Tech Universe 2013 favourites: Hooray for health

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

FINGER PRINTS: When Liam was born in South Africa he had no fingers on his right hand. But two 3D printing enthusiasts have fixed him up with a working prosthesis and released the plans as public domain files.
Being able to print parts with the 3D printer means fast iterations, reduced cost and that the design can easily be scaled up as Liam grows. That's where 3D printing really comes into its own.

SAY OHH: Veterinarians and doctors performs procedures on their patients on the basis of various scans and images. Thanks to an engineering student at the University of Notre Dame though they may soon be able to use 3D printed models to prepare for a procedure. The engineer made a CT scan of an anesthetised rat and sent the data to a 3D printer which then created a skeleton in white plastic and a removable set of lungs in green or purple.

If doctors could create such prints of their human patients before a tricky surgery they could practice beforehand. Imagine being able to make a replica of your own skeleton and organs too.

UNDER THE SKIN: If you have a condition that requires frequent blood tests you may end up feeling like a pin cushion. A team in Switzerland may be able to reduce all those needle jabs down to one. They've developed a 14 mm long device that can be inserted into the interstitial tissue just beneath the skin of the abdomen, legs or arms. Once in place it checks for up to 5 different substances in the blood and sends its data to a nearby smartphone via Bluetooth. The implant can remain in place for months before it needs replacing.
Early tests show it reliably detects both cholesterol and glucose in blood as well as some other common substances. That would have to be better than having blood samples drawn frequently.

SWEET PAIN RELIEF: Some diabetics must inject themselves with insulin several times each day. US researchers may have developed an easier way to maintain healthy blood sugar levels: biocompatible and biodegradable nanoparticles injected into the skin. The nanoparticles are made out of polylactic-co-glycolic acid and are filled with insulin. Charged coatings cause the particles to create a network instead of dispersing throughout the body thus creating a reservoir of insulin. A small handheld device can then apply focused ultrasound waves to the site of the nano-network and release a dose of insulin as required. After a few weeks another injection of nanoparticles is required to boost the insulin supply again. The concept has been tested and found to work on mice. An injection once every few weeks rather than several times per day: what a relief!

CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING: Some people turn to surgery to deal with excess weight, but researchers from Imperial College London may soon be able to plug a smart microchip into the vagus nerve to do the job. The chip uses a chemical layer to monitor the vagus nerve and then sends electrical impulses along the nerve to signal the parts of the brain that control eating. The chip could, for example, send a signal that the wearer has eaten enough and doesn't need to eat more. Initial animal trials have proven the concept and human trials could take place within the next 3 years. I wonder if it would need regular calibration.

DNA 1 2 3: A DNA testing chip from Panasonic and IMEC is only half the size of a business card, yet it automates all the stages of obtaining genetic information, including preprocessing. The device takes only a short time to do this rather than the days or weeks normally needed. A worker injects blood and a chemical into the chip then inserts it into a machine the size of a small desktop printer. Around an hour later information on SNPs is produced. SNPs are variations in a single DNA base among individuals that can be used to identify genes related to illness. This can allow health workers to select drug therapies that should work and avoid those that may have severe side effects for an individual. Health care improves another notch again.

TB ON A STICK: If a doctor suspects you have TB it can take a couple of weeks to culture a sample and make a diagnosis that may or may not be accurate. A new microfluidic device the same size as a standard lab slide can reduce that wait time to a couple of hours. The new system detects DNA from the tuberculosis bacteria in small sputum samples.

The device amplifies any target DNA sequences and captures them with polymer beads. Then a miniature nuclear magnetic resonance imager identifies the TB. Test results from known samples produced no false positives and were highly accurate. The device isn't yet ready for real-life use, but it could be very valuable for controlling the spread of TB in developing countries. This move to handheld medicine is very encouraging.

BEE COOL: As Kiwis we have a fondness for buzzy bees, but that usually refers to the wooden toys. A new Buzzy bee from the US was developed specially to help distract kids (or adults) when they need an injection or have to have blood drawn. Buzzy is a small vibrating bee-shaped device with a unique ice pack. It crowds out pain by sending stronger motion and temperature sensations down the nerves instead. Along with the buzzing bee there are game cards to help keep kids distracted while blood's being drawn. Clever.

