Back in the 1960s when mainframe computers filled entire rooms, the idea of sticking a computer in someone’s eye would likely have sounded ridiculous–but that’s just what scientists are planning to do. Researchers have unveiled an implantable computer system that’s meant to monitor glaucoma patients’ eye pressure.
The University of Michigan researchers say it’s officially the world’s smallest computer. Measuring less than 0.04 inches long (or a little over one cubic millimeter), the entire computer packs a lot into a little space: It has a pressure sensor, a low-power microprocessor, a wireless radio and antenna that sends information to an external device, a battery, and a solar cell to charge the battery. It can store information for up to a week, and the system can link with other devices to form networks of wireless sensors.
According to Live Science, millimeter-scale computers are a new technological frontier:
Hospitals may start packing heat in the near future, but patients–especially burn victims–will be rejoicing. The “skin gun” fires stem cells instead of bullets, and it can heal second-degree burns faster than we’ve ever done it before.
Usually, skin grafting is an arduous process: It takes weeks to grow a fragile patch of skin over a wound. But with the skin gun, the grafting process takes 90 minutes and patients heal up within four days. And in the world of skin grafting, that speedy timeline is precious because it means that infections have less of a chance of setting in and killing patients.
What to you do if a doctor says your heart’s aortic root had ballooned to nearly two inches, and that a heart attack is imminent unless you receive a mechanical valve–a fix that requires blood-thinning drugs for the rest of one’s life? Easy–just invent your own heart implant.
This was the scenario facing Tal Golesworthy in 2000. An engineer from Tewkesbury, England, Golesworthy has the same tissue disorder that afflicts over 12,000 people in the UK: Marfan syndrome. But Golesworthy decided that the valve wasn’t his only option. As The Engineer reports:
What excited him was the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computer-aided design (CAD). He believed that by combining these technologies with rapid prototyping (RP) techniques he could manufacture a tailor-made support that would act as an internal bandage to keep his aorta in place…. “It seemed to me to be pretty obvious that you could scan the heart structure, model it with a CAD routine, then use RP to create a former on which to manufacture a device,” explained Golesworthy. “In a sense, conceptually, it was very simple to do. Actually engineering that was significantly more complex.”
The main difficulty was that the scanners had trouble imaging his beating heart, and since you can’t tell your heart to “hold still” for the camera, Golesworthy did the next best thing: he created multiple images of his heart at the same cardiac cycle. With CAD helping him design the implant, the next obstacle was how to translate a digital design to a workable heart implant. As The Engineer reports:
The team looked at a number of different processes, such as 3D embroidery, but ended up using a standard medical polymer, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in a textile solution that allowed them to form a mesh directly onto the former. The mesh weighed less than 5g, was an exact fit for the ascending aorta and could be sutured into place by the surgeon. The process, from proposal to final product, took just under two years.
All the while, Golesworthy was working against the clock, knowing that a heart attack could rear its head at any point. From The Engineer:
“My aorta was dilating all through that period,” said Golesworthy. “When you’ve got the scalpel of Damocles hanging over your sternum, it motivates you into making things happen and so they do…”
And they did. Golesworthy created his implant and surgeons implanted it into his heart in 2004. Since then 23 other patients have had the same surgery, and the implant has the potential to become the standard for valve-surgery in the coming years–all thanks to a man who could have died from a big heart, but instead decided to share it.
DISCOVER: Young at Heart
DISCOVER: Can Stem Cells Save Dying Hearts?
DISCOVER: Vital Signs
80beats: Bill Clinton Got 2 Stents. What’s a Stent? Are They Overused?
80beats: Dick Cheney Goes to the Hospital with New Heart Problems
Image: flickr /Vintage Collective
Pac-Man is looking different these days–he’s slimmed down, translucent, and has grown a mane of cilia. And he’s also alive. Meet Pac-Mecium, one of eight “biotic games” developed by Stanford physicist Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his team. For the first time in gaming history, players directly “control” living organisms such as paramecia–a breakthrough that could lead to the baby boom of citizen scientists.
