Jack Andraka is at it again! For those who follow this blog (or subscribe to Forbes or watch TED Talks), this young man probably needs no introduction. But if not, then you might not known that Andraka is than the young man who – at 15 years of age – invented an inexpensive litmus test for detecting pancreatic cancer. This invention won him first prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), and was followed up less than a year later with a handheld device that could detect cancer and even explosives.
And now, Andraka is back with yet another invention: a biosensor that can quickly and cheaply detect water contaminants. His microfluidic biosensor, developed with fellow student Chloe Diggs, recently took the $50,000 first prize among high school entrants in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge. The pair developed their credit card-sized biosensor after learning about water pollution in a high school environmental science class.
As Andraka explained:
We had to figure out how to produce microfluidic [structures] in a classroom setting. We had to come up with new procedures, and we custom-made our own equipment.
According to Andraka, the device can detect six environmental contaminants: mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, glyphosate, and atrazine. It costs a dollar to make and takes 20 minutes to run, making it 200,000 times cheaper and 25 times more efficient than comparable sensors. At this point, make scaled-down versions of expensive sensors that can save lives has become second nature to Andraka. And in each case, he is able to do it in a way that is extremely cost-effective.
For example, Andraka’s litmus test cancer-detector was proven to be 168 times faster than current tests, 90% accurate, and 400 times more sensitive. In addition, his paper test costs 26,000 times less than conventional methods – which include CT scans, MRIs, Ultrasounds, or Cholangiopancreatography. These tests not only involve highly expensive equipment, they are usually administered only after serious symptoms have manifested themselves.
In much the same vein, Andraka’s handheld cancer/explosive detector was manufactured using simple, off-the-shelf and consumer products. Using a simple cell phone case, a laser pointer and an iPhone camera, he was able to craft a device that does the same job as a raman spectrometer, but at a fraction of the size and cost. Whereas a conventional spectrometer is the size of a room and costs around $100,000, his handheld device is the size of a cell phone and costs $15 worth of components.
As part of the project, Diggs and Andraka also developed an inexpensive water filter made out of plastic bottles. Next, they hope to do large-scale testing for their sensor in Maryland, where they live. They also want to develop a cell-phone-based sensor reader that lets users quickly evaluate water quality and post the test results online. Basically, its all part of what is fast becoming the digitization of health and medicine, where the sensors are portable and the information can be uploaded and shared.
This isn’t the only project that Andraka has been working on of late. Along with the two other Intel Science Fair finalists – who came together with him to form Team Gen Z – he’s working on a handheld medical scanner that will be entered in the Tricorder XPrize. This challenge offers $10 million to any laboratory or private inventors that can develop a device that can diagnose 15 diseases in 30 patients over a three-day period. while still being small enough to carry.
For more information on this project and Team Gen Z, check out their website here. And be sure to watch their promotional video for the XPrize competition:
While a cure for cancer is still beyond medical science, improvements in how we diagnose and treat the disease are being made every day. These range from early detection, which makes all the difference in preventing the spread of the disease; to less-invasive treatments, which makes for a kinder, gentler recovery. By combining better medicine with cost-saving measures, accessibility is also a possibility.
When it comes to better diagnostics, the aim is to find ways to detect cancer without harmful and expensive scans or exploratory surgery. An alternative is a litmus test, like the one invented by Jack Andraka to detect pancreatic cancer. His method, which was unveiled at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), won him the top prize due to the fact that it’s 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests and 1/26,000th the cost of regular tests.
Since that time, Jack and his research group (Generation Z), have been joined by such institutions as MIT, which recently unveiled a pee stick test to detect cancer. In research published late last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia reported that she and her team developed paper test strips using the same technology behind in-home pregnancy tests, ones which were able to detect colon tumors in mice.
The test strips work in conjunction with an injection of iron oxide nanoparticles, like those used as MRI contrast agents, that congregate at tumor sites in the body. Once there, enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which cancer cells use to invade healthy tissue, break up the nanoparticles, which then pass out through the patient’s urine. Antibodies on the test strip grab them, causing gold nanoparticles to create a red color indicating the presence of the tumor.
According to Bhatia, the technology is likely to make a big splash in developing countries where complicated and expensive medical tests are a rarity. Closer to home, the technology is also sure to be of significant use in outpatient clinics and other decentralized health settings. As Bhatia said in a press release:
For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt (the technology) to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone.
To help Bhatia and her research team to bring her idea to fruition, MIT has given her and her team a grant from the university’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The purpose of the grant is to help the researchers develop a startup that could execute the necessary clinical trials and bring the technology to market. And now, Bhatia and her team are working on expanding the test to detect breast, prostate cancers, and all other types of cancer.
