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It’s Not Sci-Fi, It’s Sci-FACT: How technology has lifted sci-fiction off the page & into reality

A photo manipulation showing lab technician Maegan uses the light side of the force to levitate cryovials of stem cells. Manufacturing technician, Maegan, uses the light side of the force to levitate cryovials of stem cells — a fictional photo manipulation that represents the promise of Hope Biosciences’ stem cell technology, now and in the future. (Graphic Illustration by Taylor Smith, Hope Biosciences / RELEASED)

In the 1992 film, Death Becomes Her, a potion of eternal youth is used as an imaginary invention that propels the conflict in the movie. While the concept of a magic potion that keeps you young is certainly fiction, modern inventions have built upon imagination to transform fictional ideas into real-life tools. Science-fiction stories throughout pop culture have consistently demonstrated that not every seemingly impossible technology stays imaginary for long.

Czech playwright, Karel Čapek, actually coined the term robot in his 1921 play, “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

“Clear!” We’re all familiar with that single word phrase, heard in every medical television drama when the defibrillators are brought out, but did you know that the concept of using electricity to bring about life was used in literature over 200 years ago? This concept was introduced in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, when Dr. Frankenstein famously brings his monster to life. Almost 130 years later in 1947, Claude Beck invented the defibrillator’s first form, a tool used to apply an electric shock directly to the heart in order to restore normal heart rhythm. It took less than a decade for scientists and medical professionals to realize that defibrillation did not require direct access to the heart and could actually be used successfully on a closed chest. Over time, the defibrillator was improved into the machine we know and love today.

The idea that electricity might be the basis for life and could, quite possibly, revive the dead was not uncommon in the interconnected scientific and artistic community of the 19th century’s Romantic Era.

It’s important to note that the defibrillator isn’t the only medical invention appearing to have been pulled straight from the pages of a science fiction novel. Microsurgery is a surgical technique in which microscopes, alongside high precision tools, are used to repair the tiny blood vessels and nerves in our bodies. The technique itself may seem very contemporary, but the concept was actually first introduced through fiction in 1939. In Raymond Gallun’s book, Masson’s Secret, a space explorer crash lands on Earth causing grievous injuries and leaving him in desperate need of medical intervention. To repair his own body, he employs an instrument featuring screws used to control surgical instruments that are so precise, even nerves could be repaired. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that microsurgery became a popular method among surgeons, a technological advancement that allowed small blood vessels and nerves to be manipulated without causing damage. Through this innovation, better outcomes became possible in risky procedures such as transplants, vascular repair, and nerve surgery. Despite earlier surgeons’ best efforts, there are situations in which we, as a species, are forced to seek out mechanical solutions when our own capabilities fall short.

Author of this blog article and skilled QC technician, Kristian Ruiz, featured here as a cyborg.
Author of this blog article & skilled QC technician, Kristian Ruiz, featured here as a cyborg.

When you think of cyborgs, you often think of bionic eyes, robotic limbs, and metallic bodies. Bionics have been a popular concept in sci-fi stories for decades because, after all, who wouldn’t want a near indestructible body that can function significantly better than a purely biological one? One of the first mentions of a cyborg appeared in 1911 through a series of stories by French writer, Jean de La Hire, which depicted “The Nyctalope” as a superhero with extraordinary eyesight and an artificial heart. Since then, bionic limbs and organs have become pretty standard in science fiction storytelling, but in 1993, the fictional bionic limb became a reality when Robert Campbell Aird, a man who lost his arm due to cancer, received the first fully functional bionic arm. Following the rise of artificial body parts in science fiction, more bionic technology has been developed, from the artificial heart in 1982, to the bionic eye in 2009.

Robert Campbell Aird featured in the Guinness World Records for being fitted with the first bionic arm.
Robert Campbell Aird featured in the Guinness World Records for being fitted with the first bionic arm.

Thanks to popular culture, most of us easily recognize the ominous breathing, screeching flight sounds, looming space stations, and exploding planets found in the successful film franchise, Star Wars. Part of this fictional universe is a miraculous and invaluable liquid healing agent known as Bacta fluid. This treatment is used in a variety of situations due to its ability to regenerate tissue like skin, muscles, and nerves. Like the other examples given above, this type of fictional technology has already existed in the real world for a few decades now, and we didn’t have to look to the stars to find it because it has always existed within our own bodies.

Representative microscopic image of Hope Biosciences adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells (HB-adMSCs)

Stem cells have been the focus of regenerative medicine research since the 1980’s, and stem cell therapy has been shown to help the body regenerate damaged tissues, which can be life changing for people with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Multiple Sclerosis. In addition, stem cells have shown promise in helping to repair nerve damage in spinal injuries and in treating tissue damage after afflictions like stroke and heart disease. One of our real-life superh