Technology Bulletin 1361

DN Staff

January 4, 1999

8 Min Read
Technology Bulletin

Biochips instantly monitor personal health problems

Someday we may all carry pocket-sized computers that contain digitized versions of our individual healthy genetic structures. Doctors anywhere in the world would use the now-developing biochip technology to read our current state of health while we wait. After comparing it to our healthy genomes, the chips would diagnose developing diseases years before symptoms develop. They would then prescribe treatments to head off as-yet-unseen problems. This is the vision of Andrei Mirzabekov, a biologist who commutes regularly between Chicago and Moscow for joint research positions at Argonne National Laboratory and the Russian Academy of Sciences' Engelhardt Institute of Microbiology. The key to Mirzabekov's vision is an advanced biochip technology developed by his international scientific team as part of the Human Genome Project, a major scientific effort to decode the full human operating instructions for human beings. Like computer chips, which perform millions of mathematical operations a second, biochips can perform thousands of biological reactions, such as decoding genes, in a few seconds. Conventional biochips consist of small glass surfaces--similar to the glass slides used in microscopes--to which are attached short strands of DNA and RNA. Once these known strands are fixed in place, robots and other automated equipment can use the slides as templates to test and decode unknown samples. The technology has been licensed exclusively to Motorola Inc. and Packard Instrument Co., both of which will invest more than $9 million each over the next five years to turn the Argonne/Engelhardt technology into products. E-mail [email protected].

Research center expands role of computers, robots in surgery

Picture the operating room of the future: Before a single incision is made, the surgeon uses a customized computer-generated model of the patient to help diagnose the condition needing treatment, evaluate treatment options, and rehearse a personalized surgical plan. To help realize this goal, the National Science Foundation has signed a $12.9 million, five-year cooperative agreement with The Johns Hopkins University to establish an Engineering Research Center in Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology. Johns Hopkins engineering researchers will join with Hopkins' School of Medicine, its Applied Physics Laboratory, MIT, Brigham and Women's Hospital (Boston), Carnegie Mellon, and Shadyside Hospital (Pittsburgh) to fulfill this vision. The center will draw upon experts in computer science and electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering, as well as physicians specializing in many surgical disciplines. For instance, the Carnegie Mellon team will focus on the development and applications of computer vision, sensors, and robotic devices. MIT will contribute computer models to plan and guide the surgery. "These systems will let you do things you could never do any other way," predicts Russell H Taylor, the center's director. "Also, they promote much greater consistency in surgical execution, fewer errors and fewer complications. You can learn from your work and improve on it." The center is expected to be financially self-sustaining after 10 years. E-mail [email protected].

Robotic hip surgery could help alleviate pain

Patients undergoing gall bladder surgery or appendectomies once required weeks of recovery time. Now, thanks to minimally invasive surgery, most go back to work in a few days. A coalition from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Albany (NY) Medical Center has turned to robots and groundbreaking computing techniques to extend similar savings in pain, recovery time, and expense to patients facing orthopedic surgery. As a first challenge, the team will focus on hip replacement. Surgeons now make two incisions--each 20 to 30 centimeters long. One allows them to ream out the cup-shaped socket of the hipbone and cement in a steel cup. The other gives them room to drill a hole in the femur and insert a shaft with a ball on the end. The ball will ride in the steel cup, creating a new hip joint. In the new, minimally invasive version, the surgeon will make incisions of only 3 to 4 centimeters, just enough space to squeeze in implants and robotic devices. Miniature power saws and reamers pulverize bone and an irrigation system carries it away. Tiny robots insert cement exactly where desired. The robotic tools perform each move precisely because the surgeon will have planned every detail on 3D computer models of the injured joint. E-mail [email protected].

Hand-held assay reader detects biological emergencies

Battelle Memorial Institute has developed a hand-held assay reader that gives first-responders to potential biological emergencies speedy detection of air or water hazards. The reader works on the same principle as a home pregnancy test. An assay, essentially a cardboard ticket, contains several plates sensitive to a biological agent. The assay, injected with a liquid sample that may contain biological contaminants absorbed from the air, is placed in the automated reader. Within 15 minutes, the reader interprets the markings on the plates and determines if an agent is present. The readers can test for five different agents at once, eliminating the possibility of human error in reading the color changes that reveal a biological presence. The battery-operated reader could be available commercially for about $1,000, according to Bill Altman, Battelle program manager. Phone (614) 424-4342.

