The Future of Medicine: The Era of Artificial Hearts

05Between artificial knees, total hip replacements, cataract surgery, hearing aids, dentures, and cochlear implants, we are a society that is fast becoming transhuman. Basically, this means we are dedicated to improving human health through substitution and augmentation of our body parts. Lately, bioprinting has begun offering solutions for replacement organs; but so far, a perfectly healthy heart, has remained elusive.

Heart disease is the number one killer in North America, comparable only to strokes, and claiming nearly 600,000 lives every year in the US and 70,000 in Canada. But radical new medical technology may soon change that. There have been over 1,000 artificial heart transplant surgeries carried out in humans over the last 35 years, and over 11,000 more heart surgeries where valve pumps were installed have also been performed.

artificial-heart-abiocor-implantingAnd earlier this month, a major step was taken when the French company Carmat implanted a permanent artificial heart in a patient. This was the second time in history that this company performed a total artificial heart implant, the first time being back in December when they performed the implant surgery on a 76-year-old man in which no additional donor heart was sought. This was a major development for two reasons.

For one, robotic organs are still limited to acting as a temporary bridge to buy patients precious time until a suitable biological heart becomes available. Second, transplanted biological hearts, while often successful, are very difficult to come by due to a shortage of suitable organs. Over 100,000 people around the world at any given time are waiting for a heart and there simply are not enough healthy hearts available for the thousands who need them.

carmat_heartThis shortage has prompted numerous medical companies to begin looking into the development of artificial hearts, where the creation of a successful and permanent robotic heart could generate billions of dollars and help revolutionize medicine and health care. Far from being a stopgap or temporary measure, these new hearts would be designed to last many years, maybe someday extending patients lives indefinitely.

Carmat – led by co-founder and heart transplant specialist Dr. Alain Carpentier – spent 25 years developing the heart. The device weighs three times that of an average human heart, is made of soft “biomaterials,” and operates off a five-year lithium battery. The key difference between Carmat’s heart and past efforts is that Carmat’s is self-regulating, and actively seeks to mimic the real human heart, via an array of sophisticated sensors.

carmat-artificial-heartUnfortunately, the patient who received the first Carmat heart died prematurely only a few months after its installation. Early indications showed that there was a short circuit in the device, but Carmat is still investigating the details of the death. On September 5th, however, another patient in France received the Carmat heart, and according to French Minister Marisol Touraine the “intervention confirms that heart transplant procedures are entering a new era.”

More than just pumping blood, future artificial hearts are expected to bring numerous other advantages with them. Futurists and developers predict they will have computer chips and wi-fi capacity built into them, and people could be able to control their hearts with smart phones, tuning down its pumping capacity when they want to sleep, or tuning it up when they want to run marathons.

carmat_heart1The benefits are certainly apparent in this. With people able to tailor their own heart rates, they could control their stress reaction (thus eliminating the need for Xanax and beta blockers) and increase the rate of blood flow to ensure maximum physical performance. Future artificial hearts may also replace the need for some doctor visits and physicals, since it will be able to monitor health and vitals and relay that information to a database or device.

In fact, much of the wearable medical tech that is in vogue right now will likely become obsolete once the artificial heart arrives in its perfected form. Naturally, health experts would find this problematic, since our hearts respond to our surroundings for a reason, and such stimuli could very well have  unintended consequences. People tampering with their own heart rate could certainly do so irresponsibly, and end up causing damage other parts of their body.

carmat_heart2One major downside of artificial hearts is their exposure to being hacked thanks to their Wi-Fi capability. If organized criminals, an authoritarian government, or malignant hackers were dedicated enough, they could cause targeted heart failure. Viruses could also be sent into the heart’s software, or the password to the app controlling your heart could be stolen and misused.

Naturally, there are also some critics who worry that, beyond the efficacy of the device itself, an artificial heart is too large a step towards becoming a cyborg. This is certainly true when it comes to all artificial replacements, such as limbs and biomedical implants, technology which is already available. Whenever a new device or technique is revealed, the specter of “cyborgs” is raised with uncomfortable implications.

transhuman3However, the benefit of an artificial heart is that it will be hidden inside the body, and it will soon be better than the real thing. And given that it could mean the difference between life and death, there are likely to be millions of people who will want one and are even willing to electively line up for one once they become available. The biggest dilemma with the heart will probably be affordability.

Currently, the Carmat heart costs about $200,000. However, this is to be expected when a new technology is still in its early development phase. In a few years time, when the technology becomes more widely available, it will likely drop in price to the point that they become much more affordable. And in time, it will be joined by other biotechnological replacements that, while artificial, are an undeniably improvement on the real thing.

The era of the Transhumanism looms!

Source: motherboard.vice.com, carmatsa.com, cdc.gov, heartandstroke.com

The Future of Medicine: AR Treats Phantom Limb Pain

AR_plpStudies have shown that a good deal of amputees feel pain in their lost limbs, a condition known as Phantom Limb Pain (PLP). The condition is caused when the part of brain responsible for a limb’s movement becomes idle, and thus far has very difficult to treat. But a new study suggests therapy involving augmented reality and gaming could stimulate these unused areas of the brain, resulting in a significant reduction in discomfort.

Previous attempts to ease PLP by replicating sensory feedback from an artificial hand have included prosthetics and a treatment known as mirror therapy, where a reflection of the patient’s remaining limb is used to replace the phantom limb. Virtual reality systems have resulted in more sophisticated mirror therapy, but the approach is only useful for the treatment of one-sided amputees.

