Characteristic Ferro fluid spikesAndrew Magill

Turing’s renowned question “can machines think?” divulges the human ambition to merge man with machine. Indeed, ever since computer chips were invented, we have dreamed of plugging them into us, or plugging us into them.

And why not? A living body is inherently electrical: approximately every second, an agglomeration of cells the size of a penny in the upper chamber of our hearts produces a reliable electrical pulse that keeps the organ beating; cells shuttle ions in and out, communicating in a language tantalisingly akin to the charges of electrical circuits. The scope for electronic usage in human models is not merely a SciFi fan’s reverie, but rather a plausible prospect.

In recent years, researchers have produced brain-computer interfaces that let users remotely control gadgets with their minds; retinal electrode implants that can restore limited sight to the blind; and an ingestible sensor that, powered by stomach acid, allows patients to monitor their response to a prescribed medicine via a mobile app.

Most exciting perhaps is the field of optogenetics – the threading of light-emitting devices into the brain to trigger neurons with photons. The ‘light-bulb’ moment literally acts as a switch, turning desired constellations of cells ‘on’ – a feat of temporal and spatial precision impossible to achieve with drugs. Implants based on such technology might one day offer patients a way to activate their own neurotransmitters to alleviate pain, Parkinson’s tremors, and potentially even ailments such as depression – without employing archaic and often traumatic therapies such as electroshock and the removal of brain tissue.

The promise of ingenious physics permeates the realm of cancer, too. Here, biocompatible Ferro fluids are the key players. These paramagnetic nanoparticles could well be used as a delivery system for anti-cancer agents in loco-regional tumour therapy, appropriately named ‘magnetic drug targeting’. Bound to medical drugs, such magnetic nanoparticles can be enriched in a desired body compartment, and focused on the targeted area (i.e. a tumour) by applying an external magnetic field. This could well be the key to simultaneously minimising unwanted side effects, and increasing the efficacy of treatment.

Studies suggest that the top 10 highest-grossing drugs in the UK work for between only one in 25 and one in four of the people who take them, as such the therapies mentioned above are understandably attractive. From a scientific perspective, their mechanisms prove exquisite. It does not seem unreasonable to conclude that applying the quest of technological invention to tangibly benefitting the ill would not only be enormously satisfying, but would also revolutionise the field of modern medicine