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: It's a bit of a pain remembering to take
medication: you have to take the right pills or potions at the right time for maximum effect. AdhereTech's new smart bottle is here to help, with its automated phone calls or text messages. The bottle has a 3G chip for communications and is programmed by the pharmacist who loads it with medications. The bottle senses when it was opened and how many pills were removed then sends its data to a server. The server compares the data to the patient's prescription and can send text alerts or phonecalls to caregivers. The data has an open API so can be used by the patient or medical staff. Is that your pill bottle calling?

BRAINS: The brain is a massively complex organ that researchers are studying closely. The European Human Brain project has spent 10 years cutting one donated brain into 7,400 slices and scanning each slice.
The scans have created the BigBrain Atlas, an accessible, highly accurate 3D anatomical model of the human brain available to researchers. Each slice took about 1000 hours of nearly continuous labour to prepare and scan. The BigBrain Atlas is only one smaller part of the larger Human Brain project. That's a very intensive scanning project.

SMOKE SIGNALS: Surgeons use electrosurgical knives to cut and cauterise blood vessels. Those knives create smoke whose lipid profiles reflect what kind of tissue is being cut. That means, for example, that smoke from a tumour can be differentiated from that from other tissue. The hitch is that it takes a mass spectrometer to tell the difference. A team from Imperial College London have created an intelligent surgical knife. It captures the smoke from the tissue it cuts and sends it through a mass spectrometer. Lights on a display indicate within 3 seconds what kind of tissue it is. Ultimately the aim is for surgeons to be easily able to cut out all of a tumour while leaving behind healthy tissue. Meanwhile patients may need less time under anesthesia. More confidence, lower costs. sounds like a win all round.

EVERY BREATH WE TAKE: Mosquitoes are more than just annoying. In the places where they carry malaria, especially in Africa, South-East Asia and South America, they cause thousands of deaths each year. They find humans to bite by the CO2 we exhale. The Kite Patch is a small colourful square, roughly 4 cm on a side, that you can stick on your clothing to keep mosquitoes away for 48 hours. The patch uses non-toxic compounds that disrupt the mosquito's ability to detect our CO2, making it harder for them to track us. We need to watch this.

HACK YOUR HEALTH: You may have heard of Arduino, but have you heard of BITalino? A BITalino board has multiple sensors, such as electrocardiography (ECG), electromyography (EMG), electrodermal activity (EDA), accelerometer and ambient light. The parts are designed to be easy to snap together and the board connects to computers, phones and other Bluetooth devices. BITalino has software for visualisation and recording, a set of programming APIs, a biosignal processing toolbox, and a framework for real time data acquisition. The hardware includes a modular wireless biosignal acquisition system, multiple inputs and outputs and can interface with other devices. Is there a plug for easy Government monitoring too?

SPECCY 5 EYES: Monash University are working on a pair of glasses that will send signals directly into the brain. The glasses contain a camera and an eye movement sensor to direct the camera. Processors in the side of the glasses will modify images from the camera and send them wirelessly to an implant under the skull that will stimulate the brain's visual cortex. The final result will be to help people with impaired vision to see better, including those with glaucoma or macular degeneration. Researchers have produced a prototype and trials begin next year. At least most of the equipment could be easily upgraded as required, though the implant will be harder to update.

BUMP IN THE LIGHT: Blind people generally do still have some sight — they may be able to perceive light and motion. Researchers from Oxford University have taken advantage of that to create a pair of smart glasses to help with navigation. Cameras on the glasses and software detect nearby objects and present them in a simple and intuitive way onto the lenses. This alerts the wearer to obstacles, but better software could perform object recognition and tell the wearer what each object actually is. Moreover signs, menus, bus numbers and the like could perhaps be turned into speech. Nice.

FRESH EYES: The Second Sight Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is now on the market in the US. If the name's too long for you, think bionic eye for blind people. 60 electrodes are implanted in the retina and interact with glasses fitted with a special mini camera. When tested on 30 people who were completely blind the system allowed some to see a little, while others could read newspaper headlines. The prosthesis replaces the function of photoreceptors in the eye that send impulses for the brain to convert into images. Things are definitely looking up for those with vision problems.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

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