Nandita Naik
Nandita Naik
Third Place, Grade 6-8, 50 Years of Engineering in Society Essay Contest, 2014
Los Altos, CA
Nano Warriors: The New Frontier in Health Engineering

The dilapidated door hangs in its frame as I stumble through it, blinking in the sunlight after spending hours indoors. Gazing around, I spy a droid wheeling by. Monorails whiz overhead, and chattering children tug avidly on their mother’s hand. Welcome to 2064.

In a world full of robots and a rapidly increasing human population, diseases are becoming harder to treat due to several antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. Frantic, doctors have struggled to keep up with the influx of patients, believing the engineering doctrines will come to their help. And they have. Let’s look at some ways in the past 100 years, from 1964 to 2064.

Since the early 20th century, engineering has heavily influenced health, pioneering some of the most successful inventions. In 1971, the first soft contact lenses were invented. Czech scientists Wichterle and Lim invented a hydrophilic gel, a polymer material compatible with living tissue, which allow more oxygen to reach the eye cornea than hard contact lenses do. A year later, the CT scan was developed, lauded as the most important development in medical filming since the X-ray. In the late 1970s, the arthroscope was introduced, which uses fiber-optics to give surgeons a look into joints and other surgical sites. This instrument has the diameter of a pencil, and has a small lens and light system, with a video camera at the other end. In 1981, MRI scanners were invented, which uses magnetic resonance to capture an image of the brain. In 1987, the French scientist named Benabid implanted a deep-brain electrical stimulation system into a patient with Parkinson’s disease. This system uses electrodes to stimulate the brain, and is used for the treatment of Parkinson’s and similar diseases when all oral medications fail.

Three years later, the Human Genome Project, a project to sequence the human genome and the three billion base pairs that make it up, was initiated. It has a tremendous impact on medication, introducing the concept of personalized medication. Someone may react well to a drug, and someone else may react poorly to a drug. Having your genome sequenced enables you to take the medication that will suit you the best.

Engineering has continued to help advance human wellness well into the 21st century. Tiny robots, called nanobots, have recently been adapted specifically for going into human bodies for routine checkups without damaging internal organs and without being rejected by the body. They are disguised as red blood cells, and navigate the bloodstream, heading directly to vital organs, such as the heart and lungs. When they reach the organ, they record its vitals, dispatching them directly to a human-operated control room. The control room detects whether any of the organs are impaired. If they are, the people determine which aspect is not functioning accurately. For example, say the alveoli in the lungs are not operating precisely. If the damage is repairable, like a disease, the virus will be driven out through sonar signals, since antibiotics do not work with these new strains of virii. The signals will be at the virus’s resonance frequency, and it will pass harmlessly through the organ, shattering the virus. Every surface has a resonance frequency, which makes it vibrate when the right pitch is played. If done correctly, the surface can shatter, much like a singer shattering a crystal glass. This technology which was developed a while ago is now being used to treat antibiotic-resistant viruses and prevent cancer. The nanobots can detect abnormal cell growth patterns before the actual tumor shows up, and can send out the correct resonance frequency to pulverize some of the cancerous cells, and alert human handlers who will encourage the person to change their habits to a more cancer-free diet and lifestyle.

Engineering will also affect neuroscience in the future. There is a debilitating disease called Alzheimer’s, where the elderly lose their memory and their brain degrades over time. There has been no cure for it. Until now. People who suspect they have Alzheimer’s can take a “brain dump”. A brain dump saves a model of the brain, complete with memories, skill and personality onto a disk. It uses the electrical impulses transmitted from neuron to neuron to record a firing pattern, a visual of your thoughts. People with Alzheimer’s can go to a neurologist, show them the disk, and the neurologist can make the neurons fire just like the disk copy says they should in order to help them regain memory, skill, and personality. To conduct an electrical signal, a neuron manipulates the charged ions on the inside and outside of the cell membrane. The axon is the part of the neuron which sends out electrical impulses. To rearrange the firing, the neurologist will insert a needle into your brain at specific places, intending to make the axon’s cell membrane more permeable. Then, charged sodium ions can enter, and the neurons will transmit electrical signals in the intended pattern. It is a long, arduous process, and needs to be repeated, but it can have a prominent effect. Researchers hope that someday, your great-great-great grandchild can pop a CD into a slot and have a conversation with “you”, even though your body is physically deceased.

I lean against a telephone pole, flipping through my email. My eyes grow wider as I look at my messages. The human control center had sent me a notice. The nanobots detected that I had picked up a fatal strain of tuberculosis from someone on the plane, and it was affecting my respiratory system. I wasn’t feeling anything yet, but I would very soon. The nanobots were battling it with its resonance frequency. I just thank my lucky stars that it had been caught early, since I could have died. I check my calendar on my smartphone and hurry off to my next meeting, knowing fully well by the time I go there, my disease will be gone. Thank you, engineering.