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MIT futurists see smart diapers, cloned humans

MIT researchers in diverse fields anticipate a future that includes smart diapers, fewer invasive surgical procedures and perhaps even cloned humans, thanks to the collision of information technology, biology and materials science.

"In the future, cloning of humans might occur somewhere," said Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, professor of biology and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Although the United States and Europe quickly moved to head off human cloning after Scottish scientists cloned a sheep recently, Dr. Jaenisch said other countries might want to change a germ line to create taller people, for example.

Michael J. Hawley, Alex Dreyfoos Career Development Professor of Media Technology in the Media Lab, said Proctor & Gamble Co., makers of Pampers disposable diapers, approached him about the possibility of placing computers in diapers.

"They want to measure and test how diapers work with babies. They want disposable electronics," said Professor Hawley, who is a team leader of the Media Lab's Things That Think project, which aims to put intelligence into everyday objects. He and some of his students put some of their wearable microelectronic devices to the test during the Boston Marathon (MIT Tech Talk, April 16 and April 30).

Merton C. Flemings, Toyota Professor of Materials Processing in materials science and engineering, a materials science specialist, said biomaterials applications are emerging in his field. He referred a recent New York Times article about a "DNA chip" that aims to detect deletions on certain genes which show a tendency toward cancer. He said the therapeutic biomaterials market already is at about $1 billion, and applications in pharmaceuticals, diagnostic products and medical devices are growing.

New processes and technologies also are necessary to make new products, Professor Flemings said. For example, if the number of transistors on computer chips continues to double every 18 months, a phenomenon known as "Moore's Law" (named for semiconductor industry pioneer Gordon Moore) will occur, "we'll soon have to develop new materials to keep up with this curve," Professor Flemings said.

Robert S. Langer, the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, said biomedical engineering and biomaterials will be applied to drug delivery systems such as pills that will have to be taken only once a day and transdermal patches that will work up to one week.

"Biomaterials and biomedical engineering will become important in artificial organs," he said, adding that the medical cost for lost tissue currently tops $400 billion a year, and there remains a critical shortage of organ donors.

"Last year, more than 30,000 people died of liver failure, and there were only 3,000 donors, so organ transplantation is limited," Professor Langer said.

MIT scientists are in the research stages of growing liver tissue on biomaterials. Already, the Food and Drug Administration has approved several artificial skin products, and companies now are working on artificial cartilage.

Artificial intelligence also is making inroads into medicine, said Patrick H. Winston, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Today, scientists can put a magnetic resonance image (MRI) on a TV screen to help surgeons perform more accurate operations and avoid damaging important tissue nearby. In the future, such images might be displayed on a surgeon's glasses to make it more convenient during an operation.

"The world of tomorrow will require broadly educated people," Professor Winston said. "The danger is that we won't create people educated with depth in one area as well."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 1997.

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