The Future of Medicine: Improved Malaria Vaccine

flu_vaccineOf the many advances made by medical science in the past century, vaccinations are arguably the greatest. With the ability to inoculate people against infection, diseases like yellow fever, measles, rubella, mumps, typhoid, tetanus, polio, tuberculosis, and even the common flu have become controllable – if not eliminated. Nevertheless, medical researchers agree that there are still some things that can be improved upon when it comes to vaccinations.

Beyond the controversies surrounding a supposed link between vaccinations and autism, there is the simple fact that the current method of inoculating people is rather invasive. Basically, it requires people to sit through the rather uncomfortable process of being stuck with a needle, oftentimes in an uncomfortable place (like the shoulder). Luckily, many researchers are working on a way to immunize people using gentler methods.

malaria_vaccineAt the University College Cork in Ireland, for example, scientists have just finished pre-clinical testing on an experimental malaria vaccine that is delivered through the skin. To deliver the vaccine into the body, the researchers used a skin patch with arrays of tiny silicon microneedles that painlessly create temporary pores. These pores provide an entry point for the vaccine to flow into the skin, as the patch dissolves and releases the drug.

To make the vaccine, the team used a live adenovirus similar to the virus that causes the common cold, but which they engineered to be safer and produce the same protein as the parasite that causes malaria. Adenoviruses are one of the most powerful vaccine platforms scientists have tested, and the one they used produced strong immunity responses to the malaria antigen with lower doses of the vaccine.

TB_microneedlesThe research showed that the administration of the vaccine with the microneedle patch solves a shortcoming related to this type of vaccine, which is inducing immunity to the viral vector – that is, to the vaccine itself. By overcoming this obstacle, the logistics and costs of vaccination could be simpler and cheaper as it would not require boosters to be made with different strains. Besides, with no needles or pain involved, there’s bigger potential to reach more people requiring inoculation.

This is similar to the array used by researchers at King’s College in London, who are also developing a patch for possible HIV vaccine delivery. Researchers at University of Washington used a similar method last year to deliver the tuberculosis vaccine. The method is an improvement on this type of vaccine delivery since it is painless and non-invasive. It’s use is also being researched in relation to other infections, including Ebola and HIV.

The details of the research appeared in the journal Nature. Lead researcher, Dr. Anne Moore, is set to negotiate with Silicon Valley investors and technology companies to commercialize the vaccine.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), ucc.ie, nature.com

The Future is Here: DARPA’s Nervous System Implants

DARPA_implantHard on the heels of their proposed BRAIN initiative – a collaborative research initiative to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain – DARPA has announced a bold new program to develop tiny electronic implants that will be able to interface directly with the human nervous system to control and regulate many different diseases and chronic conditions, such as arthritis, PTSD, Crohn’s disease, and depression.

The program, called ElectRx (pronounced ‘electrics’), ultimately aims to replace medication with “closed-loop” neural implants which monitor the state of your health and then provide the necessary nerve stimulation to keep your organs and biological systems functioning properly. The work is primarily being carried out with US soldiers and veterans in mind, but the technology will certainly percolate down to civilians as well.

electrx-darpaThe ElectRx program will focus the relatively new area of medical therapies called neuromodulation, which seeks to modulate the nervous system to improve neurological problem. Notable examples of this are cochlear implants which restore hearing by modulating your brain’s auditory nerve system, and deep brain stimulation (DBS) which is apparently capable of curing/regulating conditions  like depression and Parkinson’s by overriding erroneous neural spikes.

So far, these implants have been fairly large, which makes implantation fairly invasive and risky. Most state-of-the-art implants also lack precision, with most placing the stimulating electrodes in roughly the right area, but which are unable to target a specific bundles of nerves. With ElectRx, DARPA wants to miniaturize these neuromodulation implants so that they’re the same size as a nerve fiber.

electrx-darpa-implant-diagramThis way they can be implanted with a minimally invasive procedure (through a needle) and attached to specific nerve fibers, for very precise stimulation. While these implants can’t regulate every condition or replace every medication (yet), they could be very effective at mitigating a large number of conditions. A large number of conditions are caused by the nervous system misfiring, like inflammatory diseases, brain and mental health disorders.