'Virtual creatures' teach biology without dissection

Remember dissections in your high school biology class--the smell, the mess, the struggle to find an obscure muscle or artery? Suppose dissecting a frog went something like this: You need no scalpels, probes, or formaldehyde. Without touching the frog, you can rotate it to view the amphibian from any angle and study its external anatomy. On command, the skin turns transparent. You can zoom through it to view the muscles, or peel the muscles back to expose the internal organs and skeleton. Such a 3D computer model exists. It's part of the Virtual Creatures project, a Stanford University program that explores ways to use computers and interactive software to teach vertebrate biology. Aimed at middle- and high-school students, the program is the brainchild of a group called SUMMIT (Stanford University Medical Media and Information Technologies Group). The Virtual Creatures' frog is the group's first project, initiated by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. SUMMIT plans to build a menagerie of similar creatures so that students can study a range of vertebrates. E-mail [email protected].

Device combines form/function of mobility-impaired children

Taking a giant step forward for non-ambulatory children, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a rehabilitative device, called a prone stander, that takes the angst out of therapy. Standers allow children with mobility impairments to stand upright. Proper weight-bearing on long bones helps prevent osteoporosis, while also improving circulation, muscle tone, and the functioning of internal organs. However, most standers can be intimidating from a child's point of view. Many are cold and sterile-looking. To help children keep a positive mindset, Mary Lou Tierney, a master's graduate of Georgia Tech's industrial design program, created a user-friendly stander. By positioning children just a few inches off the ground, Tierney's "peer-level" stander allows the user to interact with peers, use a computer, or work on a project on the removable plastic tray. Tierney has named her device "The Buddy System" to reflect its user-friendly focus. Its bright red pod and yellow confetti frame make the system look more like a whimsical space-age toy rather than some kind of institutional cage. Instead of traditional foam padding, cushioning at the torso, knees, and hips consists of an inch-thick gel that conforms better with a child's body and allows pressure to dissipate to prevent irritation. The stander accommodates children from 25 to 40 inches tall. E-mail [email protected].

Digital stethoscope isolates pulmonary or cardiac sounds

The French company Iris (Montceau) has introduced a digital stethoscope that allows clinicians to differentiate pulmonary from cardiac sounds. The instrument, called Top Phono, not only permits examination of one organ without interference from another, but detects sounds barely audible or inaudible using conventional aortic regurgitation and pericardial fremitus instruments, the company claims. In addition, the device produces visuals of heart and lung signals on a computer screen. A special software module transmits files of sounds through the Internet, permitting remote diagnosis by specialists. To examine a specific organ, the clinician simply selects one of three modes on the switch--normal, heart sounds only, or lung sounds only--to initiate the unit's sequential analyzer. Once the mode is selected, a signal from a sensor is filtered and amplified by an electronic board that drives the headphone of the stethoscope. FAX +33 3 85 69 00 98.

Hands-free device permits 3D viewing of small cavities

Welch Allyn (Skaneateles Falls, NY) has developed a portable instrument, the LumiViewTM Portable Binocular Headlight, that can be worn on the head or mounted onto a pair of glasses to allow 3D viewing and illumination of small body cavities. The device's specially configured optics literally converge the user's binocular vision, providing a magnified, 3D view that can be focused on the ear, nose, and throat. At the same time, a powerful halogen lamp shines light directly on the patient, providing the needed depth perception for effective examinations and procedures. Helping to make the 5.5@3-inch instrument cosmetically defect-free, lightweight, durable, and comfortable is a black alloy, CYREX(R) 200-418, supplied by Cyro Industries (Rockaway, NY). "The material gave us a color option that provided a high-gloss surface with mold temperatures between 150 and 200F," says Neil Hoselton, Welch Allyn's commodity manager of plastics. Phone (800) 631-5384.

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