We expect that molecular manufacturing will have major effects on medical research, diagnosis, and treatment. Current and near-future developments in medicine are of interest, because we can project beyond them to see what will be possible once inexpensive nanoscale manufacturing of highly functional products becomes a reality.
One of the things we expect is much broader monitoring of biological parameters such as gene expression. Knowing what genes are turned on at any given time, combined with massive data-mining and statistical correlation, should provide enough information to diagnose almost any condition. After all, cells are exquisite sensors, and gene expression is their readout.
A recent story in LA Times shows how gene expression is already being used on a large scale--not for diagnosis, but for research. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has been a puzzle for decades. After identifying 227 people with the disease, the researchers studied them closely--including scanning for the activity of 20,000 genes.
Four teams of researchers came up with very similar findings: that CFS is caused by mutations that impair the brain's ability to respond to stress. This is cool; now pharmaceutical companies can start working on treatments--and no one can tell CFS sufferers that their disease is imaginary.
Here's an idea for a valuable research project: Monitor a comparable number of gene expressions, in a single person, every five minutes for a full day. This could gain a lot of information about the body's cycles. And it should be combined with full-time videotape of the person's activities, to better understand the impact of day-to-day activities on health.
Now, think forward a few years to the time when this gene monitoring will become cheap enough for personal use. Each person would be able to monitor their own state of health in great detail. It would be almost impossible for a medical condition to sneak up on anyone. The quasi-superstitions that we have today about the kind of diet, exercise, activity, and so on that will produce optimum health... will be replaced by objective measurements to figure out what environmental inputs are especially good or bad for each person's mental and physical health.
New technologies will also be developed, of course, which will make even more futuristic kinds of medicine possible. But today's cutting edge shows a lower bound of what will be possible with truly advanced manufacturing.