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5 Medical Breakthroughs Brought to you by Technology

While some poor souls in the U.S. may be wondering whether acne or bunions could lead to them being denied insurance, most of the rest of the developed world is concerned with reality and other things of actual significance. Matters of importance, such as: is today the day my iPod explodes and makes me a Eunuch; what is Kanye West’s major malfunction, and when is my lunch getting here?


But what many don’t realize is that some of the same kinds of technologies that imperil your reproductive organs with fiery touch screen shrapnel, and turn Kanye’s boneheaded outbursts into the butt of every joke on the internet are being applied to medicine with less dangerous and infinitely more useful and less cringe worthy results.

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Watching What You Say


While many of you may have watched a video of Kanye making an ass of himself, researchers from the University of East Anglia have found that computers and videos can do so much more than just making people look profoundly stupid.

A team from the University’s School of Computing Science has come up with a computerized lip-reading system that far outshines human lip readers. The system is able to recognize what words are being said based on features that show the shape of the face and does not require a full video like humans do. The system works so well that when tested against human lip-readers, the computerized system was capable of recognizing 80 percent of the words compared to the 32 percent recognition rate achieved by humans at the same task.


This has greater implications than just being a handy way for our robot overlords to know what hairless apes are talking about. Indeed, it’s already causing some to rethink how we teach the hearing-impaired to read lips. Traditionally, we show people pictures and try to teach people to recognize key shapes the lips make during speech. However, the study showed that it may be more helpful to teach people to recognize signs that the entire face gives off as it makes noise. The researchers hope that this could give rise to a raft of new video-based, lip-reading education tools so we can stop shouting at granny around the dinner table.


Accessible Gene Therapy


I’d open up with a joke about someone taking their Levis to group therapy, but gene/jean jokes sound more tired than Kanye after a good cry with Leno (see what I mean about being the butt of every internet joke?). If you read news for actual information about the world, a laughable practice that rightly seems to be dying out, you may have read that some scientists in the US bequeathed the gift of full color vision to some adult male squirrel monkeys, which are naturally unable to distinguish between red and green. Female squirrel monkeys are able to distinguish these colors naturally, males, not so much. Nature is totally sexist, I know. By injecting therapeutic genes into the part of the eyes where the light-sensing cells reside, they were able to coax the cells into being able to differentiate between red and green. What’s great is that this shows proof of concept that you can cure color-blindness in primates; i.e. us. You’ll no longer be able to use the ‘I can’t differentiate red & green’ excuse when you run a red light. Go team Monkey Science!

So what gives? Gene therapy has been a term bandied about since the late 90s and could very well end up being the duct tape of medicine, curing everything from cancer to diabetes, but we’re only curing sight impaired monkeys now? Sad, I know, I was hoping for super mutant powers by this point. However, the reason gene therapy isn’t curing all that ails us is that performing actual gene therapy correctly, and safely for that matter, is incredibly hard. In effect, you’re trying to introduce foreign genes to correct problems in the patients DNA that give rise to diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia or hell, even male pattern baldness. As you could imagine, this has problems not just in terms of how you get the genes into the person in the first place, but whether or not they’ll even be compatible with the patient’s personal biology. To date we’ve tried a lot of methods involving viruses, retroviruses, adenoviruses and a bunch of non-viral methods with really big words. However, with the advent of nanotechnology we may have a way that is safer and more effective.


Not content to just keep their bling on their ring fingers, a team of researchers at Northwestern University have pioneered a novel gene therapy technique involving surface-modified nanodiamonds. The problems faced by current gene delivery mechanisms are biocompatibility and efficiency of delivery. In English, it means they need something that won’t be toxic to human cells once inside the body, but will still get the new DNA to the right place in sufficient quantities. Our intrepid scientists started with a commercially available polymer used in DNA delivery called polyethelene-800 (PEI800) which has good biocompatibility but isn’t very efficient at delivering DNA and tried to improve it. What they found was when they coated nanodiamonds with PEI800 the delivery efficiency was over 70 times greater than PEI800 by itself with the added bonus of not causing massive cell death. While this is a first step with much more research needing to be done before it can be used to treat diseases, it shows that recent advances in technology are opening entirely new avenues of medical treatments for some of the most crippling illnesses on the planet.


Better Prosthesis through Granny Abuse


What do you do with your Grandmother? Keep her in the old folk’s home? Locked in the basement? Either way, I bet you’re not using her to advance science are you? One enterprising 71 year old is helping researchers at Nunnery Orthotic & Prosthetic Technologies (nothing to do with nuns) come up with better prosthetic legs by tripping her as she runs on a treadmill. While making old people fall down is generally frowned upon, if you put them in a harness that stops them hitting the floor and cover them in movement and pressure sensors it seems to be okay. When we trip or stumble our body can react almost instantly to try and recover from it. So, the researchers are trying to gather information about these kinds of physiological reactions through methods very similar to the motion capture technology used in movies and videogames.


The end result is to try and see if the research team can use the data they’ve collected from their test subjects (both able-bodied and those wearing prosthetic legs) to find a way to detect the body’s reaction to stumbling. If they can detect the reaction fast enough, they can program an appropriate response into the prosthetic limb so that it would work in tandem with the rest of the amputee’s body and provide active stumble protection, much akin to anti-lock brakes on legless people. Either way, our adventurous septuagenarian volunteer seems to enjoy overcoming all obstacles in her one-legged path.