In a separate but related story, researchers are also working towards a diagnostic methods that do not rely on radiation. While traditional radiation scanners like PET and CT are good at finding cancer, they expose patients to radiation that can create a catch-22 situation where cancer can be induced later in life, especially for younger patients. By potentially inducing cancer in young people, it increases the likelihood that they will have to be exposed to more radiation down the line.
The good news is that scientists have managed to reduce radiation exposure over the past several years without sacrificing image quality. But thanks to ongoing work at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, the Stanford School of Medicine, and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, there’s a potential alternative that involves combining MRI scans with a contrast agent, similar to the one Prof. Bhatia and her MIT group use in their peestick test.
According to a report published in the journal The Lancet Oncology, the researchers claimed that the new MRI approach found 158 tumors in twenty-two 8 to 33-year-olds, compared with 163 found using the traditional PET and CT scan combo. And since MRIs use radio waves instead of radiation, the scans themselves have no side effects. While the study is small, the positive findings are a step toward wider-spread testing to determine the effectiveness and safety of the new method.
The next step in testing this method will be to study the approach on more children and investigate how it might work in adults. The researchers say physicians are already launching a study of the technique in at least six major children’s hospitals throughout the country. And because the cost of each method could be roughly the same, if the MRI approach proves just as effective yet safer, radiation-free cancer scans are likely to be the way of the future.
And last, but not least, there’s a revolutionary new treatment pioneered by researchers at Georgia Tech that relies on engineered artificial pathways to lure malignant cells to their death. This treatment is designed to address brain tumors – aka. Glioblastoma multiform cancer (GBM) – which are particularly insidious because they spread through the brain by sliding along blood vessels and nerve passageways (of which the brain has no shortage of!)
This capacity for expansion means that sometimes tumors developed in parts of the brain where surgery is extremely difficult – if not impossible – or that even if the bulk of a tumor can be removed, chances are good its tendrils would still exist throughout the brain. That is where the technique developed by scientists at Georgia Tech comes in, which involves creating artificial pathways along which cancer can travel to either more operable areas or even to a deadly drug located in a gel outside the body.
According to Ravi Bellamkonda, lead investigator and chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University:
[T]he cancer cells normally latch onto … natural structures and ride them like a monorail to other parts of the brain. By providing an attractive alternative fiber, we can efficiently move the tumors along a different path to a destination that we choose.
The procedure was reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Materials. It involved Bellamkonda and his team implanting nanofibers about half the size of a human hair in rat brains where GBMs were growing. The fibers were made from a polycaprolactone (PCL) polymer surrounded by a polyurethane carrier and mimicked the contours of the nerves and blood vessels cancer cells like to use as a biological route.
One end of a fiber was implanted into the tumor inside the brain and the other into a gel containing the drug cyclopamine (which kills cancer cells) outside the brain. After 18 days, enough tumor cells had migrated along the fiber into the gel to shrink the tumor size 93 percent. Not only does Bellamkonda think his technique could be used to relocate and/or destroy cancers, he says he believes it could be used to help people live with certain inoperable cancers as a chronic condition.
In a recent statement, Bellakomba had this to say about the new method and the benefits its offers patients:
If we can provide cancer an escape valve of these fibers, that may provide a way of maintaining slow-growing tumors such that, while they may be inoperable, people could live with the cancers because they are not growing. Perhaps with ideas like this, we may be able to live with cancer just as we live with diabetes or high blood pressure.
Many of today’s methods for treating cancer focus on using drugs to kill tumors. The Georgia Tech team’s approach was engineering-driven and allows cancer to be treated with a device rather than with chemicals, potentially saving the patient many debilitating side effects. Part of the innovation in the technique is that it’s actually easier for tumors to move along the nanofibers than it is for them to take their normal routes, which require significant enzyme secretion as they invade healthy tissue.
Anjana Jain, the primary author of the study, was also principally responsible for the design of the nanofiber technique. After doing her graduate work on biomaterials used for spinal cord regeneration, she found herself working in Bellamkonda’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow and came up with the idea of routing materials using engineered materials. In a recent statement, she said the following of her idea:
Our idea was to give the tumor cells a path of least resistance, one that resembles the natural structures in the brain, but is attractive because it does not require the cancer cells to expend any more energy.
Extensive testing, which could take up to 10 years, still needs to be conducted before this technology can be approved for use in human patients. In the meantime, Bellamkonda and his team will be working towards using this technology to lure other cancers that like to travel along nerves and blood vessels. With all the advances being made in diagnostics, treatments, and the likelihood of a cure being found in the near future, the 21st century is likely to be the era where cancer becomes history.
Cloud computing and the internet are having a profound effect on the field of medicine. As more and more patients have their records digitized and posted in online medical sources, doctor’s are able to better track patient histories, conduct referrals, and make speedier diagnoses. And now, doctors at John Hopkins University are working on a cloud-computing project specifically for children’s brain scans.
