The Future of Medicine: Engineered Viruses, Nanoparticles and Bio-Absorbable Circuits

medtechThe future that is fast approaching us is one filled with possibilities, many of which were once thought to be the province of science fiction. Between tricorders and other new devices that can detect cancer sooner and at a fraction of the cost, HIV vaccines and cures, health monitoring tattoos and bionic limbs, we could be moving into an age where all known diseases are curable and physical handicaps will be non-existent.

And in the past few months, more stories have emerged with provide hope for millions of people living with diseases, injuries and disabilities. The first came just over three weeks ago from University of California, Berkley, where researchers have been working with an engineered virus which they claim could help cure blindness. As part of a gene therapy program, this treatment has been shown to effectively correct a rare form of inherited blindness.

virus-sight1For the past six years, medical science has been using adeno-associated viruses (AAV) as part of a gene therapy treatment to correct inherited retinal degenerative disease. However, the process has always been seen as invasive, since it involves injected the AAVs directly into a person’s retina with a needle. What’s more, the rpocess has shown itself to be limited, in that the injected virus does not reach all the retinal cells that need repair.

But as Professor David Schaffer, the lead researcher on the project, stated in an interview with Science Translational Medicine:

[D]octors have no choice because none of the gene delivery viruses can travel all the way through the back of the eye to reach the photoreceptors – the light sensitive cells that need the therapeutic gene.

Building on this and many more years of research, Prof David Schaffer and his colleagues developed a new process where they generated around 100 million variants of AAV and then selected five that were effective in penetrating the retina. They then used the best of these, a strain known as 7m8, to transport genes to cure two types of hereditary blindness on a group of mice.

virus-sightIn each case, the engineered virus delivered the corrective gene to all areas of the retina and restored retinal cells nearly to normal. But more importantly, the virus’ ability to penetrate the retina on its own makes the process far less invasive, and will likely be far more cost-effective when adapted to humans. And the process is apparently very convenient:

[W]e have now created a virus that you just inject into the liquid vitreous humor inside the eye and it delivers genes to a very difficult-to-reach population of delicate cells in a way that is surgically non-invasive and safe. It’s a 15-minute procedure, and you can likely go home that day.

Naturally, clinical trials are still needed, but the results are encouraging and Professor Schaffer indicated that his team are busy at work, now collaborating with physicians to identify the patients most likely to benefit from this gene-delivery technique.

nanoparticles_miceNext up, there was the announcement back at the end of May that researchers from North Carolina State and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill had found yet another medical use for nanoparticles. In there case, this consisted of combating a major health concern, especially amongst young people today: diabetes.

In a study that was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the collaborating teams indicated that their solution of nanoparticles was able to monitor blood sugar levels in a group of mice and released insulin when their sugar levels got too high. Based on the results, the researchers claim that their method will also work for human beings with type 1 diabetes.

image descriptionEach of the nanoparticles have a core of insulin that is contained with a degradable shell. When glucose levels in the blood reach high concentrations spike, the shell dissolves, releasing insulin and lowering the subject’s blood sugar. The degradable nano-network was shown to work in mice where a single injection kept blood glucose levels normal for a minimum of 10 days.

While the exact cause of this kind of diabetes is unknown, the effects certainly are. Patients living with this genetically-acquired form of the disease require several shots of insulin a day to keep their blood sugar levels under control. And even then, blindness, depression and even death can still result. What’s more, if the insulin shots are specifically calculated for the individual in question, side-effects can occur.

???????????????????????????????Hence the genius behind this new method. Not only would it relieve people who have type 1 diabetes from constantly injecting themselves, it would also remove the need to monitor their own blood sugar levels since the nanoparticles would be controlling them automatically.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Zhen Gu, lead author of the study claimed that the technology functions essentially the same as a pancreas. Hence another benefit of the new method, in that it could make pancreatic transplants – which are often necessary for patients with diabetes – unnecessary.

biocircuitsAnd last, but certainly not least, comes from the University of Illinois where John Rogers are developing a series of bio-absorbable electronic circuits that could help us win the war on drug-resistant bacteria. As part of a growing trend of biodegradable, flexible electronic circuits that operate wirelessly, fighting “superbugs” is just one application for this technology, but a very valuable one.

