Techbeat: Medical technology

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 9th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

We live in a time where the pace of technological advancement seems almost overwhelming. From consumer products to transportation to information and communication—tech change touches every aspect of our daily lives. And it seems nowhere is this change more prevalent than in medicine.

REICHARD: WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane is here now to give us an update on three new medical applications.

So, Michael, what technologies are we going to talk about today?

MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: Well, I’ve chosen some medical applications in three very current and active technology fields: Artificial Intelligence, or AI, 3D printing and finally nanotechnology.

REICHARD: I think I know a bit about what AI is, and I’ve heard of 3D printing, but refresh us on what “nanotechnology” is.

COCHRANE: Right. Nanotechnology is a field of science and engineering that deals with materials at the molecular scale – less than 100 nanometers.

REICHARD: Now, of course, I know how small a nanometer is, but can you quantify that for us? Asking for a friend.

COCHRANE: It’s a billionth of a meter. If you think about a sheet of paper sitting on your desk—it’s about 100,000 nanometers thick.

REICHARD: Wow! So as long as we’re on this topic, tell us about the medical application for this.

COCHRANE: Sure. We all know that healthcare workers in hospitals and clinics these days typically wear short-sleeved uniforms called scrubs. The idea is to promote frequent hand washing and prevent long sleeves from passing germs. But what if the scrubs themselves had antibacterial properties that could prevent the spread of germs? Now some scientists in China have figured out a way to coat both cotton and polyester with microscopic particles of copper. That’s a metal with natural antibacterial properties.

REICHARD: Fascinating. But wouldn’t that make the garments kind of clunky and metallic?

COCHRANE: Not at all! The process takes place on such a small scale that it doesn’t affect the feel or quality of the finished material. In tests, it even survived more than 30 washings without losing its antibacterial properties.

REICHARD: OK, it seems like this could be useful for other industries as well – I’m thinking food handling.

COCHRANE: Absolutely! And the process is fairly mature and easily scalable, so I think we could see copper-impregnated clothing in the near future.

REICHARD: All right. What do you have next?

COCHRANE: Well, in June, a U.K.-based startup called Babylon Health announced it has developed an AI that is able to diagnose health issues as well as or better than a human doctor.

REICHARD: Sounds impressive, but you know I was raised by a doctor, so I’m a little bit skeptical. How did they document that?

COCHRANE: They had the AI take the final exam given to all medical students training to be general practitioners. The average pass rate for human doctors has been 72 percent and the AI scored 80 percent. The company expects the scores to get even higher as the AI accumulates more knowledge.

REICHARD: Wow. How did it learn the correct answers?

COCHRANE: The company trained it on a representative sample set of questions that test diagnostic skills taken from exam prep materials provided by the Royal College of General Practitioners.

REICHARD: How does this company hope to use this AI?

COCHRANE: The company’s founder and CEO, Dr. Ali Parsa, wants to put what he calls—quote—“accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth.” The World Health Organization estimates a shortage of over five million doctors globally. So having health assessment tools such as this could help millions in areas with limited medical services.

REICHARD: That’s encouraging news! I know you have one more medical technology that hopes to deal with another kind of shortage, right?

COCHRANE: Yes. There’s a severe shortage of donor organs such as hearts and lungs for patients that need transplants. But there’s one startup company in Manchester, New Hampshire, that is working on a way to use 3D printing to manufacture human lungs.

REICHARD: Whoa! That’s kind of a “moonshot” isn’t it?

COCHRANE: It’s true that it’s a big step. The company, United Technologies, predicts the technology is about 12 years away, but they’ve already made some good progress.

REICHARD: What have they been able to do?

COCHRANE: They’ve been able to print a replica of the upper part of a human airway using a material called collagen. That’s the main structural protein found in skin and connective tissues. Someone described it as having the consistency of undercooked pasta. Their goal is to manufacture a framework of an entire lung, including all 23 descending branches and capillaries.

REICHARD: But certainly a collagen lung by itself would be rejected, wouldn’t it?

COCHRANE: Yes. The collagen framework is only the beginning. They plan to attach human cells to this scaffold which would then replicate – covering the framework and turning it into a viable organ – a process called re-cellularization.

REICHARD: That’s amazing! It seems these stories are all examples of fulfilling God’s cultural mandate by using resources that are already part of his creation and humanity’s God-bestowed curiosity and intelligence.

COCHRANE: Yes, we’re all beneficiaries of his common grace!

REICHARD: Michael Cochrane is our PhD science and technology correspondent. Thanks Michael!

COCHRANE: You’re very welcome, Mary.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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