By collecting and categorizing thousands of MRI scans from kids with normal and abnormal brains, they say the resulting database will give physicians a sophisticated, “Google-like” search system to help find similar scans as well as the medical records of those children. Such a system could help not only enhance the diagnosis of brain disorders, but the treatment as well, maybe even before clinical symptoms are obvious to the naked eye.
Michael I. Miller, a lead investigator on the project who also heads up the university’s Center for Imaging Science, said in a news release:
If doctors aren’t sure which disease is causing a child’s condition, they could search the data bank for images that closely match their patient’s most recent scan. If a diagnosis is already attached to an image from the data bank, that could steer the physician in the right direction. Also, the scans in our library may help a physician identify a change in the shape of a brain structure that occurs very early in the course of a disease, even before clinical symptoms appear. That could allow the physician to get an early start on the treatment.
Susumu Mori, a radiology professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and co-lead investigator on what he calls the “biobank,” says that a collection of brain scans of this size will also help neuroradiologists and physicians identify specific malformations far faster than is currently possible.
Mori has spent the past four-plus years working on a clinical database of more than 5,000 whole brain MRI scans of children who’ve come through Johns Hopkins. This project involved indexing anatomical data on 1,000 structural measurements in 250 brain regions that were ultimately sorted into 22 brain disease categories, including infections, psychiatric disorders, epilepsy, and chromosomal abnormalities.
The project, which was made possible by a three-year $600,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, is still in its pilot stage and available only to physicians and patients within the Johns Hopkins medical system. But the researchers say it could open up and expand to other networks in the coming years. Such an expansion would presumably benefit not only other physicians and patients, but the database itself.
Researchers are also working on a similar project to collect scans of elderly patients to focus on age-related diseases and neurological disorders. Combined with the pediatric databank, this new brain scan archive will not only help recognize established neurological disorders, but could even possibly help identify and classify new ones as well.
But one of the key words here in anonymous. While cloud computing and patient files may raise the specter of privacy for many, the current project maintains patient confidentially. And one can further assume that voluntary compliance will be maintained as databases like these expand. After all, one does not need to know a patient’s name in order to examine what anomalies their brains exhibit.
And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video of Michael Miller explaining the new brain scan project and computational anatomy in greater detail:
Nanotechnology has long been the dream of researchers, scientists and futurists alike, and for obvious reasons. If machinery were small enough so as to be microscopic, or so small that it could only be measured on the atomic level, just about anything would be possible. These include constructing buildings and products from the atomic level up, with would revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.
In addition, microscopic computers, smart cells and materials, and electronics so infinitesimally small that they could be merged with living tissues would all be within our grasp. And it seems that at least once a month, universities, research labs, and even independent skunkworks are unveiling new and exciting steps that are bringing us ever closer to this goal.
Once such breakthrough comes from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where biomedical scientists and engineers have joined forces to create the “smart sponge”. A spherical object that is microscopic — just 250 micrometers across, and could be made as small as 0.1 micrometers – these new sponges are similar to nanoparticles, in that they are intended to be the next-generation of delivery vehicles for medication.
Each sponge is mainly composed of a polymer called chitosan, something which is not naturally occurring, but can be produced easily from the chitin in crustacean shells. The long polysaccharide chains of chitosan form a matrix in which tiny porous nanocapsules are embedded, and which can be designed to respond to the presence of some external compound – be it an enzyme, blood sugar, or a chemical trigger.
So far, the researchers tested the smart sponges with insulin, so the nanocapsules in this case contained glucose oxidase. As the level of glucose in a diabetic patient’s blood increases, it would trigger the nanocapsules in the smart sponge begin releasing hydrogen ions which impart a positive charge to the chitosan strands. This in turn causes them to spread apart and begin to slowly release insulin into the blood.
The process is also self-limiting: as glucose levels in the blood come down after the release of insulin, the nanocapsules deactivate and the positive charge dissipates. Without all those hydrogen ions in the way, the chitosan can come back together to keep the remaining insulin inside. The chitosan is eventually degraded and absorbed by the body, so there are no long-term health effects.
One the chief benefits of this kind of system, much like with nanoparticles, is that it delivers medication when its needed, to where its needed, and in amounts that are appropriate to the patient’s needs. So far, the team has had success treating diabetes in rats, but plans to expand their treatment to treating humans, and branching out to treat other types of disease.
Cancer is a prime candidate, and the University team believes it can be treated without an activation system of any kind. Tumors are naturally highly acidic environments, which means a lot of free hydrogen ions. And since that’s what the diabetic smart sponge produces as a trigger anyway, it can be filled with small amounts of chemotherapy drugs that would automatically be released in areas with cancer cells.