For some time now, bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics has been spreading, threatening to put the clock back 100 years to the time when routine, minor surgery was life-threatening. Some medical experts are warning that otherwise straightforward operations could soon become deadly unless new ways to fend off these infections are found. And though bacteria can evolve ways of evading chemical assaults, they are still vulnerable to direct assault.

electronics_dissolvingThis is how the new bio-absorbable circuits work: by heating up the virus. Each circuit is essentially a miniature electric heater that can be implanted into wounds and powered wirelessly to fry bacteria during healing before dissolving harmlessly into body fluids once their job is done. While this might sound dangerous, keep in mind that it takes only a relatively mild warming to kill bugs without causing discomfort or harm to surrounding tissues.

To fashion the circuits, Rogers and his colleagues used layers of utra-thin wafers and silk, material so thin that they disintegrate in water or body fluids or (in the case of silk) are known to dissolve anyway. For the metal parts, they used extra-thin films of magnesium, which is not only harmless but in fact an essential nutrient. For semiconductors, they used silicon membranes 300 nanometres thick, which also dissolve in water.

In addition to deterring bacteria, Rogers says that implantable, bio-absorbable RF electronics could be used to stimulate nerves for pain relief, and to stimulate bone re-growth, a process long proven to work when electrodes are placed on the skin or directly on the bone. Conceivably they could also be used to precisely control drug release from implanted reservoirs.

In other words, this is just the beginning. When it comes to the future of medicine, just about any barrier that was once considered impassable are suddenly looking quite porous…


DARPA’s Next-Generation Spygear!

super-soldier-in-repose Remember how not that long ago some researchers were able to produce a new breed of dissolving electronics? Well as it turns out, there are those who want to find a way to militarize this technology. Those people are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who are looking to create a breed of “suicide sensors” as part of what they call the VAPR (Vanishing Programmable Resources) program.

As it stands, war zones are often littered with “sophisticated electronic microsystems” that create enticing opportunities for adversaries to collect, study and reverse-engineer their enemy’s technology. And since it’s not practical for advanced armies to pick up all their microscopic gear when they withdraw from an area, it would be nice if there was a way to push a button that would cause all of those deployed electronics to dissolve, destruct or biodegrade.

super_soldierOf particular interest is the “degradation” involving implants in a soldier’s body. Given DARPA’s efforts to develop super soldiers – enhanced with bionic limbs, cybernetics, and implantable sensors and medical devices – future armies will run the risk of seeing that technology fall into enemy hands whenever a soldier is killed or taken prisoner. Here especially, a super soldier would be inclined to see their advanced bio-implants to break down and be irretrievable.

In order to accomplish this, it will be inviting a number of companies to a Virginia conference to kick around ideas for creating what it calls “triggered degradation.” In a recent interview with Wired, program manager Dr. Alicia Jackson expressed the goal of the program as follows:

“VAPR will focus on developing and establishing a basic set of materials, components, integration, and manufacturing capabilities to undergird this new class of electronics defined by their performance and transience.”

VAPR_imageSometimes the hardware will be pre-programmed to self-destruct and in others biodegrade into the surrounding environment. In other cases, such as where human implants are concerned, the electronics will be triggered to dissolve into a liquid. In this last respect, DARPA is already making headway, as they demonstrated last year with a super-thin electronic circuit made out of silicon and magnesium could be fabricated to dissolve in liquid.

Naturally, DARPA concedes that things are not quite where they need to be for everything to work. As they stated in part of the VAPR press release, “key technological breakthroughs are required across the entire electronics production process, from starting materials to components to finished products.” But of course, where there is a will – and unlimited funding – there’s usually a way.


More Top Stories of 2012


With 2012 now officially behind us, and more and more stories trickling into this humble bloggers account about what was accomplished therein, it seems that the time is ripe for another list of breakthroughs, first, and achievements that made the news during the previous year!

Last time, I listed what I saw as the top 12, only to find that there were several others, some of which I actually wrote about, that didn’t make the cut. How foolish of me! And so, to remedy this and possibly cover stories that I neglected to cover the first time around, I have produced another list of the top stories from 2012.

And much like last time, I have listed them according to alphabetical order, since I couldn’t possibly assign them numbers based on importance.

