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Life in 2050: Tumor operation with a joystick

In 2050 the U.S. will probably have three times as many people over 80 years old than it does now.

It’s already the tenth patient today with colon cancer — but the procedure has become routine by now.

The results of a DNA test recommended a heightened level of caution early on, and a quick blood analysis found proteins produced mainly by cancer cells in the colon.

The patient’s physician therefore advised an MRI scan with a substance that docks exclusively to cancer cells, thus making them visible. The scan showed that the patient did indeed have a small tumor. Now a computer has automatically guided a catheter tube to an area next to the tumor, and the surgeon is taking over with a joystick.

Thanks to a miniature camera on the catheter, the screen shows the surgeon greatly enlarged images of the exact positions where the cancer cells are glowing in infrared light. The doctor uses a tiny chip lab mounted on the catheter tip to analyze another tissue sample. He then activates the laser scalpel and uses it to precisely cut the tumor out from the surrounding tissue. Then he sucks out all the cancer cells with the catheter.

The patient is released from the hospital a short time later, and his doctor assures him that the early treatment of the tumor means that he will very probably regain full health. But the physician also advises the patient to consider changing his eating habits.

In 2050 the U.S. will probably have three times as many people over 80 years old than it does now.

To keep the healthcare system affordable, new solutions will have to be developed to improve healthcare while reducing costs. Processes in hospitals have to become more efficient; preventive care, sensors, and the early detection of diseases will also play key roles.

The rule of thumb for cancer, for example, is that four fifths of the treatment costs are generated after dangerous metastases have developed. So if cancer can be identified at an early stage, it can be treated much more cost-effectively and with a greater hope of success.

As long as a growth is no more than five millimeters in diameter, it can generally be easily treated. Researchers are therefore focusing on devices that deliver increasingly precise images of the interior of the body and allow changes at the molecular level to be analyzed.

Physicians will be supported in the future by digital helpers — computers and robots that will act as assisting surgeons.