Health

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


Sonic Painkiller

Sonic Painkiller
Odds 95%
Year 1993
Cost N/A

There are really only three probabilities in Future Stuff: "is being sold", "exists", and "doesn't exist yet". Any probability lower than 100% is just the estimate of an interested party. So when I look at a 95% probability I see the inventor scrunching up his/her face and saying "Yeah. Yeah, I'm pretty sure."

Dr. Alphonse di Mino's Sonotron uses a sparking electric charge to relieve chronic pain such as arthritis pain. He's pretty sure it'll be used in "doctors' offices, hospitals, and clinics" by 1993, and he's working on a version for home use.

I'm generally skeptical of things that have associated claims like "the 21st century alternative to modern medicine", especially when the alternative only treats chronic pain. According to Future Stuff, "after several years of clinical testing... researchers still aren't sure how it works, but their results indicate that the mysterious purple spark can ease lameness in horses and reduce the pain from arthritis in people." This page has the horse study published (in English and French) in the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research, as well as photos of an elephant (!) being treated with Sonotron.

On the other hand, the Malaysian Ministry of Health says, "[T]here is inconclusive evidence to support the effectiveness of... corona discharge (Sonotron) for the treatment of musculo-skeletal degenerative disease." (Sonotron is disproportionately popular in Malaysia.) So you pays your money and you takes your chances.


The Electronic Bandage Dressing

The Electronic Bandage Dressing
Odds 100%
Year 1995
Cost $10

"Dr. Richard Bentall, a British surgeon, has created a disposable Electronic Bandage that will lend Mother Nature a hand by accelerating the body's natural healing process... as Dr. Bentall explains it, an injured cell is like a rechargeable battery that has gone flat." The solution: pump the cells full of electromagnetic radiation. The manufacturer: ominous generic-name company Bioelectronics Corporation.

It's a little odd that electromagnetic radiation is alternately thought of as a directed force that heals and as an omnipresent force that causes cancer and must be stopped, possibly by lead shielding. Anyway, this sounds like another of Dr. Giger's inventions but it's still being sold by Bioelectronics Corporation as ActiPatch, which sounds like something you'd get from Prescott Pharmaceuticals. They claim it's got FDA approval but I couldn't find anything about it on the FDA's website. There are lots of papers about this therapy type, called PEMF. By now it should be obvious that I'm not a doctor and I have no way of knowing whether or not this is effective, if the studies show what BioElecCorp says they do, etc., but it's certainly a cut above Music Therapy and Bread Fresher.

There's a fairly well-known Dr. Richard Bentall in the UK, but I don't think this is the one.


X-ray-less Mammogram

X-ray-less Mammogram
Odds 100%
Year 1995
Cost $35/1989 ($56/2007)

"Up to now, the best way to detect breast cancer was to have an X-ray. But X-rays can cause the tissue to become cancerous." Oh, bitter irony! Somanetics is here to help with the INVOS 2100. If I'm reading between the lines correctly, the INVOS 2100 uses "harmless light rays" (ie. not a laser) to perform a spectrographic analysis of the breast tissue. Instead of detecting cancerous masses it determines the likelihood that there really is a cancerous mass. Then I guess if your likelihood is high you follow up with an X-ray exam. Future Stuff entry ends with a public safety message. "Please note: One woman in ten develops breast cancer in her life; early detection is the best cure."

Yes, I was right about the spectrograph. (search for "INVOS TECHNOLOGY") That is a cool idea but it didn't turn out that well. SEC filings reveal that, among other things:

Purchasers of eight units (out of a total of eighteen units) of the INVOS 2100 System, a product previously marketed by the Company have requested refunds claiming, in some cases, that the device identified too many women as having a high risk of breast cancer...

a letter dated August 3, 1994, from the FDA warning manufacturers of breast transillumination devices that these devices are in violation of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act ("the Act") in that their labeling is false or misleading and fails to bear adequate directions for use.

Somanetics is still around but they're not in the mammograph business anymore. The hot new breast cancer detection technique is digital mammography, but it just replaces the X-ray film with solid state X-ray detectors. Mammograms are still performed with low doses of X-rays, and I think the cancer threat of a yearly X-ray was overstated by whoever talked to the Future Stuff writers.

