Breakthrough medical advances inspired by sci-fi

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published August 27, 2019

Key Takeaways

The influence of science fiction on science itself is both undeniable and indelible. Sci-fi not only offers commentary on the status quo of society—including government, war, and progress—but also creates images and descriptions of advances in technology, sociopolitical forces, and metaphysics. In the aggregate, science fiction helps inventors consider possibilities, and inspires the general public to wonder.  

In some instances, medicine has ended up imitating the art portrayed by science fiction. Furthermore, science fiction often serves as an influence in the pursuit of discovery by medical researchers.

Let’s take a closer look at five works of science fiction that predicted the future of the medical landscape.

Star Wars

Let’s take an unsettling walk down memory lane. Darth Vader cut off his son Luke Skywalker’s hand in Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Luke ended up getting a bionic hand that worked just like the real thing. This bit of science fiction served as inspiration for the makers of the LUKE arm—the first and only commercially available prosthetic with a powered shoulder, thus permitting a shoulder-level amputee to reach overhead.

In a related example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is investing in a neural-enabled prosthetic hand (NEPH) system that contains a fully implanted, wirelessly controlled neurostimulator, which has successfully been fitted in a patient. The prosthetic device allows sense of touch, grasp force, and hand opening by stimulating sensory nerve fibers in the remaining limb via fine wires implanted inside nerves.


In November 2019, genetics researcher He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, modified human embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR to make twin girls. In addition to causing a widespread ethical outcry, this advance was predicted by science fiction—notably, the 1997 cult classic Gattaca.

In the movie, Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent Freeman dreams of traveling to outer space, but his dream is impossible because he is not genetically modified. In the movie, the only people who can go to outer space, or do anything else cool or important, are genetically modified. So, what does Freeman do? He assumes the identity of a genetically modified individual in the hope of being trained to fly in outer space.

Incidentally, the movie’s title Gattaca is made up entirely of the letters used to label the four DNA nucleotide bases: guanine (G), adenine (A), thymine (T), and cytosine (C). This DNA sequence occurs commonly in the human genome.

RoboCop (and others)

The idea of using machines to enhance human strength, speed, and other abilities is a common trope in science fiction. For example, Iron Man was first introduced by Marvel Comics in 1963, and Ellen Ripley used the Power Loader to go to war with the Xenomorph Queen in 1986’s Aliens. Also, who could forget RoboCop in 1987? 

In 2019, the FDA greenlighted the ReStore soft exo-suit system for the rehabilitation of stroke survivors who have trouble with mobility.

Brave New World

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World published in 1932, “soma” is a hallucinogenic drug used by the government to control the entire population. Denizens are taught to embrace the placating effects of the drug and to take it to avoid feeling unhappy, depressed, anxious, alienated, and so forth. Comparisons have been drawn between “soma” and Valium, which was developed in 1963.

In a strange twist of life imitating art, a brand-name drug called Soma was approved by the FDA in 2007. Although not the mood-enhancing opiate-like drug depicted in Huxley’s novel, the actual Soma (carisoprodol) is a controlled substance and muscle relaxant with a sedative effect and the potential to be addictive.

Star Trek

No single work of science fiction has arguably been as prescient as the various movie and television iterations of Star Trek.

This observation extends to medicine, too. For instance, the “replicator” used on the show to make Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s “tea, Earl Grey, hot” (among countless other things), predicted 3-D printing. Today, the use of bioprinting to create organs is an emerging field of much interest.

In 2017, a team from the University of Glasgow created “nanokicking” to grow 3D samples of mineralized bone. The investigators were able to transform stem cells obtained from human donors to 3D bone grafts, which could soon be implanted into humans. 

Other medical technologies predicted by Star Trek include advanced scanning and imaging (with Dr. McCoy's medical tricorder) as well as non-invasive medical procedures. On a related note, the series also predicted universal healthcare. After all, anybody could walk or be beamed into the sickbay—no insurance needed!

Sci-fi’s affect on scientists

In 2010, Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, performed a qualitative study to evaluate the influence of sci-fi on its members. The majority of respondents claimed that science fiction did, in fact, influence them, and the effects included instilling a sense of wonderment, promoting an attitude of creativity and imagination, and supporting an interest in science. Furthermore, science fiction influenced the respondents’ choices in careers.

Consider the following response from Kenneth S. Rosenthal, PhD, professor, Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and Pharmacy, Rootstown, OH:

“Science fiction had a great impact on my choices to pursue a career in science. While I read Sci-Fi classics by Asimov, Clarke, and others, truthfully Star Trek was the biggest motivator! I was enthralled by Dr. McCoy’s medical instrumentation, Spock’s logic and scientific outlook and the psychology involved in dealing with people from other cultures. Appreciating IDIC—Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations—has served me well in my scientific career.”

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