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In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage a team of scientists in a special submarine are shrunk down to molecular size and travel through the bloodstream of a scientist trying to save his life. I’ve always loved the movie (and the novelization by Isaac Asimov) but there’s no sign that shrink-ray technology will be developed anytime soon. So I wrote a (so-far unpublished) novel about how such a thing might be done with plausible tech—you can read a prequel short story to the novel here.

But while we haven’t developed a shrink ray and probably won’t, medical nanotechnology has been advancing in other ways. Nanotech is considered to include devices between 1 – 100 nanometres in size, with a nanometre being one billionth of a metre. That’s small! And if we can master materials at that scale, the possibilities are indeed fantastic.

Current research includes very promising experiments with silicate particles covered in gold and with iron particles encased in a polymer. The idea with both is that they can float through the bloodstream and (hopefully) be induced to concentrate at the site of a diseased body part, like maybe a cancer tumour. Then they’re heated by non-harmful laser light or other methods until the shell/coating breaks down and therapeutic drugs are released exactly where they’re needed most. Such a system has terrific potential for delivery of medicines, yet it’s still primitive compared to what’s being imagined.

How much better if the nano-devices could be steered directly to the site of the disease? Especially if other nano-bots had already traveled through the patient’s entire body and mapped it down to the smallest capillary? What if we could program nano-drones to patrol the bloodstream and spot foreign bodies like bacteria and viruses that don’t belong, perhaps even attack and destroy them with chemicals or heat? Our biological immune system already does the same thing, but we know that it sometimes needs help. Those same drones could be sent to remove plaque from the linings of our arteries and veins, preventing high blood pressure and heart disease. As we age, much of the deterioration of our brain and certain other organs can be blamed on a buildup of a substance called lipofuscin in our cells—like trash clogging the streets of a town with no more room in its landfill. Specialized lipofuscin-removing nanodevices might prevent or even roll back many of the harmful effects of aging.

It would be even better if smarter nano-bots could find damaged tissues and repair them, not just protecting us against new disease but also healing the damage left by old infections. With enough advancement in the development of both artificial intelligence and nano-manufacturing we could eventually have germ-sized robotic doctors patrolling our bodies, keeping us young and healthy.

Research is exploring all of these possibilities and more, and although there’s no way to know how soon scientists will succeed, we should start planning now. Medical nanotechnology will eventually mean huge shifts in the allocation of health care resources, but even more importantly, it will result in a much longer human lifespan and much lower death rates from disease. Imagine if most humans survive for two or three hundred years (or even longer) and are in good health and able to do productive work for nearly all of that time. Population control will be unavoidable. Our whole system of older workers leaving the workforce and making job openings for younger people will take too long. Forget about the “retirement years”—no society can afford to support unproductive members in large numbers for many decades, and anyway we’ll need to have meaningful tasks to perform throughout our extended lives, if only to avoid death by boredom.

Such an increase in health and longevity could result in the most amazing progress humanity has ever seen, or the worst crises of inequity and deprivation. So while we look forward to the good health and long life, let’s plan ahead to make sure we can all enjoy everything that promise entails.

Remember what Spock said: “Live long and prosper.”

There’s more great reading on this subject here, here, and here.