Despite seeing the benefits of technological innovation in our everyday lives—from computers in the palm of your hand to self-driving cars, lab-grown meat to designer babies—we often don’t think about how these things are possible, and this is especially true in the realm of medical and biological research. The simple reason? For many, science is just plain hard to understand.
Do you know how scientists isolate genes, mix and match for genetic modification?
How about the techniques involved in the search for an HIV cure?
Have you ever looked into the new cancer treatment therapies undergoing clinical trial?
I love learning how these things work. Yet, in no way do I understand every piece of science underlying these and other medical research tactics. At the same time, these are more important to everyone’s future than, say, the latest cell phone.
Look, I get it. The evening news finds it easier to explain why wine is great for heart health than how the latest advance in molecular cancer therapy works. It’s easy to understand. Plus, people love an excuse to eat or drink something they normally feel they shouldn’t. But is there a way to bring biomedical innovation to a bigger spotlight? I say yes.
The average person may not understand how stem cell therapy works, or how and why you’d put human genes in a mouse. What do they love, though? Technology. Show a robot doing something cool or artificial intelligence beating a human in a task, and they’re hooked.
So, in the spirit of showing off biomedical advances you probably haven’t heard of, check out these cool technologies that may one day help save your life.
Robots improve upon designer microbes
Zymergen is a rising star in the biotech industry, having raised $130 million in 2016 to power their robot factory. A robot factory that takes genetically engineered microbes out of human hands and improves them using artificial intelligence.
First, the robots are much more precise than humans. For instance, instead of pipetting liquid like human scientists, Zymergen robots use sound waves to send a ripple through the liquid. This results in a more precise, specifically a thousand-times smaller, droplet landing in the selected container.
Also, the robots are fast. Instead of testing maybe a dozen hypotheses a month, Zymergen’s robots can run up to 1000 experiments a week. With each experiment for a specific microbe, the computer system collects the data, then uses it to design further experiments. While there are human scientists checking the work, the artificial intelligence is the one making the decisions as to what to edit in the microbe’s genome. And so it goes until they hit something that works.
Right now, Zymergen’s robots revise and improve upon industrial microbes, such as biofuels, drugs, etc., that were already human engineered, finding any flaws and improving the product in ways humans may miss. The hope, however, is to one day have AI take control from the start.
Read more about Zymergen’s technology in Science.
A handheld heart scanner? European scientists hope to put them in doctors’ hands
In 2015, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 project provided a €3.6 million research grant to fund the development of CARDIS (CARdiovascular disease Detection with Integrated Silicon Photonics), a handheld doppler scanner to diagnose heard conditions. It works like a supermarket scanner and can provide results much faster and cheaper than current methods. With cardiovascular disease listed as the leading cause of death in the world today, this new diagnostic tool is a possible game-changer in the healthcare world.
Using Laser Doppler Vibrometry, medical practitioners point the device to the chest, where it detects any change in vibration of light or sound waves and maps the chest and heart area. This allows doctors to detect conditions, such as possible stiffness in the arteries, build-up of plaque and arterial stenosis, long before cardiovascular disease is typically diagnosed.
There are a number of reasons to hope 2018’s prototype lives up to the hype.
- It’s thousands of dollars cheaper than other tools. For this reason, researchers hope to put it in the hands of doctors for in-office procedures.
- It’s noninvasive. There’s no need for examining cardiac biomarkers, performing cardiac catheterization, cardiac MRI or Holter monitoring. Instead, CARDIS, due to its inexpensive and portable nature, can get a quick, early diagnosis to slow or reverse cardiovascular disease.
- It’s more accurate than other tests and provides results in a fraction of the time.
Read more about the project on the CARDIS website.
Hate shots? Microneedle vaccinations are on the way
While I don’t personally mind most shots, I understand why both adults and kids have a fear of needles. They’re long, they go in places they seemingly shouldn’t, and they just look like they’ll hurt. Plus, some medical professionals aren’t the greatest at limiting the pain for even the simplest shots. Or hitting the vein the first time. The good news is that science is working to make the whole process a little more comfortable.
