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10 Amazing, Emerging Advances in Medical Technology
February 16th, 2011
Regardless of whether or not they fully enjoy or understand the science, everyone should put forth at least a modicum of effort to follow the latest medical technology news and views. Amazing things evolve every day to make life so much easier for patients and doctors alike, and understanding what they are and how they work sheds considerable light on what can be done to ailing friends, family and ourselves. Many more beautiful bits of research and development have emerged lately than just the ones listed here. Be sure to check those out in order to get a much broader picture of the stunning scientific applications headed in humanity's direction.
Faster MRIs: A Science Daily article excitedly reports that neuroscientists and physicists with Oxford University, University of California, Berkeley and University of Minnesota have developed new brain scans performing up to 7 times faster than their predecessors. These MRIs render a complete 3D image of the brain in less than half a second. Previously, it took between 2 and 3 seconds. Such a major achievement assists neuroscientists and doctors needing to find dangerous but difficult to find brain phenomena. Physicist David Feinberg refers to the essential organ as a "moving target" — a phrase many unfamiliar with human physiology may find puzzling. But for medical professionals, lessening the amount of time it takes to map the brain means more opportunities to figure out how its more mysterious, fleeting components work.
Water fleas as human test subjects: Water fleas, also known as Daphnia pulex, boast the highest amount of genes than any other animal. Yes, that includes humans. But a Science article from February 3, 2011 revealed an even more startling fact — these extremely common, oft-studied little arthropods share more genes with people than any other species in their phylum. From both an environmental and a public health perspective, this discovery can help scientists better understand the impact certain chemicals have on nature and the body alike. While there's obviously going to be many genetic divergences, scientist believe these humble little creatures will play an integral role in toxicology tests beneficial to the overall safety and well-being of many different organisms.
Stopping organ failure before it starts: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid developers and researchers have discovered an amazing strategy for scanning cells all the way down at the molecular level. The wondrous device, tested at the Gregorio Maranon Hospital, uses molecular imaging to explore erratic and potentially erratic cell behavior, allowing doctors an amazing advantage when it comes to diagnosing organ failure and other malfunctions. When caught quickly enough, these unfortunate circumstances can actually be partially or fully addressed before causing serious health and physiological damage. In addition, this new biomedical miracle also holds the potential to help professionals develop stronger, more effective medications fighting diseases and debilitating conditions right where they begin. Juan Jose Vaquero and Manuel Desco head up the thoroughly awesome team and its efforts to patent such a revolutionary piece of machinery.
"The YouTube Cure": Scientific American discusses the story of Paolo Zamboni — a neurosurgeon with the single greatest last name in history — and the highly controversial role social media played in finding him subjects for experimental surgery. He developed a method to relieve some of the horrid pain associated with MS using inflated balloons on twisted neck nerves, but needed to perform the procedure multiple times to ensure its validity. News of Zamboni's theories hit the internet before his article in the Journal of Vascular Surgery was even released, and hospitals and individual patients the world over scrambled to participate. Harnessing social media in such a fashion, however, can easily prove just as dangerous and detrimental to a patient's health as it does beneficial. While Zamboni is a legitimate, albeit oft-questioned, professional genuinely hoping to help MS patients, no filters exist for preventing abuse. Individuals and groups both in- and outside the medical field harboring either malicious intent or questionable competence are more than capable of preying off patients' desperation for a solution. "The YouTube Cure" still exists on the fringes of medical science, but time will reveal whether or not it proves a worthwhile strategy.
Magnetic molecules: Rainer Herges at Kiel University and his team of chemists devised a brilliant method for manipulating the magnetism of molecules at room temperature. Referred to as "function by switching," this practice involves a machine akin to a tiny record player, constructed of nickel ion, a pigment ring surrounding it and a suspended nitrogen atom. Irradiation with a blue-green light source launches the nickel ion and nitrogen atom to interact in a manner causing the former to end up magnetized. Herges' crew is enthusiastic about potential medical applications, including accurate temperatures gauging, 3D renderings of biochemical phenomena and pH balances. When magnetic salts are introduced as contrast agents, the developers believe their technique could illuminate different metabolic events, localize inflammations and even check for tumors.