Please feel free to make your own jokes about "breast transillumination."


Non-Invasive Home Glucose Test

Non-Invasive Home Glucose Test
Odds 90%
Year 1992
Cost N/A

"To make life easier for diabetics, a new device is being developed that can measure glucose levels simply by being held against a person's skin." If I said you had a beautiful glucose measurement device, would you hold it against me? The basic technique is also available for parties, bar mitzvahs, and other situations where you need to measure chemicals in the blood.

Biocontrol Technology Inc., not to be confused with Bioelectronics Corporation of a couple entries ago, has developed a technique that "emit[s] a flow of energy directly into the patient's body tissue." Tissue with a lot of glucose reacts differently to the mysterious "energy" than tissue with little glucose. A proof-of-concept existed in 1989 and BioContTechInc was planning to have a handheld unit by 1992. Here's a picture of a unit.

That's the vague version. The patent has a little more detail. It looks like it works by spectroscopy, the same as the X-Ray-Less Mammogram. Only here's it's near infrared spectroscopy, which the ever-reliable Wikipedia says is good for examining "samples with covalent bonds". Since "[c]ells store glucose by bonding the glucose molecule together by covalent bonds to form long chains composed of 1,000s of glucose molecules," at first glance everything adds up. The big question is how well near-infrared spectroscopy works when you're bouncing light off the skin instead of a prepared blood sample.

In the world of medical devices it's hard to distinguish an unworkable idea from a good idea that was incompetently executed or held up by regulators, but as I prepare to pass the judgement of history, Biocontrol has very little going for it. According to this 2001 article, the FDA twice denied approval of the device. They sold ten units (in Europe) in 1998 and a single unit in 1999. Founder Fred Cooper had no prior experience in the field and used the company as a piggy bank, including as a funding source for his other venture, a sports trading card dot-com that never even launched. BICO shows up in funny-sad articles like this "Preposterous Companies" from 2000.

This page has more on the DiaSensor and bloodless home glucose tests, from a diabetes patient's point of view. It also has a good overview of other potential diabetes breakthroughs. The original patent has expired, but there's a 2000 patent that covers similar ground, filed by TRW Inc, now part of Northrop Grumman.


Home Strep Test

Home Strep Test
Odds 85%
Year 1990
Cost $30/1989 ($49/2007)

"A number of drug companies are looking into home diagnostic tests—especially one for strep. Tambrands, a company known for consumer pharmaceuticals, has a test already set to go." Actually Tambrands is known for making tampons, but whatevs, dude. The NYT in 1986 has the story.

These tests are sold not only to home users but to doctors offices, who no longer have to wait for the lab to run a test. Home strep tests are on the market today, $90/2006 or $39/2006 for a pack of 25, depending on the brand. Future Stuff also predicts home test for STDs, and HIV in particular. There are home tests for Hepatitis C and HIV, but you don't get the results at home. You draw blood or whatever at home and send it to the lab. All it does is eliminate the middledoctor.


Home Cholesterol Test

Home Cholesterol Test
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost $10/1989 ($16/2007)

Tambrands shows up again with an attempt to lower the cost of a cholesterol testing machine to the point when people will buy one for home use. Despite the 100% certainty, Tambrands is still "working on a number of approaches".

Over-the-counter home cholesterol tests started showing up in 1993. Nowadays they cost $25/2007 for a set of two. As with many of the accurate predictions, there's not much to say here, except that Tambrands was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 1997.


Vital Systems Home Monitor

Vital Systems Home Monitor
Odds 25%
Year 1999
Cost N/A

Even generic-name champion General Computer Corporation can't save this entry from being boring. It's what The Most Intelligent Toilet would be if there were truth in advertising. The Med Module (initially sold to health clubs and pharmacies for $9000/1989) tracks "your weight, your blood pressure, and your pulse" over time. Data is stored on your "personal magnetic stripe card", which means that on top of everything this is a smart card entry.

Here's a 1990 article. In 1994, General Computer Corporation (not the video game maker that once employed Ned Batchelder) was going to be acquired by its even more generically-named competitor, National Data Corporation. But the deal fell through and it looks like the company was never heard from again.


