From the London 2012 Anti-Doping Centre’s revolutionary makeover, to DIY prosthetics, and parents getting a sneak peek at their unborn baby’s genetic future, we bring you the most innovative stories from the world of wellness research.
PSFK has partnered with Boehringer Ingelheim to bring you a snapshot of Ten Innovative Ideas each week that are reshaping the health care industry. Continue reading below for the most exciting ideas from the past seven days.
Lab researchers at Harvard University have interlaced wires and transistors into a sample of rat heart tissue in order to test the potential of melding organic tissue with artificial components. The team embedded 3D networks of conductive nanowires containing silicon sensors into the tissue that were both flexible and small enough to avoid impeding the growth of the tissue. The researchers were not only able to grow rat neurons, heart cells and muscle in these hybrid meshes of wire and tissue, but when they stimulated heart cell contraction, they detected an increase in heart rate, indicating normal tissue behavior in reacting to changes. The ‘cyborg’ tissue could be potentially used to test drugs, become part of a prosthetic, or be part of the basis for existing implants like pacemakers.
London’s Anti-Doping Centre, which was developed specifically for the 2012 Olympic games and was used to conduct over 6,000 drug tests on athletes, is being transformed into the world’s first national “phenome center.” Phenomes describe a person’s chemistry – all the molecules in their blood, urine or tissues – that are the result of their genetics and their lifestyle. Researchers hope that the NIHR-MRC Phenome Centre, which is set to open in early 2013, will give them a better understanding of how to develop targeted treatments for patients with a wide range of common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
Ivan Owen, a mechanical special effects artist, has created a working, affordable, homemade prosthetic finger out of common tools and materials. In an attempt to help disabled people who cannot afford the cost of ‘professionally designed’ prosthetics, Ivan and his business partner, Richard Van, set out to design prosthetic fingers that can be created by following design instructions posted on the internet. The two vow not to patent any of their designs, stating, “We aren’t interested in trying to make money off people’s miseries.” The two designers are currently working on a “long” and “short” prosthetic finger and say that they are 75% finished.
A German research team from Duisburg have developed a microchip that can sample the blood sugar levels found in tears or sweat and transmit the results wirelessly for diabetic patients. The two millimeter long chip hopes to help forgo the finger pricks that diabetics are used to and accurately analyze sweat or tears by using an electrochemical reaction. The chip can send patients wireless alerts to their mobile phone, keeping them aware of their glucose levels. The chip can also be powered wirelessly through radio frequency, keeping the chip charged for weeks or months at a time. The research team hopes that the power source could also help power a small pump that could administer insulin based on the patients levels, completing the circuit and possibly removing the need for needles all together.
Researchers in Singapore have created a computer for lip reading people’s emotions using an evolving algorithm that can improve over time. The computer is trained to watch both the lower and upper lips and analyze its movement for telltale signs of six common emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise – along with a seventh neutral state. As the computer watches a person, it learns to improve its assessment with each calculation. The technology could be used to improve emotional recognition in communication devices for speech-disabled users or other popular speech recognition programs.
Minneapolis based health delivery company HealthPartners has developed a web platform that enables patients to visit a doctor over the Internet at considerably reduced costs. The service ‘Virtuwell’ features interactive diagnostic questionnaires online for about 40 different conditions with clear treatment protocols. Nurse practitioners are on call to review the questionnaires as well as any photos uploaded by patients showing visible symptoms, to give advice and send a prescription to a pharmacy. The questionnaires automatically flag anything potentially serious. For example, if bladder infection symptoms have gone on for more than a week, Virtuwell will end the interview and give the patient a list of options for receiving care in person. The e-visits cost patients $40 or less, compared with $100 and up for a trip to a doctor’s office or trip to the ER; as with regular office visits, insurance may cover some of the cost.
A team of researchers at Harvard have created an extremely stretchy and strong gel that could open the door for artificial cartilage implants in damaged human joints. The new hydrogel, which is a hybrid of two common polymers, can stretch to 21 times its original length, is exceptionally tough, self-healing and biocompatible. Unlike conventional hydrogels, which are often weak and brittle, the new gel is more suitable for challenging applications such as artificial cartilage or spinal disks because it’s able to stretch and expand under compression and tension without tearing. The researchers suggest that the new hydrogel could also be used in soft robotics, artificial muscle, or as a tough protective covering for wounds.
Students from Arizona State University have designed a biosensor to test for contaminated water. The two-tier test scans for diarrheal disease by first looking for DNA tags of pathogens, while the second tests examines the proteins of common bacteria that cause disease. The group is competing in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition to help alleviate the second leading cause of death in children, and will present their design at Stanford for review. The team hopes that the design will lower the cost and improve the accuracy of detecting drinking water for contaminants; key factors in spreading testing mechanisms.
High school student Catherine Wong has invented a low-cost electrocardiogram that transmits real-time medical data through a cellphone, which may scale diagnoses of heart complications in the developing world. An electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures the heart’s rhythm, is a basic and widely used medical test, but is often inaccessible to the over 2 billion people on earth without access to health care. The device uses off-the-shelf electronic components to pick up the heart’s electrical signals, then transmits them via cellphone to a health professional who can analyze them. Using Bluetooth wireless signals, the working ECG can be connected to a cellphone and the heart rhythms are displayed on the phone’s screen thanks to a Java application. The low-cost medical device and corresponding smartphone application are in a position to be adopted at scale by the developing world, and are also the winner of National Public Radio’s ‘Big Idea’ video contest.
Researches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have discovered a new technique that allows them to decode an entire genome of an unborn baby from a single sample of the mother’s blood. Typically, the process of obtaining fetal DNA from amniotic fluid, placenta or directly from the fetus’ body required an invasive procedure that carried a risk of miscarriage. The new technique is noninvasive and makes genetic testing safer and much more widely accessible by using a sample of the pregnant mother’s blood. Scientists believe that this discovery will ultimately lead to doctors being able to divine a wealth of information about genetic diseases and other characteristics of the fetus.
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