Abortion Study:
anti-abortion-pushAbortion has always been a contentious issue, with one side arguing for the rights of the unborn while the other argues in favor of women’s right to control her own body and reproduction. And as it happens, 2012 saw the publication of the first longitudinal study of what happens to women who are denied this right.

The UC San Francisco research team, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), studied nearly 1,000 women from diverse backgrounds across the U.S. over several years. All of these subjects were women had sought out abortions but been denied access for one reason or another. What they discovered was that these women were more likely to slip below the poverty line, be unemployed, remain in abusive relationships, and suffer from hyper stress. What this ongoing study demonstrates is that abortion is an economic issue for women, with dire consequences for those denied them.

Autism Reversed:
2012 was an especially significant year in medical advances thanks to a team at McGill University in Montreal announced that they’ve successfully reversed the symptoms of autism in mice. Using mice with autism-like symptoms caused by a genetic mutation, the researchers figured out how to administer a protein that reversed the symptoms.

Naturally, this development is a step in the long process of understanding a disorder which remains largely misunderstood. In addition, it may, in time, lead to the development of a gene therapy that will prevent autism from being triggered in children and even weed it out of parent’s genetic code, ensuring that their children will be immune.

Commercial Space Travel:
virgin_galacticIt has long been the dream of financiers, captains of industry and enthusiasts to create commercial space travel; a means for the average person to go into space, the moon, and even beyond. And all at a reasonable price! This dream is still the subject of speculation and fantasy, but 2012 was a year of firsts that made it seem that much closer.

For starters, Virgin Galactic, the brain-child of Richard Branson, began flight tests on SpaceShipTwo, the rocket ship that will take people into orbit. Then came Reaction Engines Limited with the proposed design for the hypersonic aerospace engine. And finally, there was the creation of Golden Spike, a company made up largely of former astronauts, who want to make commercial flight to the moon a go by 2020.

Electricity-Creating Virus:
M13_virusA breakthrough virus named M13 made news in 2012 for being the first ever virus that could turn physical activity into electricity. The key is what is known as the “piezoelectric effect,” which happens when certain materials like crystals (or viruses) emit a small amount of power when squeezed. Created by a  team of scientists at the Berkeley Lab, this genetically engineered M13 viruses was able to emit enough electricity to power a small LED screen, but poses no threat to humans. One day, all devices could be powered through the simple act of typing or walking, and buildings could be powered by absorbing people’s activity.

Encyclopedia of DNA (ENCODE):
encodeThe publication of the human genome back in the late 90’s was a major breakthrough for genetics and medical science. And in 2012, another breakthrough was achieved by researchers at USC with the publication of ENCODE – The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project. Unlike the previous project, these researchers were able not only to catalog the human genome’s various parts, but what those components actually do.

Among the initiative’s many findings was that so-called “junk DNA” – outlier DNA sequences that do not encode for protein sequences – are not junk at all, and are in fact responsible for such things as gene regulation, disease onset, and even human height. These findings will go a long way towards developing gene therapy, biotechnology that seeks to create artificial DNA and self-assembling structures, and even cloning.

Face Transplant:
FaceTransplant_6062012 was also the year that the first full-face transplant was ever conducted. The recipient in question was a man named Richard Norris, a man who lost significant portions of his face from a gunshot accident back in 1997. And after years of attempted reconstructive surgeries, doctors working out of the University of Maryland Medical Center performed a procedure that gave Mr. Norris a has face, teeth, tongue, and a completely new set of jaws.

Not only that, but within days of the surgery, Norris was able to move his facial muscle and jaw. Combined with the nature of the surgery itself, this is not short of unprecedented, and could mean a new age in which severe accident victims and veterans are able to recover fully from physical traumas and live perfectly normal, happy lives.

The Higgs Boson Discovered:
I can’t believe I didn’t include this story last time, as it is possibly the biggest story of 2012, and perhaps one of the biggest stories since the millennium! 2012 will forever go down in history as the year that the Higgs Boson was discovered. After some 40 years of ongoing research, and fears that it would never be discovered, the last missing piece of The Standard Model of particle physics was found.

