that no matter what laws the United States passes, some country, somewhere, will eventually start exploring the uses of stem cells anyway. That kind of forces our hand, reducing our choice to either leading the way in the field where we can at least establish oversight to apply standards to the research that we can all agree are fair, or be left out of the game and have to deal with developments in other countries that might be even less comfortable for us to deal with.
Stem cells can help sufferers of neurological disease by producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter whose deficiency in the brain is a symptom of diseases like Parkinson's. For that matter, stem cells can be encouraged to grow into fresh replacement brain cells altogether. That's just scratching the surface of what we can do with stem cells, and it's that potential power that makes some people nervous.
Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Vietnam veterans returned with their Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of Agent Orange. The first Iraq war gave us Gulf War Syndrome. Now with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq war number two, the health care field is holding it's collective breath waiting to see what impact the war will have on health care resources in the future. It is not a question of "if", but a question of "how much" and "how long".
Soldiers who have been exposed to depleted uranium in Iraq have already been diagnosed with cancer. Busloads of returning veterans are showing up at hospitals with psychological problems severe enough to pose a suicide risk. A comprehensive study done in 2004 estimates the likelihood of soldiers to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be 18% in the Iraq war and 11% in the Afghanistan war. In addition, PTSD is more likely to develop in repeated heavy combat exposure, and with the number of times soldiers have been sent home and called back we would be fooling ourselves if we expected them to survive without some stress damage.
Add to this a factor that munitions technology is constantly pushing forward, and Governments don't always have time to analyze the affects on soldier's health when they are exposed to chemicals and residue on the battle field. We may have just handed out health care system a bigger burden that it can handle, by the time the wars are over.
Microbubbles. Take any oily solution, froth it into a frappe with a high concentration of tiny bubbles, and inject those into your bloodstream. Now you hit them with ultrasound and a nearly perfect image of your internal organs will bounce back. Cleared by the FDA in the late 1990's for use in imaging applications, microbubbles are starting to be an attractive alternative to traditional methods of internal imaging, being both cheaper and faster than an MRI.
But wait, there's more. Researchers have discovered another use for microbubbles, as tiny little carriers for targeted doses of medicine. For instance, drugs can be delivered directly to a tumor using microbubbles; once at the target location, the microbubbles can be induced to pop, releasing their medicine payload and reducing the need to bombard the entire body with radioactive material, for instance. Sometimes it's the simple things that change our methods the most!
Medical marijuana. Separating ourselves from the image of hippies toking a bong-load, the active ingredient in marijuana is cannabinoids, which is a unique group of secondary metabolites found in the cannabis plant - which just happens to be where the plant's peculiar pharmacological effects come from. Cannabinoids have been explored here and there over the years, but recent research has produced a staggering array of applications.
Cannabinoids have potential to treat Alzheimer's disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, diabetes mellitus, dystonia, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal disorders, gliomas, hepatitis C, hypertension, incontinence, osteoporosis, pruritis, rheumatoid arthritis, sleep apnea, and Tourette's syndrome. More than the past meek suggestion by the scientific community that cannabis has some uses, it is rapidly becoming apparent that we may have been turning our backs on a miracle drug the entire time.
The autism epidemic. One of the most mysterious neurological disorders of recent times may have finally gotten a break. Research into the causes of autism has revealed some intriguing clues - if anything, autism may yet be a path to increasing our understanding of how the brain works. We already know that children with autism have characteristic abnormalities in the cerebellum, the brain structure responsible for coordinating complex voluntary muscle movements.
New research points to a possible culprit: a newly discovered class of nerve cells in the brain called mirror neurons. These neurons appear to be involved in mental functions such as empathy and the perception of another individual's intentions. It has been suggested that a dysfunction of the mirror neuron system could result in some of the symptoms of autism.
Autism has seen a sharp rise in the past two decades, but there exists the possibility that previous cases were simply undiagnosed. Moreover, there may be present misdiagnoses of autism where in fact there are other related disorders that only share some of the symptoms. Progress in this field is slow and tedious, but small amounts of progress are now at least providing some hope that we will eventually be better equipped to treat this disorder. Dare we even hope for an eventual cure?
Freelance writer for over eleven years.