Poison Ivy Vaccine

Poison Ivy Vaccine
Odds 50%
Year 1994
Cost N/A

"Dr. Vera Byers... has isolated the oil that causes poison ivy." The rash, that is, not the plant itself. As with iocaine powder, you can build up a temporary tolerance to urushiol, but the process is about as unpleasant as having a poison ivy rash in the first place. Dr. Byers exerted some unspecified doctor-fu and developed an injectible vaccine that lasts for a year. There's also an ivy block cream that you rub into your skin, and it absorbs the urushiol oil.

"The Food and Drug Administration will demand some fancy testing and long clinical trials before these products are allowed on the market." Gummit bureaucrats, holding up the fulfillment of Future Stuff entries! They're probably behind the Vending Machine French Fries fiasco too!

This does seem to be the point at which the poison ivy vaccine fell flat. I've found claims on the web that there is a vaccine, that there is no vaccine, and that there was a vaccine that was removed from the market after the FDA found it wasn't effective. This page seems to be the single best source of information. It gives a reasonable explanation why even an effective vaccine might not be desirable: "T cells trained to ignore the nastiness of poison ivy might also ignore viruses and bacteria." This dovetails with Byers's otherwise bizarre statement that the well-meaning FDA just wants "to be sure you can't get any other viruses from" the anti-poison-ivy products.


The Sting Buster

The Sting Buster
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $5/1989 ($8/2007)

Tec Labs prsents "a 3-inch-long, hand-held vacuum pump that eliminates the poison from insect bites or stings." It's called the Sting-X-tractor. The X makes it trademarkable! Future Stuff spends a perhaps excessive amount of time reiterating how it works. The vacuum pump "suction[s] out the venom" with a "powerful but painless sucking motion" that "brings[s] the venom... to the surface of the skin." Along the way there are interesting trivia bits such as: the amount of venom in a typical insect bite is "often not much more than would fit on the head of the pin." As you might guess from the name, Sting-X-tractor also removes stingers.

I feel like I've experienced this in response to a bee sting, but maybe it's just very easy to imagine in vivid detail. This specific product isn't being sold anymore (though it was at one point, and Tec Labs is still around), but I found a similar product on Amazon. It cost $50/2007 but I think it's bundled with a snakebite kit.


Smoke-Check Badge

Smoke-Check Badge
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $9.95/1989 ($16/2007)

"The badge is a disposable device that turns from pale yellow to deeper shades of brown as it registers accumulated exposure to tobacco smoke." So it's like a radiation exposure tab, except on a much longer timeframe. "It takes three to five days for an accurate reading on a low-level exposure." And it's even got a little pocket clip so you can carry it around wherever you go.

Assay Technology is still around and still selling products to "monitor chemicals in a worker's personal breathing zone." Dude, yer in my breathing zone! I couldn't find a product specifically designed to detect cigarette smoke, possibly because most workplaces that would care enough to buy a smoke monitor have banned smoking altogether. But pick a chemical and it's probably in cigarette smoke, and Assay Technology probably sells a detector for it.

Since 1989, Assay has also developed a whole chemical detection platform with a plug-in system. Instead of selling badges that detect this and badges that detect that, they sell generic badges that can have chemical collectors attached to or slotted into them. Collectors are sold separately; for instance, there are "Aldehyde wafers", which you probably shouldn't use for communion. It looks like some of the collectors you can interpret yourself and others need to be sent to Assay's lab for analysis.


Four New Ways to Quit Smoking

Four New Ways to Quit Smoking
Odds 80%
Year 1992
Cost N/A

Like one of those fancy restaurants where they give you multiple tiny dishes instead of one dish that's only small. Most of these new ways are nicotine delivery devices that make it possible to wean the body off the drug.

The big winner here is bachelor #3: "A small adhesive patch that slowly and steadily delivers nicotine to the blood vessels through the skin," now the world-famous nicotine patch. Here's the patent (not referred to in Future Stuff).