In a paper published in the journal Lab on a Chip, the researchers describe the games they made with names like “Biotic Pinball” and “POND PONG” and “Ciliaball,” in which humans interact with everything from a few molecules to colonies of cells. In the case of PAC-Mecium, a game board image is projected over a paramecium, and while the player sees the image via a live camera, the paramecium’s progress and score are accounted for by a microprocessor. As Stanford News reports:
The player attempts to control the paramecia using a controller that is much like a typical video game controller. In some games, such as PAC-mecium, the player controls the polarity of a mild electrical field applied across the fluid chamber, which influences the direction the paramecia move. In Biotic Pinball, the player injects occasional whiffs of a chemical into the fluid, causing the paramecia to swim one direction or another.
If you’re hankering for a day at the races but don’t live near a horse track, you can now play “PolymerRace,” in which you can place bets on how fast a machine can copy DNA. In it, the players are fed the output of a Polymerase Chain Reaction machine, which copies DNA, and employing both chance and logic, they place their wagers on which line they think is the fastest.
The standard inkjet printer found in offices around the world is the inspiration for a new medical device that can help patients with severe burns. Researchers at Wake Forest University rigged up a device that can spray skin cells directly onto a burn victim’s wounds, and animal trials showed that the treatment healed wounds quickly and safely. The team says this printing method could be an improvement over traditional skin grafts, which often leave serious scars.
The researchers explain that the device is mounted in a frame that can be wheeled over a patient in a hospital bed. A laser then takes a reading of the wound’s size and shape so that a layer of healing cells can be precisely applied, Reuters reports.
“We literally print the cells directly onto the wound,” said student Kyle Binder, who helped design the device. “We can put specific cells where they need to go.”
In the trials, this treatment completely closed wounds in just two weeks. The “bioprinting” device has so far only been tested on mice, but the team will soon try out the technique on pigs, whose skin is similar to that of humans. Eventually, the team expects to request FDA approval for human trials.
It’s a disconcerting thought, but somewhere out there lies a cadaver… blinking.
Beyond the fright, however, lies the hope for the suffering–scientists have found a way to make an eyelid blink using electrical charges. It’s a big development that can help people with eyelid paralysis who face the possibility of going blind.
Currently, eyelid paralysis is treated either by transferring a muscle from the leg into the face–a lengthy process that may not be suitable for elderly or sick patients–or suturing a gold weight inside the eye, which helps close the eye with the aid of gravity. But neither solution has many takers. Searching for an alternative, surgeons at the University of California at Davis experimented with artificial muscles with six donated human cadavers.
Newsweek health writer Tina Peng reports on the rise of “natural orifice surgery,” in which organs like the appendix, gallbladder, or even kidney are removed through the mouth, vagina, or anus. Despite its potential for inciting a gag reflex (both in readers and patients), the still-experimental procedure is potentially quicker, cheaper, less painful, less scarring, and faster healing than the laparoscopic techniques that—until you read this blog post—seemed so advanced.
The original seven deadly sins laid out by the Catholic Church—pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath, and sloth—are the classics of immorality, the same basic flaws humans have evinced since coming out of the trees (and, perhaps, even before). But in our booming, globalized, highly networked world, there are some new and very harmful errors at our disposal. And while the Vatican doesn’t have a Facebook page yet (unlike Discover), they do recognize that modern times call for modern vices.
In an interview headlined “New Forms of Social Sin,” Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, insisted that “new sins have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalization.” The list of “mortal sins,” as they have now been classified, came at the end of a week-long seminar in Rome that intended to deal with the dismal turnout at recent confessions. Seems logical: If a wider range of souls are in danger of eternal damnation, more will seek absolution. So, what are the new ways to fall from grace?
Girotti devotes some space to a familiar type of don’t-treat-your-brother-poorly admonitions—like social injustice that causes poverty or “the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few”—but many of the new rules concern modern science, stuff that the sixth-century pope Gregory the Great never dreamed of.