Stardate 45587.3: While helping Geordi track down a radiation leak in cargo bay three of the USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D, Lieutenant Worf is struck down by a falling container that seems to weigh at least as much as he does. He awakens in sickbay, where Dr. Crusher informs him as gently as possible that his spinal cord has been severely damaged, rendering him paralyzed from the waist down. This news doesn't sit very well with Worf's Klingon beliefs, and he starts making preparations to end his life, much to the dismay of his friends and young son Alexander.
But should it prove viable, this approach has some amazing upsides. As long as the right nutrients are present, the stem cells seem not only to grow of their own accord, they even arrange themselves into what looks like a functional spinal cord without a lot of outside management. Put 2 + 2 together, and you could end up with a procedure that takes cells from a paralyzed patient, turns them into stem cells, and grows a replacement spinal cord that has a much lower chance of rejection than a standard transplant.
This is one of those rare cases where something we're working on right now might actually be better than the Star Trek version: Dr. Russell's genitronic replicator worked by laboriously reading the DNA of the organ it was attempting to copy, then essentially 3D printing a new version from raw materials. While it was an interesting and bold idea, it was also clunky and prone to technical failure — at one point during Worf's procedure, the scanning mechanism broke down and the doctors had to complete the scan by hand. The Dresden researchers' approach might take longer but is less error-prone, as it simply involves setting up some stem cells and essentially getting out of their way while they grow themselves into a new spinal cord in a process perfected by nature over eons.
So we might actually be a little ahead of the 24th-century curve on that one, and bonus: we didn't have to deal with a sketchy, corner-cutting, patient-killing doctor!
Are there other Trek technologies in which we've been making advanced headway centuries early without even knowing? Come back for future installments of this blog to find out.
Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.
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