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

Year-End Health News: Anti-Aging and Artificial Hearts

medtechHere we have two more stories from last year that I find I can’t move on without posting about them. And considering just how relevant they are to the field of biomedicine, there was no way I could let them go unheeded. Not only are developments such as these likely to save lives, they are also part of a much-anticipated era where mortality will be a nuisance rather than an inevitability.

The first story comes to us from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia and the Harvard Medical School, where a joint effort achieved a major step towards the dream of clinical immortality. In the course of experimenting on mice, the researchers managed to reverse the effects of aging in mice using an approach that restores communication between a cell’s mitochondria and nucleus.

MitochondriaMitochondria are the power supply for a cell, generating the energy required for key biological functions. When communication breaks down between mitochondria and the cell’s control center (the nucleus), the effects of aging accelerate. Led by David Sinclair, a professor from UNSW Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the team found that by restoring this molecular communication, aging could not only be slowed, but reversed.

Responsible for this breakdown is a decline of the chemical Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (or NAD). By increasing amounts of a compound used by the cell to produce NAD, Professor Sinclair found that he and his team could quickly repair mitochondrial function. Key indicators of aging, such as insulin resistance, inflammation and muscle wasting, showed extensive improvement.

labmiceIn fact, the researchers found that the tissue of two-year-old mice given the NAD-producing compound for just one week resembled that of six-month-old mice. They said that this is comparable to a 60-year-old human converting to a 20-year-old in these specific areas. As Dr Nigel Turner, an ARC Future Fellow from UNSW’s Department of Pharmacology and co-author of the team’s research paper, said:

It was shocking how quickly it happened. If the compound is administered early enough in the aging process, in just a week, the muscles of the older mice were indistinguishable from the younger animals.

The technique has implications for treating cancer, type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting, inflammatory and mitochondrial diseases as well as anti-aging. Sinclair and his team are now looking at the longer-term outcomes of the NAD-producing compound in mice and how it affects them as a whole. And with the researchers hoping to begin human clinical trials in 2014, some major medical breakthroughs could be just around the corner.

carmat_artificialheartIn another interesting medical story, back in mid-December, a 75 year-old man in Paris became the  recipient of the world’s first Carmat bioprosthetic artificial heart. Now technically, artificial hearts have been in use since the 1980’s. But what sets this particular heart apart, according to its inventor – cardiac surgeon Alain Carpentier – is the Carmat is the first artificial heart to be self-regulating.

In this case, self-regulating refers to the Carmat’s ability to speed or slow its flow rate based on the patient’s physiological needs. For example, if they’re performing a vigorous physical activity, the heart will respond by beating faster. This is made possible via “multiple miniature embedded sensors” and proprietary algorithms running on its integrated microprocessor. Power comes from an external lithium-ion battery pack worn by the patient, and a fuel cell is in the works.

carmat_2Most other artificial hearts beat at a constant unchanging rate, which means that patients either have to avoid too much activity, or risk becoming exhausted quickly. In the course of its human trials, it will be judged based on its ability to keep patients with heart failure alive for a month, but the final version is being designed to operate for five years.

The current lone recipient is reported to be recuperating in intensive care at Paris’ Georges Pompidou European Hospital, where he is awake and carrying on conversations. “We are delighted with this first implant, although it is premature to draw conclusions given that a single implant has been performed and that we are in the early postoperative phase,” says Carmat CEO Marcello Conviti.

medical-technologyAccording to a Reuters report, although the Carmat is similar in size to a natural adult human heart, it’s is somewhat larger and almost three times as heavy – weighing in at approximately 900 grams (2 lb). It should therefore fit inside 86 percent of men, but only 20 percent of women. That said, the company has stated that a smaller model could be made in time.

In the meantime, it’s still a matter of making sure the self-regulating bioprosthetic actually works and prolongs the life of patients who are in the final stages of heart failure. Assuming the trials go well, the Carmat is expected to be available within the European Union by early 2015, priced at between 140,000 and 180,000 euros, which works out to $190,000 – $250,000 US.

See what I mean? From anti-aging to artificial organs, the war on death proceeds apace. Some will naturally wonder if that’s a war meant to be fought, or an inevitably worth mitigating. Good questions, and one’s which we can expect to address at length as the 21st century progresses…

Sources: gizmodo.com, newsroom.unsw.edu.au, (2), carmatsa.com, reuters.com