How science fiction influences modern medicine

Shakib Rahman and Alison Muller
15 March 2016

Above: Image © diuno,

Why? How? These are fundamental questions that drive scientific discovery. And most medical discoveries take many years and lots of money to go from being an idea in a researcher’s head to something that can be used in a hospital or sold at a pharmacy. In fact, it takes about 12-15 years before a drug developed in a research laboratory can be tested on humans. It also costs an average of $2.6 billion to make that happen.

Did you know? In 2009-2010, the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) supported over 3600 research grants through its Open Operating Grant Program.

Of course, scientists also have lives outside the lab. Many of them love to keep up with their favourite TV shows, follow sports, read novels, and pursue hobbies. In particular, scientists are often influenced by science fiction! From wormholes and invisibility cloaks to robotic hands and artificial eyes, many of the things scientists are working on today were inspired by something they saw in a book or a movie when they were younger. They thought: "How can I invent that?" or "Why doesn’t this cool technology exist?"

Complex and accidental science

Every day, new discoveries happen and new technologies are developed. Some of them can even be traced back to accidents or——you guessed it!——watching science fiction on TV. However, the actual science behind these technologies and discoveries is often complex and confusing. Scientific breakthroughs that are hard to understand simply don’t inspire the same wonder and awe as things that have clear and dramatic benefits, like the smallpox vaccine.

Did you know? Bacteria reproduce when a “parent” cell divides into two identical “daughter” cells. Penicillin kills bacteria by preventing the daughter cells from rebuilding their cell walls (the layer that surrounds individual bacteria).

On the other hand, many legendary medical discoveries were based on accidents or unexpected results. Take the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. A petri dish in the hospital lab where he worked was accidentally left open and contaminated by mould. Instead of immediately throwing it away, he noticed that the bacteria was having trouble growing close to the mould. He thought "Hmmm, why did that happen?" This simple question led to the discovery of penicillin and the development of antibiotics.

The scientific method in medical research

Have you ever done a lab report for science class or worked on a science fair project? If so, you are probably already familiar with the basics of the scientific method. Since their projects last so long and cost so much, things get a little more complicated for professional medical researchers. Of course, the very first step is coming up with an idea. After that, here are the main steps involved in a typical Canadian medical research project:

  1. Scientists have to convince a funding agency that their idea is worth pursuing. The money will be used to test the idea through experiments——like the ones you do in science class.
  2. If laboratory experiments give interesting results, the researchers can publish them in a scientific journal for everyone to read.
  3. In response to the journal article, other scientists and researchers will ask new questions. In this way, they can build on the original idea with their own ideas, experiments, and published results.
  4. At some point, the information gathered from all these experiments may be used to develop a new technology or a new use for an old technology. For example, it may lead to a new drug, or to treatments that use an existing drug in a new way.
  5. Once the technology is developed, it needs to go through extensive testing to make sure it’s safe and works as intended.
  6. Finally, the technology is approved by a federal agency or ministry. It can then be distributed to hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies for patients to benefit from.

Science inspired by science fiction

Science fiction can be a rich source of inspiration for scientists. Many scientific discoveries were first imagined in a science fiction universe before they existed in the real world.

From the Tricorder in Star Trek to the modern MRI machine, from robotic limbs in Star Wars to the prosthetic limbs available today, there are many examples of how science fiction has influenced modern medical science.

Did you know? One of the first major technologies to successfully move from science fiction to reality was featured in the 1968 novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Floyd, the astronaut, uses his futuristic "Newspad" to read news from Earth. It works just like the tablet computers people use today!

In a series of CurioCity articles, we will be looking at twelve different examples of how the science fiction of the past has shaped present-day medical science. Watch for articles on invisibility cloaks, robotic hands, genetic manipulation, exoskeletons, medical scanners, needleless injectors and even artificial eyes.

Most importantly, we want to show that these ideas are not just fantasy, but have real world applications. You may one day interact with technologies that seem impossible today...just like the futuristic technology used by characters in TV shows and the movies. Can you think of any other examples of how science fantasy has become science reality?

Learn More!

News articles and editorials on funding for scientific research:

Government documents related to research funding:

What we do (2016)
National Institutes of Health

CIHR Internal Assessment - Report for the 2011 International Review (2011)
Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Scientific article on research into new drugs:

New Drug Development Process (2011)
R.P. Singh, S.G. Singh, International Journal of Research in Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences, 2

Shakib Rahman and Alison Muller

 Note biographique non disponible. Bio not available.

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