Medicine is one of the most rapidly-evolving fields in science, with big research budgets and hugely important outcomes. If you’re thinking you might be interested in a career in medicine or related research careers, here are some of the latest concepts you could end up being involved in.
This might seem like something from science fiction, but the use of robotics and artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly important to the medical field. From robots that can perform complex surgery with even more precision and steadiness than an experienced surgeon, to prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by their wearers’ thoughts, the possibilities are still be discovered. There’s also the possibility of micro- and nano-robots that could work together to fix problems inside the body. Although this might sound like there’s less work to do for humans, these programmes and robots all have to be designed and (mostly) controlled by humans. Additionally, there’s so much more to be understood about the workings of both robotics and the human body before such devices can become truly mainstream.
One of medicine’s hottest topics, stem cells seem to have been constantly in the news over the last few years. But how much are we actually able to use them in medicine, and where are they heading in the future? Essentially, stem cells are cells that haven’t yet differentiated, or become a specific type of cell, and so they have the ability to become various different types of cells. This is exciting for medicine, because if we could control what stem cells become, then we could use them to replace or renew damaged cells, tissue or organs. So far, there are a few stem cell therapies that seem to be effective, including treatment for blood cell diseases and tissue grafts that can help with healing bone, skin and eye injuries. However, there’s a lot of dubious stem cell therapies out there, so there’s a long way to go both in stem cell research, and in the public understanding of what is actually available.
An exciting area that medicine is already beginning to move towards is the idea that we should stop treating people using a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Personalised medicine involves looking at various factors, including genetics, to determine exactly what treatment is best for each situation. More and more evidence is coming out suggesting that typical medical advice is often not ideal for all people. For example, many drugs work differently between men and women, even down to what time of day medication should be taken. Indeed, there is a particular issue around the fact that most medical trials are carried out on only one set of people, and this means that researchers can miss the varying effects that medication might have on people of different sexes, races and genetic makeup. With the advent of easier and cheaper genome sequencing, doctors could start to look at a patient’s genetics when determining the best course of treatment for them, using a wide range of data and information. Additionally, wearable technology now means that we (and our doctors) can get an accurate idea of health information like how much exercise we do each week.
the first case of someone with an infection that couldn’t be treated with even last-resort antibiotics
If you’ve been keeping up with health news over the last few years, you’ll have noticed increasing concerns around the availability of antibiotics. Over time, bacteria can evolve and adapt to be “immune” to normal antibiotics, and recently we hit the first case of someone with an infection that couldn’t be treated with even last-resort antibiotics. So it’s incredibly important that medical researchers look for both new antibiotics, and alternative treatments. Some research is focussing on methods that can inhibit certain features of bacteria, allowing the antibiotics to do their work. Other scientists are working on finding antibiotics that work in new ways to decrease the likelihood of bacteria becoming antibiotic-resistant. Other techniques are finding ways to use viruses against bacteria, or to use the bacteria’s own immune system against itself. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the biggest worries in healthcare right now, so we’re likely to find that it will continue to be one of biomedical science’s biggest focuses in the coming years. Alongside the new technology, it’s also crucial that industries using antibiotics such as healthcare or agriculture become far more careful about how, and how much, they use or prescribe antibiotics when not absolutely necessary.
CRISPR is short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (not the catchiest name), which are sequences of genetic code that bacteria essentially use as an immune system to defend themselves against viruses. Normally they’re used by bacteria to switch off targeted genes, but by modifying the sequences, scientists can actually use them to activate the expression of certain genes. By doing this, medical researchers can target specific areas of a genome for editing, with the potential of huge advances in treating genetic diseases. In addition, a better understanding of CRISPR could help with diagnostics – finding out which diseases are present in patients. Not only could CRISPR be used to correct genetic “errors”, it could also be used to actively fight against disease-causing microbes, as mentioned above in antibiotic alternatives. Interestingly, it might also have lots of applications in agriculture, creating foods that could keep us all healthier. Some scientists have even been looking at ways to use CRISPR to edit the genes of mosquitos, reducing the spread of some tropical diseases, although serious care needs to be taken when it comes to using genetics like this to avoid causing harm to delicate ecosystems.
These are just a few of the ways we might see medicine changing dramatically in the near future, and there’s plenty of other areas that researchers are also looking into. With technology, social media and big data, the way doctors communicate with and diagnose us might look completely different, but there are concerns around data usage and a loss of face-to-face medical care. The availability of genetic testing kits might mean we take more ownership of our own genes and healthcare, but there are already cases of people being led astray by confusing results they aren’t qualified to understand. Whatever the future of medicine holds, there’s certainly going to be a huge variety of work that will need to be carried out, from biomedical research, to data processing, to healthcare and science policy. Perhaps you might find yourself getting involved with the next big steps in medicine.