Other contestants include "a fine mist made from smoke dissolved in water" which is comically "inhaled either through an imitation cigarette or a device resembling an asthma inhaler." Or you could just use a bong. There's a similar technique with a nicotine solution delivered through a "nose spray or inhaler." The only solution that involves no nicotine is a "citric-acid spray" that you spray in the back of your throat to recreate the feeling of smoking. To make things more realistic, the citric-acid spray costs a quarter a squirt.

Future Stuff got all this stuff from Jed Rose of UCLA and the VA's Nicotine Research Laboratory. Dr. Rose is now at Duke and this anti-anti-tobacco journalist accuses him of being on the take from Big Tobacco. Yes, I'm pretty sure what I just said was accurate.


Stress Gum

Stress Gum
Odds 50%
Year 1995
Cost "65 cents/1989 ($1/2007) for 6 pieces"

"Stress gum is used by the Japanese as a quick and easy way of determining the state of their health and nerves." Since it's the late 80s and we're obsessed with copying everything the Japanese do, "stress gum is a natural for these shores." But unfortunately, the gum's manufacturer, S. B. Shokauhin [alternate transliteration that gets a few search engine results: Shokuhn], Inc., "has no plans to market the product in the United States", so the probability got bumped all the way down to 50%.

How does it work? Well, using the term "work" rather loosely, it measures the pH of your saliva. "Pink is a sign of health; green a signal that the user is suffering from unhealthy stress." So it's chewable litmus paper. Future Stuff doesn't say which color is high pH and which low, or whether green is just a deviation from normal pH. It's also far from clear whether saliva pH actually has anything to do with stress, though according to doctors from 1937, "the pH range of saliva among those in ill health is greater than among those in good health."

These days we're not content to chew gum just to ascertain whether or not we are in fact stressed. We presume a state of stress and chew gum that makes unsupportable non-claims about helping us become un-stressed. Tell me that website doesn't look like a parody. Hoodia gum? Breast enhancement gum? Donnez-moi le break.

It looks like pH-measuring gum has never been sold in the US, but you can get a box of pH test strips for $5/2007. Interestingly, the mere act of chewing gum raises your saliva's pH. So in the unlikely event there's a two-way relationship between saliva pH and stress level, this gum would relieve stress as well as measure it.


Le Funelle

Le Funelle
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost "$4.99/1989 ($8/2007) for a packet of 10"

"Ms. [Lore] Harp, who used to travel several hundred thousand miles a year for her minicomputer company, had had her fill of dirty public restrooms and worry about contracting disease." So she invented Le Funelle (French for "The Funelle"), the first of the female urine redirectors. It's basically a paper cone that comes with a sheet of toilet paper. It's useful not only in sketchy restrooms but while hiking, or when you're "elderly and handicapped [and] have difficulty sitting and then standing." Harp supposedly has two patents on this invention, but I can only find one.

In Future Stuff Harp says, "This product is going to involve some complex marketing. We have to overcome the resistance to talking about normal bodily functions and needs." The complex marketing seems to have been the product's downfall. That article, contemporaneous with Future Stuff, says that Aplex Corp. couldn't get a marketing break. They got a lot of press but radio stations wouldn't run their "very inoffensive radio spot".

Nowadays they'd run that spot as part of the wacky morning show, and then talk about it for an hour, perhaps bringing in a real woman as guest commentator. In retrospect I think their best bet was to try to get an episode of Seinfeld written about their product.

This Future Stuff entry was obsolete before it was even published, because Harp "sold the marketing rights in 1989". "Aplex" is now the name of an industrial PC manufacturer. But there are other products that fill the urine-redirection niche: the Dutch P-Mate and the Freshette.

Vector Graphics, Harp's minicomputer business, also has an interesting history, as Harvard Business School notes:

Her marketing savvy and strong ability to build personal relationships with the fledgling personal computer dealer network set her company apart from other competitors. Taking the company public in 1981, Harp became one of the first women to head a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company's meteoric rise was short-lived as IBM and others eventually consumed the small business marketplace.

Here's the Vector 1, their colorful first computer. More information and pictures at the aptly-named vectorgraphics.org.uk.

Lore Harp is probably one of the most successful people mentioned in Future Stuff: in 2000 she and her husband, IDG founder Patrick McGovern, donated $350 million to establish the Institute for Brain Research.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Friday, October 31 2014, 13:00:05 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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