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Space Flight at 50: The Journey Continues

Interview With Michio Kaku, Author of 'Physics of the Future'

How science is shaping our destiny

Q. Getting back to Earth, you also write that soon technology will enable us to have more computer power in our bathrooms than in today's modern hospital. Explain that.

A. Day-to-day interactions with an animated doctor can be done via your computer screen on the bathroom wall. Ninety-nine percent of aches and pains can be helped by a robot doctor that will always be on call, will never complain or refuse a house call, and will be dirt cheap because it's a software program. Now, more delicate things like surgery and cancer treatment will need to be done at a hospital.

Q. We'll also have handheld MRI machines to analyze our bodies at home?

A. Yes, the tricorder medical scanners from Star Trek will be a reality very soon. The world's smallest MRI machine is the size of a PC, but the original was the size of an office, it was huge. Soon they will bring it down to the size of a cellphone, called a tricorder. We'll be able to scan right inside your body.

Q. How will cancer care change?

A. Both cancer treatment and cancer detection will be unrecognizable from today. Researchers have developed something called DNA chips that can detect proteins emitted from maybe 100 cancer cells in a colony years before a tumor forms. Hospitals are already testing them. In the future, your toilet may have DNA chips that will tell you that in 10 or 20 years, you will have a tumor. The word "tumor" will disappear from the English language.

Q. Because we'll treat cancer cells before they grow into a mass?

A. Exactly. For example, we used to think that pancreatic cancer was fast-growing, that in two to three years you would die. Now we know that's not true; we realize now that it takes 20 years for pancreatic cancer to grow, and only in the last two years can you feel it.

Q. How will doctors treat these early cancers?

A. We're now experimenting with what are called nanoparticles. This is huge. These are molecules that can hone in on cancer cells and either deliver a poison or actually shake up a cancer cell and destroy it. There are several different groups now experimenting with them. In one study they were up to 90 percent effective against cancer cells.

Q. And they leave healthy cells untouched?

A. Right, that's the whole point. Chemotherapy is like a shotgun which kills ordinary cells as well as cancer cells. These nanoparticles, in trial now, just hone in on cancer cells. We're talking about a sea change in cancer research, going to the molecular and genetic basis of cancer, rather than hitting ordinary cells and hoping that cancer cells die faster than ordinary cells.

Q. When might this happen?

A. Five to 10 years for FDA approval; they are going through clinical trials now. This is extremely promising because now for the first time can you even think about zeroing in on cancer.

Q. In the book you say there are so many types of cancer that it will be a huge challenge to eradicate it.

A. Cancer is like the common cold; there are so many different types. In the future we'll still have cancer, but we'll detect it very, very early, so that it won't kill anybody. We'll zap it at the molecular level decades before it grows into a tumor.

Next: What about slowing the aging process? >>

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