Using dissolvable microneedles, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University have developed a pain-free patch for vaccine delivery. The dime-sized patch contains 100 water-soluable microneedles, and it’s so easy to use that they hope to eventually be able to mail you your flu vaccine.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s as simple as using a Band Aid:
Adhesive helps the patch grip the skin during the administration of the vaccine, which is encapsulated in the needles and is released as the needle tips dissolve, within minutes. The patch is peeled away and discarded like a used bandage strip.
They’re also safe for storage and disposal. Patches last for one full year without refrigeration, and you can toss them in the regular trash, no sharps container needed.
So far, the results speak for themselves. A 100-person clinical trial of 18- to 49-year-olds showed that flu vaccine patches and regular injections were equally as effective, and 70 percent of participants stated they would choose the patches over injections or nasal sprays. With such outcomes, it’s easy to imagine that, if this were to hit the market, parents would happily choose the painless option not only for themselves, but especially for their children.
Now researchers are seeking to conduct further trials in order to gain FDA approval. Even better, they’re also already working to develop patches for other vaccines.
Of course, there are going to be vaccines that may not transition to such a patch because they require deep penetration via intramuscular injection to be most effective. On the other hand, who is going to complain when fewer vaccines require normal needles? I’m sure not!
3D printing could revolutionize biomedicine
While doctors in Brazil are now using fish skin to treat wounds, multiple research groups from around the world are taking a different approach: 3D-printed human skin.
Scientists in Madrid, Spain, created a prototype 3D bioprinter that successfully prints functional human skin that’s transplant-ready. The bioinks are created with stock industrial cells or even cells from the patient’s own body. Just like your printer, the ‘inks’ are inserted into cartridges, which are inserted into a specialty printer and used for printing. They hope to have the printer on the commercial market for use in burn centers within 2 years.
Instead of printing skin to later use on wounds, researchers from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are testing printing skin directly onto wounds. For their method, wound depth and size are determined with a scanner, then the details are used by the printer to print the correct kind of skin cell at the appropriate depth. Now in the second phase of their trial, researchers are testing whether a type of stem cell from the amniotic fluid or the placenta helps heal wounds.
The implications for either technique are massive. Not only can 3D printing reduce the scarring and minimize or eliminate skin-grafting surgeries, it can provide coverage for larger areas of skin and perhaps even shorten healing time. It also has the potential to provide a low-cost alternative for countries, like Brazil, who have a shortage of skin bank availability.
Even more importantly, it opens up the possibility for 3D printing of other biological materials vital to human life, such as patches of blood vessels for the ischemic heart; ear, bone, and muscle structures; nerves; and human organs.
3D imaging in medical scans
Using 3D imaging in medicine isn’t exactly new, but EchoPixel is kicking it up a notch. This new tool creates interactive, 3D holographic images of CT and MRI scans. Medical professionals can move, dissect and size parts of the patient anatomy, manipulating holograms to get a full view of the organs and better pinpoint disease.
According to the EchoPixel website, there are five key advantages to the technology:
Real-Time, Interactive Virtual Reality System: True 3D moves beyond the flat screen, displaying real patient anatomy in open 3D space, with instant response and seamless interaction capabilities.
Optimal Image Strategy: Anatomical information is tailored to be procedure-specific, easily accessible and unobstructed.
Effortless Interpretation: True 3D provides the required visual context, with no extraneous information, significantly lowering the cognitive load for doctors.
Engaging User Interface: It’s intuitive to use. Specialized tools enable users to directly grasp, dissect and size key clinical features with one move.
Advanced Protocols and Sharing: Expert-derived protocols facilitate specific procedures, allowing doctors to create rich data, share it with others, and improve the utility of the system across the network of users.
The video below shows how it works.
It will be interesting to see how the technology helps to improve diagnosis as it achieves more widespread use.