Bioengineered blood vessels: Right now, many scientists and medical professionals see some exciting promise in Shannon Dahl's biotech work with Humacyte. Donor cells stuffed into polyglycolic acid scaffolds are placed in a bioreactor, resulting in collagen constructs resembling blood vessels. In addition, the risk of a patient's body rejecting such implants is greatly minimized as well. Though currently in nascent stages, Dahl's developments mean some amazing, revolutionary things for patients and doctors with various arterial diseases and conditions. Even after refrigeration for years, the tubes still function in a similar manner to organic veins, arteries and capillaries. Transplants involving artificial polytetraflourethylene replacements oftentimes require repair or replacement after 10 months, making this awe-inducing research all the more attractive and optimistic.
The STEM microscope: fMRIs and PET scans are great for picking up major brain damages, injuries and disorders, but not so much for more subtle issues involving chemical imbalances and communication breakdowns. Enter the stunning STEM microscope. A creation of UCLA physicists and neuroscientists, this amazing device records neuron activity in real time. Medical professionals working with schizophrenia, mental retardation, the autism spectrum and other conditions can harness the STEM microscope to better understand exactly how they operate. This leads to sturdier diagnoses and — maybe someday — stronger medications and even cures. At the moment, it can take around 250 pictures per second and provide a fully 3D view of the brain, and professors Katsushi Arisaka, Carlos Portera-Cailliau and their team are working to make it run much faster.
Further blurring man and machine: At this point, it's become more than a touch cliche to compare current medical technology advances with science fiction tropes past, though such a mindset is exceptionally apt in many cases. This, of course, is one of them. In his book Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines — and How It Will Change Our Lives, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis takes what was once purely cyberpunk speculation and outlines today's very real sciences that will flip them into reality. He sincerely believes that mankind sits on the brink of linking the body directly to more sophisticated prosthetics — a dramatic boon for amputees, the paralyzed, individuals with organ failure and others afflicted by similar conditions. From there, Nicoleis visualizes a day when science will allow for complete brain uploads granting functional immortality and a solution for Alzheimer's and dementia patients. And, of course, the obligatory "much more."
Kinder, gentler biopsies: At Michigan State, scientists and researchers are painstakingly working on laser technology to render biopsy procedures as painless and noninvasive as possible. Marcos Dantus and Sunney Xie are currently developing a method of scanning moles and other potentially cancerous growths using laser microscopes. They work by sending out quick pulses towards afflicted spots, adjusting themselves to react to and using various compounds. For patients concerned about skin cancer risk and potential, this saves them painful time underneath a knife — not to mention the hand-wringing involved when waiting for tests to come back. Medical professionals involved with pharmacology also benefit from such advances as well. Depending on the laser microscope's calibration, it's capable of exploring how drugs penetrate skin and hair — excellent news when developing the most effective drugs they can.
Wireless heart monitors: When hospitals began experimenting with implanting electromechanical pressure sensors in their cardiac patients, they noticed a 30% decrease in readmissions. These wireless heart monitors, researched and created by CardioMEMS, relay arterial signals to doctors and greatly assist them in keeping track of all sorts of factors — making it an indispensable preventative tool. It works by using pressure-sensitive sensors to constantly maintain vigil over the pulmonary artery using electromechanical dynamics. Data is sent directly to physicians and surgeons, who can read cardiac activity remotely and detect possible problems before things get cataclysmic. They're also able to make more effective judgments when it comes to writing up prescriptions, and none of the parties involved have to deal with painful, sometimes problematic catheters. As mentioned earlier, early runs have proven incredibly positive in keeping many heart patients from relapsing and succumbing to the issues initially sending them to the hospital.