Thursday, May 24, 2007


A friend and reader, knowing my fondness for that special place where science and science fiction cross paths, sent me the link to this article in the Telegraph (a UK publication), titled, "'Star Trek' scanner may end need for biopsies." Oooh, ya got me already. Star Trek and real life medical gadgets? How fun!! Let's read on, shall we?

Scientists have moved closer to developing a Star Trek-type scanner that can identify the molecular indications of cancer and other diseases without surgery.

X-ray images contain patterns that can help doctors translate the genetic "language" of tumours, researchers have found.

The discovery, which has been compared to finding the "Rosetta Stone" that enabled archaeologists to read hieroglyphics, could bring the science fiction of Star Trek to life.

Dr Howard Chang, from the University of Stanford in California, a joint leader of the research, said: "In almost every episode of Star Trek there is a device called a tricorder, which they used non-invasively to scan living or non-living matter to determine its molecular makeup. Something like that would be very, very useful."

I think Dr. Chang wins the understatement award for the day. A device which could non-invasively scan any and all matter and determine its molecular makeup would be something on the order of revolutionary. Of course, doctors would love to be able to just point a machine at someone and instantly be able to tell if they have cancer, intestinal parasites, space cooties from the planet Mongo, or other various and sundry ailments, but the applications for devices like the ones in Star Trek becoming a reality would extend way beyond the realm of the medical. Need a rare metal that's crucial to your pursuit of a homemade anti-gravity device? Wouldn't it be great to have a gadget that could tell you right where the stuff was hiding? Of course it would. Need to know if there's anything living in that cave, before you go spelunking? Our handy dandy little gizmo could probably help keep you safe from cave critters--or at least aware of their existence. Oh, and it can analyze any rocks you find while you're crawling around in the dark, too, so just in case you find one of those rare loose diamonds lying around on the cave floor, you won't pass it by thinking that it's only broken glass. Not a bad little tool to have with you in the dark, eh? But wait; there's more. If you think that's useful, boy howdy could the folks at Homeland Security use a government-issue, super-sleuth version, too, for keeping us all safe from bad guys. Want to make sure there are no dirty bombs on board that freight liner that just pulled into harbor? Well, let's just offload everything right on past that Jumbo Tricorder and have ourselves a little molecular peak, shall we? No nuclear stowaways gettin' through here, sir! So, don't you worry your pretty little head.

Now, you know that here at the Meow we like to take little flights of fancy, and that what the Telegraph is reporting doesn't even come close to the kind of tricorder technology that would enable the Star Trek version of reality. (It is fun to play with the idea, though, isn't it?) What's really been happening is that scientists have discovered that x-rays contain more information than doctors have known about previously, and some of those scientists are learning how to read that information. Dr. Chang and his colleagues worked with human liver cancer samples, and found 28 image features, not previously recognized, which show up on scans, that correlate to specific molecular gene activity, related to the cancer. In fact, "More than 5,000 genes have altered levels of activity in cancerous tissue," and "...the researchers were able to reconstruct 80 per cent of gene expression in the livers simply by looking at standard CT scans." Dr. Chang and his associates are learning to recognize how what they see in the images from medical scans relates to the molecular activity in the tissue. They hope that in time medical tricorder-like technology could develop from what they are piecing together, and that doctors won't have to cut someone open to give them a cancer diagnosis.

What they've got so far might not be the amazing and magical medical know-it-all gadgetry that Bones and Dr. Crusher use to rid the universe of the ravages of disease, but it's one step closer to the day when cancer diagnosis will be done with a scan and not a scalpel (and hopefully progress will continue apace on a cure, too.) Who knows where it will lead? Once they start understanding all the things these images show them, how, long will it be before they can program a computer to understand them too? From there it could be only a hop, skip and a jump to the tricorders of our dreams, even the ones that protect us from terrorists and find us caches of diamonds just for crawling around in the dark. Why not? We might as well dream big.

Hat tip: Danny