Technology may have just provided the next breakthrough in medicine but it may not be in the way that most have predicted it would happen. Most predictions about breakthroughs in fields of medicine – with regard to technology – tend to encompass new uses for A.I. or machine learning, virtual reality, or even just new ways to store and access data. In fact, those will almost certainly be near or at the forefront of health care at some point in the near future. However, the latest advancement comes from the field of robotics but is not at all related to new prosthetics, surgical methods, or anything quite so fancy. Instead, it comes from the accidental discovery that the concepts behind an algorithm used to help robots move more accurately and smoothly can also be applied to medications. As surprising as that is, it really highlights the fact that making predictions about where technology or any advancement, in general, will take humankind is a tedious undertaking at best.
With regard to the latest breakthrough, made by researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Protein Design, the discovery centered around what roboticists refer to as "degrees of freedom." At its simplest, the concept can be defined as the range of movements any given joint or junction on a robot can achieve. Roboticists use their understanding of those ranges of motion in order to draw up increasingly complex algorithms as the number of joints and range of motion increase. Those algorithms are, however, intended to give a near-exhaustive range of outcomes for a robot's movement – making it easier to test and design the robots to move appropriately. As with robotics, meanwhile, molecules can be thought of as having joints and intersects – each with its own degrees of freedom.
According to Ian Haydon, a doctoral student in biochemistry at the university, the peptides that are used in the creation of medicines need to take on precise 3D shapes in order to function. Being able to predict those shapes helps to increase understanding of how any of those will ultimately work. That would probably already have been an interesting enough use for the roboticists algorithms. However, a specific type of peptide, macrocycles, form rings, which has a host of benefits in terms of durability and resistance to degradation. In fact, macrocycles are a preferred starting point for new medications and show particular promise when facing down some of the worst diseases and illnesses that are known to mankind. The problem lies in discovering the appropriate configurations. By using an array of smartphones and a general kinetic closure algorithm used by roboticists, the team was able to jump from around 10 confident starting points for medication to over 200 – including the one shown on the right in the image below. That increase is relatively profound and some of those new macrocycles, Haydon says, feature entirely new chemical properties that will need to be explored but which could yield big benefits to the pharmaceuticals industry – as well as taking out some of the guesswork involved.
Moving beyond the accidental discoveries, technology is also being put forward in much more deliberate ways that still manage to bring across what could soon be viewed as breakthroughs in medicine. That's true even in instances where fields of medicine weren't necessarily in the list of intended uses for the technology. A prime example of that is the use of VR and AR technologies by surgeons and other medical professionals in a bid to improve their respective fields. Two surgeons, in particular, show unexpected directions that can take. One of those surgeons, Shafi Ahmed, first used Snap Inc.'s Spectacles and then other VR technologies to create a new method of supplemental training for surgeons in training. Although controversial, its thought that the methodology could advance training. That could, in turn, result in a wider portion of the population having access to much needed medical services – solving a serious dilemma in the medical profession thanks to scalability and flexibility of the platform. Another surgeon, Paul Szotek, proceeded those efforts by using Google's Glass as a way to provide more closeup training for students. However, Szotek also made use of the AR device's connectivity capabilities to patch outside parties in when needed for offsite consults.
Despite that training was actually a part of the expected use cases for AR and VR, both of the above-listed cases took their use far above what was predicted. Rather than using simulated environments and motion controls, they allowed both students and those involved in consultation to be present from the perspective of the surgeon in question. Not only will those kinds of implementations likely help improve the ratio between the general world populace and trained physicians, surgeons, and specialists. They are also likely to save lives in instances where a surgeon or doctor needs to call out for help in more extreme cases, especially where the doctor or surgeon on hand doesn't have the experience needed.
Meanwhile, there are likely countless other unexpected ways that medicine and associated practices and fields will be affected by technology. What's more, it isn't unlikely there are already other discoveries or advances using technology that could have been included here. That may just be the most exciting thing about the human drive towards new horizons, invention, and innovation. Regardless of what the new technologies bring with them as a direct result of that drive, there will always be potentially hugely beneficial results that just weren't predicted at all.