Category Archives: Medicine

Physicians ponder the future of medical robotics

Robots like the da Vinci surgical robot have enabled humans to achieve a remarkable degree of precision when performing certain surgeries, but these technologies – while incredible – are really just an extension of a physician’s body, like a very high tech scalpel or forceps.

A new generation of tiny snake-like robots is actually capable of crawling through the body to perform surgery, but again, these are guided by a human physician, and tethered to a external machine.

Physicians may look forward to these developments, but many may not foresee a future in which the robot will perform tasks on its own, without the guiding hand of a doctor:

“It won’t be very long before we have robots that are nanobots, meaning they will actually be inside the body without tethers,” said Dr. Michael Argenziano, the Chief of Adult Cardiac Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

Argenziano was involved with some of the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinical trials on robotic heart surgery more than 10 years ago. Now he says snake robots have become a commonly used tool that gives surgeons a whole new perspective.

“It’s like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve,” he said.

But Argenziano and experts in robotics say the new creations work best when they’re designed for very specific tasks. “The robot is a tool. It is no different in that sense than a scalpel. It’s really a master-slave device,” he said.

Argenziano recognizes that medical robots will continue to shrink in size and expand in capability, but is careful to note they won’t be putting him out of a job any time soon. He’s correct – for now.

In a generation, however, we may very well loose tiny robots within our bodies to perform autonomous diagnostics and procedures, often before we’ve even become aware of any symptoms that something is wrong. The role of a physician could easily change to that of a manager, directing fleets of tiny robots within patients, similar to the way an engineer helps guide the actions of robots on a factory floor.

Are scientists closer to developing resveratrol-based drugs?

Resveratrol is one of those wonder supplements purported to have many beneficial health effects, including increased longevity, anti-inflammatory properties, cancer-fighting properties, and more. Although animal studies have provided some evidence for these claims, human studies have been mixed.

Even with somewhat thin existing evidence of its benefits in humans, resveratrol has proven to be very popular as a nutritional supplement. Recent studies, however, may have cracked the code of how resveratrol can benefit health, and may open the door for resveratrol-based drugs:

“Resveratrol has potential as a therapy for diverse diseases such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease,” study author Dr. Jay Chung, chief of the Laboratory of Obesity and Aging Research at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said in an institute news release. “However, before researchers can transform resveratrol into a safe and effective medicine, they need to know exactly what it targets in cells.”

Resveratrol appears to inhibit proteins called phosphodiesterases (PDEs), which help regulate cell energy, according to the researchers.

Some previous studies suggested that resveratrol’s primary target is sirtuin 1, but the authors of this new study doubted that when they found that resveratrol activity required another protein called AMPK. This would not be the case if resveratrol directly interacted with sirtuin 1.

The researchers analyzed the metabolic activity in cells treated with resveratrol and identified the protein PDE4 in the skeletal muscle as the principal target for the health benefits of resveratrol.

Details of the study are published in the current edition of Cell – a summary can be found here.

“Artificial pancreas” enters U.S. clinical trials

For diabetics, the days of having to prick a finger to draw blood, measure blood glucose with a monitor and administer insulin via hypodermic syringe may soon be in the past. Although accurate glucose monitors and insulin pumps have existed for many years, a new “artificial pancreas” combines these components – along with a small computer – into a wearable unit that can continually monitor the body’s insulin levels and uses an algorithm to calculate the appropriate amount of insulin to administer.

The consequences of poorly-managed diabetes can be dire. In the short-term, low blood glucose can lead to emergency situations like diabetic seizures or comas. In the long-term, complications of diabetes can range from neuropathy to foot ulcers.

Being able to use an accurate, all-in-one device to keep blood glucose levels in check is a crucial development not only from a convenience standpoint, but also removes the element of human error in determining how much insulin to administer. In fact, one clinical trial participant who is testing the artificial pancreas noted that when he estimated his insulin dosages, “his glucose levels were out of the recommended range four times more often than when the algorithm did the work.”

The artificial pancreas is expected to be approved by the U.S. FDA in the next three to five years.

For some, certain vitamin and mineral supplements may do more harm than good

For decades doctors have recommended vitamin and mineral supplementation, which is supposed to provide a net benefit for our health. A new study, however, indicates this may not be the case for everyone – particularly women. From the Montreal Gazette:

After looking at the health history and supplement intake of 38,772 American women in their 50s and 60s, scientists at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Minnesota say that the use of multivitamins is associated with a 2.4 per cent increased risk of earlier death in older women. The average age of those in the group was 61.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, pointed to vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper as supplements associated with increased risk of death in the study population.

The researchers claim there is little evidence supporting the need for vitamin supplementation, although not all supplements were found to increase mortality. Calcium, for instance, was found to improve longevity. This corroborates other studies that find the mineral (when combined with vitamin D) can contribute to longevity by reducing osteopathic fractures and subsequent disability.

While I’m no doctor, I worry that research like this may lead to people (particularly women) abandoning vitamin and mineral supplementation entirely, even where it’s shown to have clear benefits, such as the aforementioned calcium and vitamin D supplementation.

If nothing else, however, this study does serve as a reminder that more is not necessarily better, and each person has different nutritional needs. Rather than popping a daily multivitamin that may contain excess vitamins and minerals we don’t need or may actually be harmful in excess (such as iron), a more sound approach is to evaluate our diets and lifestyles and supplement where needed.

Physician peels a grape with da Vinci surgical robot

We’ve seen the physicians who operate the da Vinci surgical robot perform some pretty impressive (non-surgical) feats before that demonstrate the robot’s remarkable degree of precision. This stunt, however, might take it to a new level. Here, in an effort to raise awareness of mens’ cancers, Dr. Ramesh Thurairaja of Southmead Hopsital uses the da Vinci to peel a grape.