Not only does the existence of the Higgs Boson confirm that the Standard Model is valid, it also helps explain how other elementary particles get their mass. This will herald a new step in the advance of particle and the quantum physics, and could lead to the development of quantum computing, quantum generators, and a greater understand of the universe itself.

High-Tech Condom:
condom1Using a revolutionary nano-fabrication process known as electrospinning, researchers at the University of Washington have produced the world’s first female condom that not only prevents pregnancy and protects against HIV, but also evaporates after use. In addition, the manufacturing method used is a step in the direction of viable nanotechnology. Score one for safe sex, public health, and a waste free future permeated by tiny machines and smart materials! That’s a big score card…

Infinite Capacity Wireless:
vortex-radio-waves-348x1962012 was also the year that it was proven that it could be possible to boost the capacity of wireless communication infinitely. The discovery was first made by Bo Thide of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics and some Italian colleagues in Venice, and then confirmed by a team of American and Israeli researchers who used the technique to transmit data at a rate of 2.5 terabytes a second.

Conventional radio signals are transmitted on a flat plane, but Thide twisted the transmitting and receiving antennae into the shape of corkscrew. By adding another dimension to the mix, the technique added a lot of extra bandwidth. As a result, the problem of bandwidth crunches might be a thing of the past, not to mention problems of slow download/upload.

Google Neural Net:
Another first and definitely one of the biggest headlines of 2012, far as I was concerned. So why I forgot to include it last time is beyond me! For generations scientists have contemplating the idea of AI and wondered how and where the first leap might be made from basic computing towards true machine intelligence. And as it turns out, Google X Labs, the same place where Project Glass was conceived, seems to have accomplished just that.

The accomplishment came when the labs created a neural network based on sixteen core processors and a connectome with a billion connections. The network accomplished its first task by studying millions of images on Youtube and then demonstrating the ability to differentiate between the faces of cats and humans. This act of independent reasoning that went beyond mere image recognition, and is a major step towards the achievement of a fully-functional artificial intelligence.

Stem cell mammal:
stem_cellsFor the first time in history, researchers at Kyoto University created a mouse by using eggs derived from stem cells alone. The achievement once again shows the remarkable possibilities presented by regenerative technologies like stem cells, while raising pressing ethical questions about the potential for human births in which parents might not be required.

Water in the Solar System:
titan_lakes2012 was also the year that an unprecedented amount of discoveries were made in our solar system. In addition to all the interesting revelations made by the Curiosity Rover, a number of probes discovered water on Europa, Mercury, Titan, and other Saturnalian moons. Usually, this comes in the form of water saturated with hydrocarbons, as was evident on Titan, but the discoveries remain monumental.

In addition to Titan’s methane lakes and Nile-like river, ice and organic molecules were discovered near the poles of Mercury. Evidence of water was found on Mars, indicating the existence of rivers and oceans at one time, and the Cassini space probe confirmed that Enceladus has its own oceans. All of this bodes well for the future of space exploration and colonization, where domestic sources of water may be used for hydrogen cells, hydroponics and even drinking water.

World’s First Tractor Beam:
tractor_beamIn another interesting first, NASA scientists demonstrated in 2012 that another staple technology from Star Trek may be realizable. Yes, in addition to the warp drive, scientists scientists David Ruffner and David Grier demonstrated that a tractor beam may also be realizable in the not-too-distant future. And given the 100 Year Starship Project and other desires to commit to space exploration, such a device could come in mighty handy!

Using a prototype optical beam to pull a small sphere of silica (30 micrometers) suspended in water, Grier and Ruffner pioneered the use of a Bessel beam, a long-established concept, to pull an object of discernible size and mass around. Naturally, NASA hopes to create a more high-powered version of the technology for use on space craft down the road.

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Thank you once more for attending this symposium on technological breakthroughs during the year of 2012! It was a good year, wouldn’t you say? And barring the advent of killer robots sometime in the near future that unleash a nuclear holocaust on us and force us all to work as slaves, I think people will look back on these developments in a positive light.

Yes, assuming humanity can keep its wits about itself and ensure the ethical application of all we’ve accomplished, 2012 may be seen as a turning point, where incurable diseases became preventable, AI’s became realizable, and limitless communications, super-fast computations, paper-thin flexible devices, green technology, commercial spaceflight, and Solar planet colonization all became truly viable.