Currently, a variety of drugs are used to try and cajole these awry neurons and nerves back in-line by manipulating various neurotransmitters. However, the science behind these drugs is not yet exact, relying heavily on a trial-and-error approach and often involving serious side-effects. Comparatively, an electronic implant that could “catch” the misfire, cleans up the signal, and then retransmits it would be much more effective.

cochlear_implantAs DARPA’s Doug Weber explained:

The technology DARPA plans to develop through the ElectRx program could fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness. Instead of relying only on medication — we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker. It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.

Despite requiring a lot of novel technological breakthroughs, DARPA is planning to perform human trials of ElectRx in about five years. The initial goal will be improving the quality of life for US soldiers and veterans. And while they have yet to announce which conditions they will be focusing on, it is expected that something basic like arthritis will be the candidate – though there are expectations that PTSD will become a source sooner other than later.

AI'sAnd this is just the latest neurological technology being developed by DARPA. Earlier in the year, the agency announced a similar program to develop a brain implant that can restore lost memories and experiences. A joint fact sheet released by the Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Association revealed that DARPA also secured 78 million dollars to build the chips as part of the government’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) program.

While DARPA’s ElectRx announcement is purely focused on the medical applications of miniature neural implants, there are of course a variety of other uses that might arise from elective implantation – for soldiers as well as civilians. With a few well-placed implants in a person’s spine, they could flip a switch and ignore any pain reported by your limbs, allowing them to withstand greater physical stress or ignore injuries.

posthumanImplants placed in muscle fibers could also provide added electrostimulation to provide extra boosts of raw muscle power. And With precision-placed implants around the right nerve fibers, people could gain manual control of their organs, allowing them to speed up or slow down their hearts, turbo-charge their livers, or tweak just about any other function of their bodies.

The age of the Transhuman looms, people!

Source: extremetech.com, motherboard.vice.com, darpa.mil

The Future is Here: FDA Approves Human Suspended Animation

prometheus-cryotubeWe’ve all heard about it, read about it, and seen it in the movies. Suspended Animation. The ability to put someone in a tank and chill them to the point where their heart rate, breathing, and metabolism are reduced to an absolute minimum, preserving their life or prolonging it artificially. It’s a common science fiction concept, but could such a technique ever be made feasible? That is what a team of researchers from UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, with FDA approval, are attempting to answer.

The purpose of this research is to see if suspended animation can deliver on its main promise – namely, keeping a patient alive long enough to receive life-saving treatment or surgery. Oftentimes with disease and traumatic injuries, the difference between life and death is a simple matter of timing. And for those patients who simply cannot be helped with the current level of technology and pharmacology, it is also a race against time, trying to stay alive long enough to see science catch up with the illness.

EPRThis Emergency Preservation and Resuscitation (EPR) technique isn’t quite as extreme as what we’ve come to know from science fiction franchises. Instead of reducing a patient’s temperature to near-freezing levels, it involves reducing body temperature to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) by inserting a cannula into the aorta and flushing cold saline into the system. This will slow the blood flow, which will prevent the body from bleeding out and slow other biological processes as well.

So far, the result have been pretty subdued – with the EPR state of induced hypothermia only being sustainable for about two hours. While this isn’t as dramatic as some may have expected, that could easily provide enough time for surgeons to perform emergency lifesaving surgery. Trauma patients who suffer cardiac arrest have a 7% chance of survival, and administering this technique could have some very real and amazing implications.

suspended-animationThis technique was first tested by Peter Rhee in 2000 using 40 pigs, the results of which were published in 2006. After inflicting a lethal wound to simulate real-world trauma scenarios, the pigs were cooled down so the surgeons could operate then resuscitate them. While all of the control pigs died, the surgeons were able to save 90% of the pigs who had undergone suspension. None of the surviving pigs were reported to have sustained cognitive or physical impairment either.

And as per usual, animal testing is followed by human trials to see if success can be replicated. Due to the extremely time-sensitive and dire nature of the injuries of the test subjects, the FDA has declared that the surgeons will not require informed consent. As a precaution, the team took out advertisements to inform the public of the upcoming study, and even set up a website that would allow people to opt out, if desired. As of yet, nobody has opted out.

alien-stasis-suspended-animationThe plan for testing this process is for the team to the technique on 10 trauma patients whose injuries would be otherwise fatal. That group will be compared against 10 other patients who are not able to undergo EPR, due to the surgical team not being available. After the first increments of 10 EPR and 10 control patients, the technique will be analyzed and refined until enough data points have been collected which will allow them to analyze the efficacy of suspending life in this manner.