The da Vinci robot is often used as a minimally invasive option for prostate cancer treatment. Hopefully prospective patients may take some comfort in seeing what this machine is capable of.

(Via Neatorama) 

Next step in fast evolution of tissue engineering: 3D-printed capillaries

A team of German researchers claims to have found success in creating artificial capillaries, the smallest blood vessels in the body, via a 3D printer. These capillaries could be used to provide blood to lab grown organs in the future. From the BBC:

To print something as small and complex as a blood vessel, the scientists combined the 3D printing technology with two-photon polymerisation – shining intense laser beams onto the material to stimulate the molecules in a very small focus point.

The material then becomes an elastic solid, allowing the researchers to create highly precise and elastic structures that would be able to interact with a human body’s natural tissue.

So that the synthetic tubes do not get rejected by the living organism, their walls are coated with modified biomolecules.

Such biomolecules are also present in the composition of the “inks” used for the blood vessel printer, combined with synthetic polymers.

The team that developed this technique will be showing off their new technology at Biotechnica 2011 in October.

Scientists have been looking toward 3D organ printing as a potential path forward for tissue engineering for years, and with researchers on the verge of figuring out how to replace filing kidneys with 3D-printed versions (and having already used similar technology to replace bladders), humans are close to a day where we don’t have to worry about organ donor shortages or take anti-rejection drugs to live with transplanted organs.

That day can’t come soon enough.

MIT researchers develop broad-spectrum antiviral treatment

A new antiviral technology developed by MIT researchers could revolutionize the way viral illnesses are treated, helping to contain virulent outbreaks and cure viral diseases where no cure currently exists. From MITnews:

The drug works by targeting a type of RNA produced only in cells that have been infected by viruses. “In theory, it should work against all viruses,” says Todd Rider, a senior staff scientist in Lincoln Laboratory’s Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group who invented the new technology.

Because the technology is so broad-spectrum, it could potentially also be used to combat outbreaks of new viruses, such as the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, Rider says.

This mechanism of action also makes it difficult for viruses to develop resistance to the treatment, which is a serious and growing problem with bacterial diseases.

While the article mentions this treatment for viral illness ranging from the common cold to Ebola, there’s no mention of HIV, which is surprising. When I think of a treatment that “should work against all viruses,” that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

(Via @warrenellis)

Nanotechnology new weapon in war against MRSA

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, leads to infections that are difficult or impossible to treat with conventional antibiotics. While there are some treatment options currently available, as well as some potential antibiotic treatments that are in various stages of regulatory approval, I often fear we’re quickly approaching a time when antibiotics simply no longer work – and that is a very scary thought.

Fortunately, new ways of treating MRSA are in development, including what sounds like a very promising approach using nanotechnology, pioneered by IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. This approach uses nanostructures that are only attracted to infected cells, leaving healthy tissue alone. Furthermore, they destroy bacteria in a manner fundamentally different than the mechanism of action used with antibiotics, ensuring that bacteria cannot develop resistance to the treatment.

From an IBM press release:

Once these polymers come into contact with water in or on the body, they self assemble into a new polymer structure that is designed to target bacteria membranes based on electrostatic interaction and break through their cell membranes and walls. The physical nature of this action prevents bacteria from developing resistance to these nanoparticles.

The electric charge naturally found in cells is important because the new polymer structures are attracted only to the infected areas while preserving the healthy red blood cells the body needs to transport oxygen throughout the body and combat bacteria.

Because the polymers are biodegradable, researchers envision using this technology for a number of potential applications, including consumer products like deodorant, antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizer. From the sound of it, this would be a broad-spectrum treatment, not only being used to treat MRSA but also drug-resistant tuberculosis and other serious infections.

Although this is only in the very early stages of research, if it works, it would be a game-changer – not only for treating MRSA but for nanomedicine, as well.

Via: MedGadget

Surgical robot folds tiny paper airplane the size of a U.S. penny

Ever wonder about the dexterity and precision of a da Vinci surgical robot? If so, watch this video of a surgeon based out of Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center transform a tiny piece of paper into a perfectly folded paper airplane about the length of a U.S. penny.

I couldn’t help but notice how fluidly the surgeon operates the controls of the machine – like an extension of his body.

Source: SeattlePI

Microelectronics to usher in new era of health care

As engineers become increasingly adept at shrinking electronics, tiny computers and other devices are finding their way into new areas of use. Health care, in particular, stands to benefit from these developments in microelectronics.

Last week, a team from the University of Michigan unveiled an eye pressure monitor designed to be implanted directly in the eye of glaucoma patients. The device, which measures approximately one cubic millimeter, is being billed as the world’s “first complete millimeter scale computing system.” As a result, it not only includes a pressure sensor, but also features a microprocessor, memory, battery, solar cell and wireless radio that enables it to communicate with an external reader device.

Medical device maker Medtronic has exploited similar advancements in microelectronics to develop a pacemaker described as “smaller than a tic tac.” One of the major advantages to such a tiny pacemaker would be ease of implantation – instead of requiring surgery, physicians would be able to place it through a catheter, which is a far less invasive procedure.

The major stumbling block to such a tiny pacemaker is the lack of a similarly minuscule battery to power it. A problem, a Metronic spokesman says, the company is currently working to address. Nonetheless, the company says the pacemaker could be on the market within five years.

In the somewhat near-term, we may well see humans implanted with a network of very tiny (if not microscopic) health monitors and devices capable of communicating with one another as well as the outside world, ensuring their “users” are alerted to any health disorders as they arise, rather than requiring them to wait until their next physician check-up.

Sources and Photos: EurekAlert! / Technology Review