Sexy Robots Help Cure Erectile DysfunctionApple, Samsung Join FDA’s Digital Health Software Program Stay on target Like most geeks, our perceptions of futuristic medical technology were heavily shaped by Star Trek. The image of Bones waving his tricorder in front of some poor redshirt afflicted with an alien plague gave us the fantasy of a non-invasive form of treatment without all those icky fluids and needles.While we’re not quite there yet, the world of medical science is advancing in crazy ways right now. One of the coolest things on the market is the harnessing of the natural world into technology. Instead of making machines from wafers of silicon and wire, we’re creating unique organisms that can serve humanity. Enter the biosensor.Magic InkEssentially, what these things do is take a synthetic biological element – that can be tissue, enzymes, cell receptors, you name it – and bind them to a mechanically engineered component. The biological element reacts to the thing you’re trying to measure in the human body and the other piece translates it into a form we can understand. It’s truly the best of both worlds.MIT and Harvard recently worked together to develop a biosensor tattoo that can detect blood glucose levels in type 1 diabetics. Glucose is a pretty easily measurable substance, but this opens the door to more subtle and unusual tests. Imagine having all of your body’s vitals displayed on your skin like a living display so you can monitor your mental and physical state in real time.One of the most promising directions that biosensors can help in is in cancer detection and treatment. The single most important factor in cancer patients across all types of the disease is how early it’s detected. Given time, it’s more likely to metastasize to other parts of the body. Catching it at its point of origin makes surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy significantly more successful.The Walnut Of LifeFor men, prostate cancer is one of the scariest forms of the disease. The prostate is a walnut-sized gland that sits below the bladder and produces the fluid that your sperm swim around in. It’s an important organ but hard to monitor due to its position.Cancer of the prostate is the second most common cancer in men (after only the skin). One in seven men will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime. Unfortunately, the testing process has traditionally been significantly invasive, requiring rectal exams and blood tests. Rectal exams are typically done with a gloved finger and aren’t 100% effective, being dependent on the doctor’s sense of touch. Blood tests are better, but an enlarged prostate for other reasons can give false positives. The final step is usually a combination of a biopsy and an ultrasound. Most doctors don’t advise even having that discussion until the age of 50 unless the patient has a family history of the disease or is of African descent (a population which for some reason seems vulnerable earlier).In The BloodThe presence of the EN2 protein in the urine can be a sign of prostate cancer, but the most reliable way to spot it early is a blood test for prostate-specific antigen (PSA). Previously, this required a visit to the doctor that could be expensive and time-consuming. The blood in your body is a complex ecosystem host to hundreds of different chemicals and proteins in varying quantities, and PSA only shows up in a fraction of it.One recent experiment from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne looked to simplify that process using biosensors with custom-coded DNA. The prostate cancer test involved a silicon nanowire coated with engineered DNA that trapped only the biomarkers that indicate the presence of the disease. The nanowire has to be placed in a blood sample for an hour to give it enough time to accrete molecules, then it’s dried and an electrical current is run through it. The resistance on that current can be translated into the density of PSA. Sure, the response time isn’t great, but it’s significantly faster and potentially more cost-effective than existing tests.A lab at Rutgers is working on a technology that could lead to a “lab on a chip” that uses synthesized biomarkers to detect a wide variety of things. One of the potential uses mentioned by the doctors responsible is the creation of a portable PSA test kit that could be used at home with a small blood draw, like the kind from a fingerprick glucose kit.Nature’s BiosensorInterestingly enough, nature has actually developed its own biosensor for cancer – a dog’s nose. We all know that the sense of smell in a canine is several orders of magnitude higher than a human’s, but scientists are starting to learn that they can use that trait for more than finding weed in people’s carry-on luggage. Trained dogs have a 95% success rate in sensing prostate cancer. In addition to having significantly more smell sensors, dogs are also equipped with something called a Jacobson’s organ, which runs a separate, parallel system of molecule recognition for substances that have no detectable odor.That kind of molecular sensing and filtering is exactly what manufactured biosensors are trying to accomplish – taking the delicate biological detection mechanisms that evolution has had tens of thousands of years to develop and turning them into precision analytic devices. Couple this with new treatment modalities like Zytiga (a recently-unveiled drug from Johnson & Johnson that works on advanced prostate cancer that has proven resistant to other methods) and you have a more positive prognosis than ever before.While we’re still a ways off from the Tricorder, being able to screen for diseases with a finger prick is a lot easier than heading to the clinic and having your blood drawn. And as biosensors become more subtle and specialized, it won’t be long before new and different ways of deploying them become common practice. Like the tattoo that displays your blood glucose, it’s feasible that at birth infants will be outfitted with a whole panel of skin sensors for their health, sending visible warnings about cancer and a host of other diseases.