Think Small


What do you get when you combine small things and lotion? Contrary to the deviants giggling about what they did to themselves last night, you get some astounding improvements in medicine. With nanotechnology beginning to come of age, it is fundamentally changing what we thought possible in terms of what we can make previously mundane materials do.


One of the ways our growing mastery of engineering and manipulating ridiculously tiny things is opening new worlds for us is in the realm of nanoemulsion. An emulsion is an ingenious method of getting two liquids that have no business mixing together to do just that. Generally, this occurs as an emulsion of oil and water based substances because trying to get these two kinds of liquids to mix any other way is like trying to herd cats. The end result is a usually cream, lotion or other kind of semi-gelatinous liquid, so pretty much any kind of ointment the Doctor gave you to rub on yourself is an emulsion.


What’s that you say? If we can herd cats and mix oil and water into goop, what makes nanoemulsion so special? Well, with regular emulsion we can make butter, with nanoemulsion we can take soybean oil, water, alcohol and detergents and turn them into a cream that is capable of the wholesale slaughter of most bacteria, viruses and fungi. Scientists seem to have created the Genghis Khan of the microbial world that may also provide us with a new vaccine for smallpox and HIV. Suck on that, butter.

By emulsifying four fairly simple ingredients and forcing them down a narrow, possibly partitioned tube (also known as extrusion) until they make droplets that are 400 nanometers big, we’ve made one of the most versatile medical breakthroughs in the world. Scientists at the University of Michigan, where all the cool nanotechnologists are hanging around these days, are testing the benefits of using nanoemulsions in treating second degree burns. Because the small size of the emulsion allows it to penetrate deeper into the skin, it is capable of reducing bacterial growth much better than the anti-bacterial cream currently used to prevent infection in burn victims.


The nanoemulsion’s small size offers it a number of unique properties which make it incredibly useful in medical settings. It can transverse mucous membranes (which are not limited to the snot factory in your nose) easily and it also spurs the body to produce a more comprehensive immunological response which gives it immense appeal as a platform for new vaccines. Nanoemulsion’s physical properties give it a novel way of destroying bacteria, which it does by disrupting their cell membranes, which means bacteria do not have a chance to develop resistances to anti-biotics. The fact that it can do all this while remaining non-toxic to most human cells means that you could very well be seeing a new wave of emulsion-based vaccines you administer through your nose, sans needle, that can protect against everything from gonorrhea to herpes.


Made to Match Organs


We all know that the only line longer than the one at the DMV is the one for getting an organ transplant. But what if you could go in to the doctors, have a sample taken, and then come back later when they’ve grown your replacement organ? Sound good right? As incredibly handy as that sounds, tissue engineering just isn’t that far along yet. Up till now, tissue engineering’s success has been mostly limited skin and cartilage growth. Most applications of the science have been limited to frivolous activities such as growing ears on mice and the Australian ‘performer’ who had an ear grafted to his arm. This, of course, gives credence to the views that science is awesome and performance artists are like carnies (small hands, smell like cabbage), minus a safe place to keep them away from the general populace.


The reason we’re not engineering free standing spleens yet is because when you start trying to grow organs you need a way to get nutrients to the entire structure and remove waste before it builds up, much like your arteries, blood vessels and veins do in your body. Without a system to feed the growing organ, you’re going to end up with a rotting fleshy mess in the Petri dish. Previous attempts to overcome this irrigation issue have centered on photolithography, the process used to make computer chips. However, because you have to individually engrave layer after layer with channels and grooves, the method is expensive and time-consuming, making it ill suited for the purpose of growing organs.


Feeling that tissue engineering had gone too long without a mad scientist moment, two colleagues from Texas A&M took inspiration from Frankenstein, deciding that lightning was the way to go. Thankfully they’re not reanimating corpses on campus, but instead running electricity through plastic. Using a phenomenon known as the Lichtenberg Effect as a conceptual starting point, they team used electron beam irradiation to electrically charge an acrylic (plastic) block, and then they hammered a nail into one side of the block or another. Each strike on the nail causes the electricity to run through the inside of the plastic like tendrils of lightning, leaving behind empty, interconnected trails.


The result is that the block is filled with branching, interconnected tubes that can carry liquid throughout the entire 3-dimensional area, which oddly enough is exactly what you need from an engineered vascular system. While this method is in its infancy, the study’s authors have already shown that the vasculature can be reproduced reliably, quickly and en masse, establishing it as a more cost-effective method than photolithography. With a few more modifications they will be able to create the vascular systems in porous, biodegradable material which would provide a medium in which to insert cell cultures around the vascular system to make blood vessels and kidney cells. With a little more experimentation in kidney molds, we could be seeing individually grown organs before you can sew a corpse together and strike it with lightning.


From the nanotech revolution to the computer mapping tricks that make movie magic possible, novel applications of technologies both new and old can inspire incredible breakthroughs in the medical world. We should value and cherish those whimsical folk who don the white lab coat for the good of us all. For showing us that there is always a reason for tripping the old and disabled, for showing us that our computer overlords vastly outstrip our capabilities, even in recognizing our own speech patterns, and for coming up with new ideas that may save us from our unhealthy ways; we salute you, you glorious nerds.

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