Tech Universe favourites: Friday 21 December

By Miraz Jordan

If the thought of the dentist's drill sets your teeth on edge you may like the sound of the painless plasma drill. Photo / Thinkstock
If the thought of the dentist's drill sets your teeth on edge you may like the sound of the painless plasma drill. Photo / Thinkstock

TOOTH BRUSH: If even the thought of the dentist's drill sets your teeth on edge you may like the sound of the painless plasma drill. US researchers have been working on a cool plasma brush that cleans out cavities without pain by creating chemical reactions on the surface of the tooth. The plasma kills bacteria and allows the tooth to bond better to the filling. That means fillings should last longer too. And if it's painless you shouldn't need injections either, so no more numb mouth. So long as it doesn't have the same high-pitched whine. MU News Bureau.

BURN SWEETENER: Bad burns may lead to bad scarring. Now researchers at Johns Hopkins University have created a drug-free hydrogel that appears to help the skin regenerate without scars.

The hydrogel promotes the formation of new blood vessels and skin, including hair follicles. It's a water-based three dimensional framework of polymers that includes a dissolved polysaccharide. It's absorbed harmlessly over 21 days while tissue regenerates. So, that's a version of sugar water, right? Johns Hopkins University.

SHARP AS SILK: Had to get an injection recently? Hurt much? Would it be better if the needle was tiny and made of silk? Engineers at Tufts University have created micro-needles from fibroin, the major protein in silk. The needles are 500 microns tall and 10 microns wide - 1/10th the width of a human hair. The needles penetrate the skin, but not far enough to reach the nerves. A patch of needles can release medication over time and without pain. There's great potential here for spy thrillers. Scientific American.

NO MORE NEEDLES: If you don't feel a mosquito bite you then you won't feel the injection from MIT's new needle-free jet injector. The handheld device uses a coil and magnet to drive a piston and send the drug through a needle of about the same diameter as a mosquito proboscis. The drug penetrates the skin to a depth that can be selected and varied by controlling the velocity. In other words: the Star Trek hypospray is now a reality. Do they have to pay royalties to the movie studios? MIT. Check out the video here.

DAILY SHOT: Some people have diseases or conditions that mean they must have injections at intervals, maybe daily, perhaps for years. The MicroCHIPS company has now successfully tested an implantable drug delivery microchip, to the proof of concept stage. The device can be monitored and controlled remotely while it delivers the metred doses for several weeks. Now the company are developing new designs to deliver up to 400 doses over more than a year. Imagine if it came loaded with chocolate or caffeine. MicroCHIPS.

PUMPED: People with diabetes need to monitor their blood sugar levels and perhaps administer insulin. The JewelPUMP from Debiotech in Switzerland carries 500 Units of insulin and is applied to the skin. A special Android powered phone, the JewelCOM, features an integrated blood glucose meter and uses dedicated SIM card security to communicate with the JewelPUMP. The pump itself includes a couple of buttons for administering doses if the phone is out of action. The patch is waterproof and includes an alarm in case it gets too hot. How long till someone hacks this to deliver other substances? MedGadget.

BLOOD SUBMARINE: Engineers at Stanford have demoed a tiny wirelessly powered device only 2 mm square that can be guided through a fluid such as blood. The device can be implanted or injected into the body and powered wirelessly using electromagnetic radio waves. Some devices, such as cochlear implants, could be stationary, but others could be guided through the bloodstream to deliver drugs or carry out tasks such as zapping blood clots. The device has an antenna of coiled wire magnetically coupled to a transmitter outside the body. Any change in current flow in the transmitter induces a voltage in the coiled wire and propels the device. Someone will need to come up with the realistic video games so medics can practice their technique. Stanford University. Check out the video here.

SLIDING VISION: Being unable to see clearly is hugely detrimental, but can often be easily fixed with a pair of glasses. But the cost of and access to eye tests and spectacles is a big barrier for many. Eyejusters spectacles include a pair of carefully shaped plastic lenses for each eye and a small adjustment knob that moves the SlideLens relative to the fixed lens. The wearer simply turns the knob until the two lenses line up in such a way that they can see clearly. Simple, once you know how. Eyejusters.

RETINA SCREEN: Bionic Vision Australia is working on a bionic eye that they hope to test next year. An implanted chip with 98 separate electrodes will stimulate the retina so people with genetic eye conditions can see large objects such as buildings and cars. A camera in a pair of glasses sends data to a processor which then sends it on to an implant in the retina. They are also working on a more accurate high-acuity device that could help people recognise faces and even read large print. How about a way for a computer to use the implant as a display? The Verge. Check out the video here.