Mirror TherapyA research team from Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology sought to overcome this and achieve greater levels of relief by testing a treatment where the virtual limb would be controlled through myoelectric activity. This is a process where the muscle signals which would control the phantom limb at the stump are detected and then used to create a pattern that will predict the limb’s movements and provide the requisite stimulation.

To test the treatment, the researchers connected amputee Ture Johanson – a man who have lived with PLP for 48 years – to a computer. Electrodes running from his stump to the machine provided the input signals, and on the computer screen, he was able to see and move a superimposed virtual arm. The electronic signals from his arm communicated to the computer and his movements were simulated before his very eyes, and then used to control a car in a racing game.

plp-augmented-realityWithin weeks of starting this augmented reality treatment in Max Ortiz Catalan’s clinic at Chalmers, his found his pain easing and even disappearing entirely. Mr Johanson says he has noticed other benefits, like how perceives his phantom hand to be in a resting, relaxed position rather than constantly a clenched fist:

The pain is much less now. I still have it often but it is shorter, for only a few seconds where before it was for minutes. And I now feel it only in my little finger and the top of my ring finger. Before it was from my wrist to my little finger… Can you imagine? For 48 years my hand was in a fist but after some weeks with this training I found that it was different. It was relaxed. It had opened.

Mr Johanson has also learned to control the movements of his phantom hand even when he is not wired up to the computer or watching the virtual limb.

AR_plp1Max Ortiz Catalan, the brains behind the new treatment, says giving the muscles a work-out while being able to watch the actions carried out may be key to the therapy. Catalan says it could also be used as a rehabilitation aid for people who have had a stroke or those with spinal cord injuries. As he put it:

The motor areas in the brain needed for movement of the amputated arm are reactivated, and the patient obtains visual feedback that tricks the brain into believing there is an arm executing such motor commands. He experiences himself as a whole, with the amputated arm back in place.

While he and his team points out that its research is based on the study of only one patient, the success in achieving pain relief following a series of unsuccessful treatments is a clear sign of efficacy and should lead to equally successful results in other test cases. Their research appeared in a recent issue of Frontiers in Neuroscience titled “Treatment of phantom limb pain (PLP) based on augmented reality and gaming controlled by myoelectric pattern recognition: a case study of a chronic PLP patient”.

Treatment of phantom limb pain (PLP) based on augmented reality and gaming controlled by myoelectric pattern recognition: a case study of a chronic PLP patient – See more at: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnins.2014.00024/full#sthash.BRadRPRS.dpuf
Treatment of phantom limb pain (PLP) based on augmented reality and gaming controlled by myoelectric pattern recognition: a case study of a chronic PLP patient – See more at: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnins.2014.00024/full#sthash.BRadRPRS.dpuf
Treatment of phantom limb pain (PLP) based on augmented reality and gaming controlled by myoelectric pattern recognition: a case study of a chronic PLP patient – See more at: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnins.2014.00024/full#sthash.BRadRPRS.dpuf

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video of the therapy being demonstrated:


Source: gizmag.com, bbc.com, journal.frontiersin.org

The Future is Here: Blood Monitoring Implants!

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The realm of nanotechnology, which once seemed like the stuff of science fiction, is getting closer to realization with every passing year. And with all the innovations taking place in tiny-scale manufacturing, molecular research, and DNA structures, we could be looking at an age where tiny machines regulate our health, construct buildings, assemble atomic structures, and even contain enough hardware to run complex calculations.

One such innovation was announced back in March by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where researchers created the world’s smallest medical implant capable of monitoring critical chemicals in the blood. Measuring a mere 14mm in length, the device is capable of measuring up to five indicators, like proteins, glucose, lactate, ATP, and then transmit this information to a smartphone via Bluetooth.

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In short, it is capable of providing valuable information that may help track and prevent heart attacks and monitor for indications of harmful conditions, like diabetes. Each sensor is coated with an enzyme that reacts with blood-borne chemicals to generate a detectable signal, and is paired with a wearable battery that provides the 100 milliwatts of power that the device requires by wireless inductive charging through the skin.

For patient monitoring, such a device has so many useful applications that it is likely to become indispensable, once introduced. In cancer treatment for example, numerous blood tests are often required to calibrate treatments according the to the patient’s particular ability to break down and excrete drugs. And since these parameters often change due the patient’s reaction to said treatments, anything that can provide up-to-the-minute monitoring will spare the patient countless invasive tests.

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In addition, in cases of heart attacks, the signs are visible in the hours before the event occurs. This occurs when fatigued or oxygen-starved muscle begins to break down, releasing fragments of the heart-specific smooth muscle protein known as troponin. If this protein can be detected before disruption of the heart rhythm begins, or the actual attack, lifesaving preemptive treatment can be initiated sooner.

At the moment, the sensors are limited by the number of sensors they hold. But there is no theoretical limit to how any sensors each implant can hold. In the future, such a device could be equipped with electronics that could monitor for strokes, blood clots, high cholesterol, cancer cells, HIV, parasites, viruses, and even the common cold (assuming such a thing continues to exist!) Just think about it.

You’re going about your daily activities when suddenly, you get a ringtone that alerts you that you’re about to experience a serious a health concern. Or maybe that the heavy lunch you just ate raised the level of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream to an unwanted level. Tell me, on a scale of one to ten, how cool would that be?

Source: Extremetech.com