Should things work out, we can expect to see EPR becoming a regular part of modern medicine. And with further refinements, it may even be possible to place people in suspended animation for longer (or even indefinite) periods of time. If not, then I guess it will be just become one more of those many, many sci-fi fantasies that (like a patients in a story) will be put away until such time as the technology catches up to the fantasy.

Sources: dailycaller.com, iflscience.com

 

The Future of Medicine: New Blood-Monitoring Devices

medtechNon-invasive medicine is currently one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Thanks to ongoing developments in the fields of nanofabrication, wireless communications, embedded electronics and microsensors, new means are being created all the time that can monitor our health that are both painless and hassle-free.

Consider diabetes, an epidemic that currently affects 8% of the population in the US and is growing worldwide. In October of 2013, some 347 million cases were identified by the World Health Organization, which also claims that diabetes will become the 7th leading cause of death by 2030. To make matters worse, the conditions requires constant blood-monitoring, which is difficult in developing nations and a pain where the means exist.

google_lensesHence why medical researchers and companies are looking to create simpler, non-invasive means. Google is one such company, which back in January announced that they are working on a “smart” contact lens that can measure the amount of glucose in tears. By merging a mini glucose sensor and a small wireless chip into a set of regular soft contact lenses, they are looking to take all the pin-pricks out of blood monitoring.

In a recent post on Google’s official blog, project collaborators Brian Otis and Babak Parviz described the technology:

We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.

And Google is hardly alone in this respect. Due to growing concern and the advancements being made, others are also looking at alternatives to the finger prick, including glucose measures from breath and saliva. A company called Freedom Meditech, for example, is working on a small device  that can measure glucose levels with an eye scan.

I_Sugar_X_prototype1Their invention is known as the I-SugarX, a handheld device that scans the aqueous humor of eye, yielded accurate results in clinical studies in less than four minutes. John F. Burd, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of Freedom Meditech, described the process and its benefits in the following way:

The eye can be thought of as an optical window into to body for the painless measurement of glucose in the ocular fluid as opposed to the blood, and is well suited for our proprietary optical polarimetric based measurements. Based on the results of this, and other studies, we plan to begin human clinical studies as we continue our product development.

Between these and other developments, a major trend towards “smart monitoring” is developing and likely to make life easier and cut down on the associated costs of medicine. A smart contact lens or saliva monitor would make it significantly easier to watch out for uncontrolled blood sugar levels, which ultimately lead to serious health complications.

I_Sugar_X_prototype2But of course, new techniques for blood-monitoring goes far beyond addressing chronic conditions like diabetes. Diagnosing and controlling the spread of debilitating, potentially fatal diseases is another major area of focus. Much like diabetes, doing regular bloodwork can be a bit difficult, especially when working in developing areas of the world where proper facilities can be hard to find.

But thanks to researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, a new test that requires no blood draws is in the works. Relying on laser pulse technology to create a vapor nanobubble in a malaria-infected cell, this test is able to quickly and non-invasively diagnose the disease. While it does not bring medical science closer to curing this increasingly drug-resistant disease, it could dramatically improve early diagnosis and outcomes.

malaria-blood-free-detectorThe scanner was invented by Dmitro Lapotko, a physicist, astronomer, biochemist, and cellular biologist who studied laser weapons in Belarus before moving to Houston. Here, he and his colleagues began work on a device that used the same kind of laser and acoustic sensing technology employed on sub-hunting destroyers, only on a far smaller scale and for medical purposes.

Dubbed “vapor nanobubble technology,” the device combines a laser scanner and a fiber-optic probe that detect malaria by heating up hemozoin – the iron crystal byproduct of hemoglobin that is found in malaria cells, but not normal blood cells. Because the hemozoin crystals absorb the energy from the laser pulse, they heat up enough to create transient vapor nanobubbles that pop.

malariaThis, in turn, produces a ten-millionth-of-a-second acoustic signature that is then picked up by the device’s fiber-optic acoustic sensor and indicates the presence of the malaria parasite in the blood cells scanned. And because the vapor bubbles are only generated by hemozoin, which is only present in infected cells, the approach is virtually fool-proof.

