What was once the stuff of science fiction is now turning into fact. Thanks to remarkable advances in scientists' understanding of stem cells, genes, bioengineering, and molecular pathways, we may soon be able to keep ourselves in tip-top shape for longer than we ever thought possible. Take a peek at your future self.
These "eyes" have restored partial vision to people with deteriorating retinas. The imitation peepers involve an implanted device that receives input from a tiny camera and a transmitter mounted on a pair of glasses. Images from the camera are converted into signals that the implant uses to stimulate retinal cells—allowing the brain's vision center to, in essence, see a rough version of what the camera sees. The device could be, for many people, a chance at second sight.
How Soon: Testing is under way at several universities. Early results are promising, and the technology could be available within a year.
Haircolor that Lasts
In June scientists from NYU Langone Medical Center announced their discovery that specialized signaling molecules can dictate the color of hair cells. Once they learn more about this process, they hope to develop a treatment for gray hair.
How Soon: Difficult to predict at this point, since this finding is just a first step.
Real Replacement Teeth
Dentists at Columbia University were able to grow new teeth in rats by implanting a tiny scaffold in the socket left empty by a lost tooth, then saturating the space with dental stem cells and growth factors (substances strained from the blood and jawbone that promote tissue growth).
How Soon: The technique could be ready for the public in about five years, pending FDA approval.
Until this year, the lung had resisted all attempts to replicate its mind-boggling complexity. But in May, researchers in Boston announced that they'd isolated the first-known human lung stem cells. Injected into injured mouse lungs, the cells sprouted mouse-sized human bronchioles, alveoli, and blood vessels.
How Soon: This procedure is still a long way off; the research is in the earliest stages.
Memory-Boosting Nasal Spray
In new research from Harvard and Tel Aviv Universities, a nasal vaccine activated immune cells in the brain that cleared away waxy plaques from blood vessels—plaques believed to contribute to Alzheimer's disease. After receiving the sniffable vaccine, mice with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's had fewer plaque deposits and performed much better on mouse memory tests.
How Soon: The researchers hope to begin human trials as soon as 2014.
Fat to Make You Thin
After Johns Hopkins researchers genetically reprogrammed a small part of the DNA in the brains of rats, some of the animals' lumpy white fat transformed into brown fat, the type that actually burns calories. The scientists hypothesize that messages from the altered hypothalamus woke dormant brown-fat stem cells and prompted them to make new tissue. Afterward the mice gained little weight, even when fed fattening chow.
How Soon: The goal is to make these kinds of tweaks to human DNA within a decade.
Muscle at Any Age
All of us lose muscle mass as we grow older, usually about 1 percent a year after age 40. But scientists have slowed or reversed this process in animals by retuning the network of genes that regulate the activity of myostatin, a protein affecting muscle growth. With less myostatin, lab animals pack on muscle—becoming, in the words of the scientists, "Schwarzenegger mice," and remaining buff even into their dotage. In people, the idea is not to produce Mr. Universe clones but to help us hold on to the muscle we already have.
How Soon: Tests in patients with muscle diseases are under way now.
Fat to Keep You Sharp
Finally, we may have an excellent use for fat: raw material for new gray matter. Brazilian scientists recently drew stem cells from body fat and immersed them in a soup of growth factors and other biological agents that reprogrammed the cells so they developed into neurons. After about four days, the cells were transmitting human-neuron-like signals. Scientists think the cells might be useful in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, but for now, they laud fat as a source of stem cells for the very reason we complain about it: There's just so much to go around.
How Soon: Clinical trials in humans are at least three to five years away.
In 2009 researchers created a fully functional ovary in a specialized petri dish. Earlier attempts had foundered on the difficulties of growing the many types of cells that make up an ovary, but, using a petri dish that allows cells to develop in 3-D, scientists at Brown University managed to produce all the necessary elements. And when egg cells were implanted in the ovary, they matured. It's hoped that artificial ovaries could preserve fertility in some women. That doesn't mean pregnancies for 70-year-olds, but maybe a baby for a 30-year-old whose ovary was damaged by cysts.
How Soon: New ovaries might be available within five years.
It's fairly easy nowadays to grow knee stem cells in the lab to repair or replace cartilage, but once those cells are placed in a worn-away area of a joint, it's hard to get them to work—they tend to spread throughout the joint. So Japanese researchers incorporated a magnetized iron oxide molecule into stem cells and surgically inserted a magnet under the injured portion of a rat's knee. Like magic, the stem cells moved into place immediately and were continuing to build new cartilage there three months later.
How Soon: A variation of this approach could be available in a few years. In the future, researchers may develop a magnet that would dissolve in the body over time.
To date, prosthetic limbs haven't been good at understanding messages from the nervous system—which means they haven't been able to fully integrate with the body and brain. But in April, scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago reported that they'd programmed a computer to recognize muscle signals from amputees' intact upper legs. When the volunteers flexed their leg muscles, electrodes attached to their skin picked up electrical activity and fed it into the computer, which then translated the signals to move virtual knees and ankles portrayed on a screen. After a few tries, the amputees were bending their onscreen knees and twirling their onscreen ankles with ease.
How Soon: The scientists hope to test computerized prosthetics in the lab within a year, and outside on streets and stairs in about three years.
To treat an arthritic ankle, surgeons often fuse the joint, which can limit a person's ability to run, climb stairs, and play sports. But the FDA recently okayed a new generation of artificial ankles that more closely mimic nature's shifting, wobble-stabilizing originals. Studies show that the joints allow for more natural movement than fused ankles, though their long-term safety isn't yet known. (More on that in about six years.)
How Soon: The prosthetic joints are already being used as ankle replacements today.
More on Medical Breakthroughs and Treatments