Star Trek Medicine is the science and practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. The word “medicine” is derived from Latin Medicus, meaning “a physician”. Medicine encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness. Contemporary medicine applies biomedical sciences, biomedical research, genetics, and medical technology to diagnose, treat, and prevent injury and disease, typically through pharmaceuticals or surgery, but also through therapies as diverse as psychotherapy, external splints and traction, medical devices, biologics, and ionizing radiation, amongst others.
Medicine has existed for thousands of years, during most of which it was an art (an area of skill and knowledge) frequently having connections to the religious and philosophical beliefs of a local culture. For example, a medicine man would apply herbs and say prayers for healing, or an ancient philosopher and physician would apply bloodletting according to the theories of a humorist. In recent centuries, since the advent of modern science, most medicine has become a combination of art and science (both basic and applied, under the umbrella of medical science). While stitching technique for sutures is an art learned through practice, the knowledge of what happens at the cellular and molecular level in the tissues being stitched arises through science.
Prescientific forms of medicine are now known as traditional medicine and folk medicine. They remain commonly used with or instead of scientific medicine and are thus called alternative medicine. For example, evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture is “variable and inconsistent” for any condition, but is generally safe when done by an appropriately trained practitioner. In contrast, treatments outside the bounds of safety and efficacy are termed quackery.
Since the Star Trek fictional universe takes place roughly two or three centuries in our future, medical technology is portrayed as having grown to be far more sophisticated and advanced than current technology. When confronted with medical technology from older time periods, the character often reacts apprehensively or sceptically to the relatively outdated modern procedures. For example, when visiting a hospital in the 1980s in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Dr McCoy (played by DeForest Kelley) shows disdain for his 20th-century counterparts and compares their procedures to the Dark Ages and the Spanish Inquisition.
“Space: the final frontier.” But it is actually MedTech that is the final frontier these days for Star Trek-inspired technology, especially thanks to the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize and its recently announced 10 finalists. The winners of the global competition will share $10 million in prize money. To be eligible for the contest, the device must diagnose 15 medical conditions as well as five vital health metrics. When the prize was first announced, more than 300 teams first expressed interest in competing in the contest.
When Dr McCoy grabbed his tricorder and scanned a patient, the portable, handheld device immediately listed vital signs, other parameters, and a diagnosis. It was the Swiss Army knife for physicians. When our class discussion turned to potential medical uses, a doubtful student asked how such a thing could work in reality when it came from science fiction. I then gave him another list to consider. A visual display device from StarTrek is Google Glass now. The heads-up display in Minority Report is air touch technology. Iron Man is currently being developed by DARPA. The self–directed vacuum cleaner from The Jetsons now exists as Roomba. A working tricorder could bring about a new era in medicine. Instead of expensive machines and long waiting times, information would be available immediately. Physicians could scan a patient, or patients could scan themselves and receive a list of diagnostic options and suggestions. Imagine the influence it could have on underdeveloped regions. It should not substitute for medical supervision, but when there is none it comes in handy.
But the past 40 years have seen the rise of an array of non-invasive scanning technologies like ultrasound, CAT scans, PET scans and magnetic resonance imaging. MRI works by subjecting the body to a magnetic field and then detecting the varying responses of different types of tissue.
“We’re a little bit closer to what they show on ‘Star Trek’ ‘s sickbay,” said Dr Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, director of the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford. “We’ve got tools that are not quite at that level yet.”
Where imaging techniques in the 1960s could only outline basic internal anatomy — an X-ray revealing a broken bone, for example — current technologies can also detect tissues with abnormal concentrations of blood vessels, or with a speedier metabolic rate. Both are characteristics of cancer. Beyond that, Gambhir said, researchers have discovered precise ways to scan for specific ailments like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease and breast tumours linked to a genetic aberration. But unlike McCoy, doctors nowadays can’t just wave a sensor probe over the patient to use these disease-specific detection methods. First, they have to inject or feed the patient with a tailored molecular probe that can find the harmful protein or abnormal gene connected with the disease. The probe then transmits a signal picked up by an MRI or other scanning devices.
Some of the new scanners are handheld units — shades of the tricorder — that can be used during surgery, Gambhir said.
And others combine several different scanning methods — an MRI plus a PET scan, for example — to give a fuller diagnostic picture. But Gambhir said we still don’t have anything like the universal scanning device that allowed McCoy to diagnose practically anything in seconds.