In an recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lapotko and his research team claimed that the device detected malaria in a preclinical trial on mice where only one red blood cell in a million was infected with zero false positives. In a related school news release, the study’s co-author David Sullivan – a malaria clinician a Johns Hopkins University – had this to say about the new method:

The vapor nanobubble technology for malaria detection is distinct from all previous diagnostic approaches. The vapor nanobubble transdermal detection method adds a new dimension to malaria diagnostics, and it has the potential to support rapid, high-throughput and highly sensitive diagnosis and screening by nonmedical personnel under field conditions.

At present, malaria is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, infecting hundreds of millions of people a year and claiming the lives of more than 600,000. To make matters worse, most the victims are children. All of this combines to make malaria one of the most devastating illness effecting the developing world, comparable only to HIV/AIDS.

malaria_worldwideBy ensuring that blood tests that could detect the virus, and require nothing more than a mobile device that could make the determination quickly, and need only a portable car battery to power it, medical services could penetrate the once-thought impenetrable barriers imposed by geography and development. And this in turn would be a major step towards bringing some of the world’s most infectious diseases to heel.

Ultimately, the aim of non-invasive technology is to remove the testing and diagnostic procedures from the laboratory and make them portable, cheaper, and more user-friendly. In so doing, they also ensure that early detection, which is often the difference between life and death, is far easier to achieve. It also helps to narrow the gap between access between rich people and poor, not to mention developing and developing nations.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, news.cnet.com, businesswire.com, googleblogspot.ca, who.int

Immortality Inc: Google’s “Calico”

calico-header-640x353Google has always been famous for investing in speculative ventures and future trends. Between their robot cars, Google Glass, the development of AI (the Google Brain), high-speed travel (the Hyperloop), and alternative energy, their seems to be no limit to what Musk and Page’s company will take on. And now, with Calico, Google has made the burgeoning industry of life-extension its business.

The newly formed company has set itself to “focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Those were the words of Google co-founder Larry Page, who issued a two-part press release back in September. From this, it is known that Calico will focus on life extension and improvement. But in what way and with what business model, the company has yet to explain.

DNA-1What does seem clear at this point is that Art Levinson, the chairman of Apple and former CEO of Genentech (a pioneer in biotech) will be the one to head up this new venture. His history working his way from a research scientist on up to CEO of Genentech makes him the natural choice, since he will bring medical connections and credibility to a company that’s currently low on both.

Google Health, the company’s last foray into the health industry, was a failure for the company. This site, which began in 2008 and shut down in 2011, was a personal health information centralization service that allowed Google users to volunteer their health records. Once entered, the site would provide them with a merged health record, information on conditions, and possible interactions between drugs, conditions, and allergies.

Larry_PageIn addition, the reasons for the company’s venture into the realm of health and aging may have something to do with Larry Page’s own recent health concerns. For years, Page has struggled with vocal nerve strain, which led him to make a significant donation to research into the problem. But clearly, Calico aims to go beyond simple health problems and cures for known diseases.

google.cover.inddIn a comment to Time Magazine, Page stated that a cure for cancer would only extent the average human lifespan by 3 years. They want to think bigger than that, which could mean addressing the actual causes of aging, the molecular processes that break down cells. Given that Google Ventures included life extension technology as part of their recent bid to attract engineering students, Google’s top brass might have a slightly different idea.

And while this might all sound a bit farfetched, the concept of life-extension and even clinical immortality have been serious pursuits for some time. We tend to think of aging as a fact of life, something that is as inevitable as it is irreversible. However, a number of plausible scenarios have already been discussed that could slow or even end this process, ranging from genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, implant technology, and cellular therapy.

Fountain_of_Eternal_Life_cropWhether or not Calico will get into any of these fields remains to be seen. But keeping in mind that this is the company that has proposed setting aside land for no-hold barred experimentation and even talked about building a Space Elevator with a straight face. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started building cryogentic tanks and jars for preserving disembodies brains before long!

Source: extremetech.com, (2), content.time.com