Another exciting breakthrough comes from University of California at Berkeley, where medical researchers are working towards tiny, implantable sensors . As all medical researchers know, the key to understanding and treating neurological problems is to gather real-time and in-depth information on the subject’s brain. Unfortunately, things like MRIs and positron emission tomography (PET) aren’t exactly portable and are expensive to run.
Implantable devices are fast becoming a solution to this problem, offering real-time data that comes directly from the source and can be accessed wirelessly at any time. So far, this has taken the form of temporary medical tattoos or tiny sensors which are intended to be implanted in the bloodstreams. However, what the researchers at UofC are proposing something much more radical.
In a recent research paper, they proposed a design for a new kind of implantable sensor – an intelligent dust that can infiltrate the brain, record data, and communicate with the outside world. The preliminary design was undertaken by Berkeley’s Dongjin Seo and colleagues, who described a network of tiny sensors – each package being no more than 100 micrometers – in diameter. Hence the term they used: “neural dust”.
The smart particles would all contain a very small CMOS sensor capable of measuring electrical activity in nearby neurons. The researchers also envision a system where each particle is powered by a piezoelectric material rather than tiny batteries. The particles would communicate data to an external device via ultrasound waves, and the entire package would also be coated in a polymer, thus making it bio-neutral.
But of course, the dust would need to be complimented by some other implantable devices. These would likely include a larger subdural transceiver that would send the ultrasound waves to the dust and pick up the return signal. The internal transceiver would also be wirelessly connected to an external device on the scalp that contains data processing hardware, a long range transmitter, storage, and a battery.
The benefits of this kind of system are again obvious. In addition to acting like an MRI running in your brain all the time, it would allow for real-time monitoring of neurological activity for the purposes of research and medical monitoring. The researchers also see this technology as a way to enable brain-machine interfaces, something which would go far beyond current methods. Who knows? It might even enable a form of machine-based telepathy in time.
Sounds like science fiction, and it still is. Many issues need to be worked out before something of this nature would be possible or commercially available. For one, more powerful antennae would need to be designed on the microscopic scale in order for the smart dust particles to be able to send and receive ultrasound waves.
Increasing the efficiency of transceivers and piezoelectric materials will also be a necessity to provide the dust with power, otherwise they could cause a build-up of excess heat in the user’s neurons, with dire effects! But most importantly of all, researchers need to find a safe and effective way to deliver the tiny sensors to the brain.
And last, but certainly not least, nanotechnology might be offering improvements in the field of prosthetics as well. In recent years, scientists have made enormous breakthroughs in the field of robotic and bionic limbs, restoring ambulatory mobility to accident victims, the disabled, and combat veterans. But even more impressive are the current efforts to restore sensation as well.
One method, which is being explored by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, involves incorporating gold nanoparticles and a substrate made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the plastic used in bottles of soft drinks. Between these two materials, they were able to make an ultra-sensitive film that would be capable of transmitting electrical signals to the user, simulating the sensation of touch.
Basically, the gold-polyester nanomaterial experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent, providing an extremely sensitive measure of physical force. Tests conducted on the material showed that it was able to sense pressures ranging from tens of milligrams to tens of grams, which is ten times more sensitive than any sensors being build today.
Even better, the film maintained its sensory resolution after many “bending cycles”, meaning it showed consistent results and would give users a long term of use. Unlike many useful materials that can only really be used under laboratory conditions, this film can operate at very low voltages, meaning that it could be manufactured cheaply and actually be useful in real-world situations.
In their research paper, lead researcher Hossam Haick described the sensors as “flowers, where the center of the flower is the gold or metal nanoparticle and the petals are the monolayer of organic ligands that generally protect it.” The paper also states that in addition to providing pressure information (touch), the sensors in their prototype were also able to sense temperature and humidity.
But of course, a great deal of calibration of the technology is still needed, so that each user’s brain is able to interpret the electronic signals being received from the artificial skin correctly. But this is standard procedure with next-generation prosthetic devices, ones which rely on two-way electronic signals to provide control signals and feedback.
And these are just some examples of how nanotechnology is seeking to improve and enhance our world. When it comes to sensory and mobility, it offers solutions to not only remedy health problems or limitations, but also to enhance natural abilities. But the long-term possibilities go beyond this by many orders of magnitude.
As a cornerstone to the post-singularity world being envisioned by futurists, nanotech offers solutions to everything from health and manufacturing to space exploration and clinical immortality. And as part of an ongoing trend in miniaturization, it presents the possibility of building devices and products that are even tinier and more sophisticated than we can currently imagine.
It’s always interesting how science works by scale, isn’t it? In addition to dreaming large – looking to build structures that are bigger, taller, and more elaborate – we are also looking inward, hoping to grab matter at its most basic level. In this way, we will not only be able to plant our feet anywhere in the universe, but manipulate it on the tiniest of levels.
As always, the future is a paradox, filling people with both awe and fear at the same time.