1.5 KILOPIXEL EYES: Pioneering eye implants have given 2 British men who were completely blind the ability to see light and some shapes. Now they're wearing behind their retinas a thin 3mm square microelectronic chip with 1,500 light-sensitive pixels which replace the function of photoreceptor rods and cones in the eye. A fine cable runs from the sensor to a control unit under the skin behind the ear. Now the men have to learn to correctly interpret the signals from the chips. This is part of a clinical trial of the chips, but may eventually lead to some people having at least partial vision restored. Now that's definitely an augmented reality. BBC.

FRESH EYES: The Bio-Retina is designed to restore sight to those suffering from retinal degenerative diseases. The tiny 5,000 pixel artificial retina can be implanted in the eye with only a local anesthetic in a 30 minute procedure. It's good enough to recognise faces or watch TV. The implant receives its power wirelessly from a rechargeable, battery-powered mini laser on a pair of glasses. Clinical trials are expected in 2013. This goes way beyond glasses and contact lenses for helping eyesight. Nano Retina.

SMART CARD: Rapid Diagnostic Tests are becoming popular: a sample is added to a small slide and after a short time the slide changes colour, offering a quick diagnosis. But reading the tests correctly and using the information is prone to human error. Scientists at the University of California developed a small attachment and app so a smartphone can photograph, enlarge, read and validate the test results. A health worker can then add information and send the whole record to a server. Collating such data on a map quickly shows trends and patterns for disease. It's great to see these technologies being put together for such useful purposes. University of California. Click here to view a video on the smart card.

HEARTS AND PHONES: A 17 year old student in the US wanted to tackle one of the problems of health-care access in developing countries. She created a prototype EKG that needs only a cellphone and a small circuit board. The circuit board reads and amplifies the slight fluctuations in voltage as the heart beats, then sends the signal via Bluetooth to a cellphone. A Java app on the phone then displays the EKG signal for a doctor to read. Her approach could bring better health care to countries where sophisticated medical equipment is beyond reach, especially since many have ready access to cellphones. Probably a lot of previously costly health care could be handled by a small device and a cellphone. The Mary Sue. Video.

DARK DNA: Analysing DNA to find clues to sickness is slow and costly. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen found a way to couple genetic material to a luminous molecule that goes dark only in the presence of a specific target. It's quicker than traditional methods of checking DNA - an analysis takes only 6 hours rather than 48. Apart from anything else that should help reduce anxiety amongst those being tested, and even that is a good outcome. KurzweilAI.

WALK THIS WAY: A team at Glasgow Caledonian University are using 3D printers to quickly make orthotic devices that are more supportive than traditionally made devices. In the past a foot mould was created in plaster then plastic was added around it by hand. The whole process took several weeks. In the new process motion sensor cameras measure the exact proportions of the leg or foot then a 3D printer builds up layers of plastic to create the insole or splint. And it would be easy to produce spares, or orthotics in various colours. BBC.

DIE BUG DIE: A coating devised at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore attracts bacteria and kills them without antibiotics. The coating is already being used by one contact lens manufacturer. The coating is a sponge-like polymer holds a positive charge. It works like a magnet to draw in bacteria which have a negative charge on their cell walls. On contact the coating ruptures the bacteria and kills them. Gruesome but effective. Nanyang Technological University.

FRUIT FRESHER: 25% of all food produced goes uneaten and that waste is a big global problem. FreshPaper keeps fruits and vegetables fresh for 2 to 4 times longer. Put a sheet in the fridge or bag and its edible botanical extracts, including fenugreek, inhibit bacterial and fungal growth, as well as enzymes that cause over-ripening. In use, each sheet lasts around 2 or 3 weeks. Could there be an end to fruit going off before you can eat it? Fenugreen.

UNCUFFED: When the doctor tests your blood pressure it involves a cuff on your arm and a stethoscope. Nihon University has a blood pressure meter that you simply touch with a fingertip to get a reading. LEDs send out light that's reflected from the finger. Photo transistors register that reflected light and provide a reading. The monitor could make it much easier to measure blood pressure in babies and elderly people. It could also be a handy household device for anyone worried about their blood pressure. Tech-On.

RED LIGHT BABIES: If the baby's asleep in another room or while you sleep you may not know it's stopped breathing. Sadly this happens all too often with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Students at Brigham Young University have invented a wireless monitor that spots the problem and sends a message to your smartphone. The Owlet Baby Monitor is integrated into a sock and uses pulse oximetry to do its work. The monitor measures the pulse and oxygen content of the blood with red and infrared light which show up oxygen saturation. These could be essential footwear for babies. Brigham Young University.

SPIT ON A STICK: People with diabetes may have to prick their fingers several times a day to read off blood sugar levels. Now researchers in Iran have created a monitor to do the same reading from saliva. The glucose in saliva is 100 to 2000 times lower than in blood, which has been a problem until now. The new monitor uses an extremely sensitive technique with a more sensitive device. The researchers expect to patent the device and release it commercially by the end of April 2013. Stick a needle in your finger or spit on a stick? It'd be an easy choice. Tehran University of Medical Sciences.

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