Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Steve Austin, better known as the Six Million Dollar Man from the 1974 series of the same name, was on the brink of death after his spaceship crashed in the iconic TV show. A cutting-edge operation using bionic implants saved his life — and gave him bionic strength and artificially enhanced gifts.

The show had all the makings of a gripping superhero action series. But that reality — artificial organs and limbs, not bionic strength — is suddenly not as far-fetched as it sounds. Technology has come so far that it can now be harnessed to replicate body parts.

Anyone, anywhere can solve a problem or build a medical device that can cure diseases, says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance. Speaking to website Futurism, he says: "The technology industry will take over medicine."

Already, global tech firms such as Google, Facebook and IBM are expanding their footprints into health. They support the idea that technology can be used to develop health-care solutions.

A year ago, Google launched Verily Life Sciences, which aims to combine big data and advances in technology with science to cure diseases.

One of its inventions is the smart contact lens, which is a bizarre surgical implant straight out of a sci-fi movie. A patient’s natural lens is removed from the eyeball and fluid is injected into the eye. This fuses with the eye’s lens capsule and solidifies. Storage, battery, sensors, a radio and other electronics can live inside this new eye. The artificial lens also improves vision.

Verily is also researching a cancer-fighting pill that is powered by nano-particles.

At the same time, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have launched a US$3bn programme to bring scientists and engineers together to understand and cure diseases.

Its projects include a chip that diagnoses infectious diseases, as well as continuous bloodstream monitoring to identify and catch diseases early.

These ambitious, almost otherworldly projects could take a long time to materialise, but they have the potential to revolutionise health care.

Tech innovations such as 3D printing are also enabling innovation in health care. Aditi Bhalla, industry analyst for transformational health at Frost & Sullivan, says 3D printing is one of a few breakthrough technologies set to revolutionise the industry.

3D-printed scaffolds or prosthetics (orthopaedic implants) are assisting physically disabled patients by substituting for the loss of limbs.

The potential is vast. In 2013, 75% of a man’s skull was replaced with a 3D-printed implant.

"Health care in African nations is expected to leapfrog with the utility of 3D printing manufacturing, as it has the potential to assist with fast, cost-effective solutions," Bhalla says.

In Kenya, British company 3D LifePrints gave patients at PCEA Kikuyu Orthopaedic Hospital low-cost hand prostheses and cosmetic prosthetic leg covers for lower-limb prostheses.

In Sudan, Not Impossible Labs set up a 3D printing lab to create prosthetic limbs for those affected by that country’s war.

In 2015, SA’s Central University of Technology in the Free State conducted medical procedures involving 3D printing . Two patients received 3D-printed titanium jaw implants at the Kimberley Hospital in the Northern Cape last year.

IBM, which opened a research laboratory at Wits University in August, says its scientists are designing wearable sensor technology connected to its Watson Internet of Things platform to trace the spread of highly infectious, communicable diseases. This innovation will help inform prevention strategies and enable patients to respond effectively.

There are a number of other developments to watch in SA.

Earlier this year, the health department and Vodacom deployed a mobile app in more than 3,000 clinics to monitor drug stock levels and reduce stock-outs.

In another case, online store Digicape partnered with xRapid, a London-based startup that has created a mobile health solution that provides automatic diagnosis of malaria and tuberculosis via an iPhone app.

And the University of Pretoria and its partners have launched Malaria Buddy, a mobile app that assists travellers with information on risk, prevention and symptoms.

Quality health-care delivery in Africa is increasingly going to include digital mobility and mobile broadband, says Vodacom Business chief officer Vuyani Jarana.

Stanford’s Wadhwa says the scale of the changes is enormous: "We’re going to see more medical advances in the next decade than happened in the past century."

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