Imagine it's the year 2040 and you're due for your regular health checkup. Time to schedule your next colonoscopy, Pap smear if you're a woman, and prostate screen if you're a man.
"The evolution of the biological ion transistor technology is a game changer."
But wait, you no longer need any of those, since you recently got one of the new biomed implants – a device that integrates seamlessly with body tissues, because of a watershed breakthrough that happened in the early 2020s. It's an improved biological transistor driven by electrically charged particles that move in and out of your own cells. Like insulin pumps and cardiac pacemakers, the medical implants of the future will go where they are needed, on or inside the body.
But unlike current implants, biological transistors will have a remarkable range of applications. Currently small enough to fit between a patient's hair follicles, the devices could one day enable correction of problems ranging from damaged heart muscle to failing retinas to deficiencies of hormones and enzymes.
Their usefulness raises the prospect of overcorrection to the point of human enhancement, as in the bionic parts that were imagined on the ABC television series The Six Million Dollar Man, which aired in the 1970s.
"The evolution of the biological ion transistor technology is a game changer," says Zoltan Istvan, who ran as a U.S. Presidential candidate in 2016 for the Transhumanist Party and later ran for California governor. Istvan envisions humans becoming faster, stronger, and increasingly more capable by way of technological innovations, especially in the biotechnology realm. "It's a big step forward on how we can improve and upgrade the human body."
How It Works
The new transistors are more like the soft, organic machines that biology has evolved than like traditional transistors built of semiconductors and metal, according to electric engineering expert Dion Khodagholy, one of the leaders of the team at Columbia University that developed the technology.
The key to the advance, notes Khodagholy, is that the transistors will interface seamlessly with tissue, because the electricity will be of the biological type -- transmitted via the flow of ions through liquid, rather than electrons through metal. This will boost the sensitivity of detection and decoding of biological change.
Naturally, such a paradigm change in the world of medical devices raises potential societal and ethical dilemmas.
Known as an ion-gated transistor (IGT), the new class of technology effectively melds electronics with molecules of human skin. That's the current prototype, but ultimately, biological devices will be able to go anywhere in the body. "IGT-based devices hold great promise for development of fully implantable bioelectronic devices that can address key clinical issues for patients with neuropsychiatric disease," says Khodagholy, based on the expectation that future devices could fuse with, measure, and modulate cells of the human nervous system.
Naturally, such a paradigm change in the world of medical devices raises potential societal and ethical dilemmas, starting with who receives the new technology and who pays for it. But, according clinical ethicist and health care attorney David Hoffman, we can gain insight from past experience, such as how society reacted to the invention of kidney dialysis in the mid 20th century.
"Kidney dialysis has been federally funded for all these decades, largely because the who-gets-the-technology question was an issue when the technology entered clinical medicine," says Hoffman, who teaches bioethics at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons as well as at the law school and medical school of Yeshiva University. Just as dialysis became a necessity for many patients, he suggests that the emerging bio-transistors may also become critical life-sustaining devices, prompting discussions about federal coverage.
But unlike dialysis, biological transistors could allow some users to become "better than well," making it more similar to medication for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder): People who don't require it can still use it to improve their baseline normal functioning. This raises the classic question: Should society draw a line between treatment and enhancement? And who gets to decide the answer?
If it's strictly a medical use of the technology, should everyone who needs it get to use it, regardless of ability to pay, relying on federal or private insurance coverage? On the other hand, if it's used voluntarily for enhancement, should that option also be available to everyone -- but at an upfront cost?
From a transhumanist viewpoint, getting wrapped up with concerns about the evolution of devices from therapy to enhancement is not worth the trouble.
It seems safe to say that some lively debates and growing pains are on the horizon.
"Even if [the biological ion transistor] is developed only for medical devices that compensate for losses and deficiencies similar to that of a cardiac pacemaker, it will be hard to stop its eventual evolution from compensation to enhancement," says Istvan. "If you use it in a bionic eye to restore vision to the blind, how do you draw the line between replacement of normal function and provision of enhanced function? Do you pass a law placing limits on visual capabilities of a synthetic eye? Transhumanists would oppose such laws, and any restrictions in one country or another would allow another country to gain an advantage by creating their own real-life super human cyborg citizens."
In the same breath though, Istvan admits that biotechnology on a bionic scale is bound to complicate a range of international phenomena, from economic growth and military confrontations to sporting events like the Olympic Games.
The technology is already here, and it's just a matter of time before we see clinically viable, implantable devices. As for how society will react, it seems safe to say that some lively debates and growing pains are on the horizon.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby