One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses. CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.
My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram. At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays? Radar? Microwaves? Cosmic rays? Who knew? We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes. The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.
With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed. “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner). The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist: this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.
Well, the dream machine is one step closer. This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have to obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine). It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small! By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.
(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying). Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:
Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe. Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation. The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch. So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes. After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.
Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit. Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One. In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her: no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night. It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying. Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was: A blood clot? Eustachian tube dysfunction? Seizure activity? The Probot said no, no and no. Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.