Medical advances not science fiction
Some new technologies raise new ethical questions
By Matt Sloane
A patient swallows this camera capsule and it transmits pictures of the gastrointestinal tract.
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(CNN) -- Some of the biggest medical discoveries have come in the last 25 years -- everything from Viagra to laser vision correction.
But the discoveries of the next 25 years could make these things seem like relics.
There could come a day when you can swallow a tiny robot, and it will travel through your bloodstream to repair what ails you.
Superdrugs could be contoured to a person's particular gene sequence, making the drug more effective because it knows specifically what the patient's genetic weaknesses are.
Some of these technologies are already here. An Israeli company has come up with a camera that's not much bigger than a large pill. It can be swallowed and then transmits thousands of images of the gastrointestinal tract to a data recorder, worn by the patient on a belt. The doctor unloads the pictures and can check for cancer, polyps, or causes of bleeding and anemia.
Genome project a goldmine
It might all sound like science fiction, but in the last 10 years, scientists have started to unlock secrets of the human body that may make these technologies possible.
In just over 13 years, the human genome has been unlocked, for example, and thanks to technology, the project was completed two years sooner than expected.
By essentially mapping out every gene and chromosome in the body, scientists can now look at people who are sick, and those who are not, and compare their genes, looking for abnormalities that might have caused disease.
Once the problem is pinpointed, the cure is one step closer.
But while the advances promise the potential to cure cancer, AIDS, and maybe even the common cold, some might present thorny ethical problems.
One example is stem-cell research, which is the cause of one of the most contentious debates these technologies can cause.
Because stem cells are "blank" cells that can develop into any type of tissue, this research promises to give scientists the ability to grow new organs for people with liver or kidney disorders; grow new limbs for amputees, and functioning eyeballs for the blind.
Scientists in South Korea have cloned a human embryo and removed its stem cells, and that nation has provided financial backing for its scientists to research stem cells.
But the cells are taken from embryos that must be destroyed, and this has put stem-cell research into the realm of the abortion debate raging in the United States.
President Bush has put very strict limits on federal funding for such research.
And this is not likely to be the last roadblock or the last issue, says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin. She's concerned about funding for these projects, and the possible religious and ethical debates they may cause.
"I think we're going to see some real change, but its not like we're going to flip a switch and overnight we're going to cure hundreds of thousands of people," she said.
And discoveries raise more issues than questions of funding or ethics.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is concerned with what happens if a person's genetic information gets into the wrong hands.
"People will have trouble keeping a job, or even getting a job if their genetic information gets to an insurer, a potential employer or even an employer," said Snowe, who has drafted legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on his or her genetic makeup.
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