Health Tech News This Week – October 16, 2021

What happened in health care technology this week – and why it’s important.

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Detecting retinal diseases with advanced AI technology

An international group of researchers has successfully applied AI technology to real-world retinal imagery to detect possible diseases more accurately and on a larger scale. As reported in an article by Monash University in Medical Xpress online, the Comprehensive AI Retinal Expert (CARE) system was developed by an international group of researchers from Sun Yat-sen University, Beijing Eaglevision Technology (Airdoc), Monash University, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Beijing Tongren Eye Centre and Capital Medical University.

The CARE system was trained to identify the 14 most common retinal abnormalities using 207,228 color fundus photographs derived from 16 clinical settings across Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe, with different disease distributions.

Why it’s important – The CARE system’s performance was similar to that of professional ophthalmologists, and the system retained strong identification performance when tested using the non-Chinese datasets. These findings indicate that the system is accurate when compared to the outcomes of a professional and could allow for more testing to be carried out on a larger scale.

Sneaking drugs into cells using new nanoparticle materials

Scientists have difficulty getting siRNA to where they need to be in the body because, as drugs, they are unstable and generate an immune response, prompting the body to dispel them quickly. Sarah Barron, in an article in Advanced Science News, reported on research being done at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, in developing an advanced delivery system to overcome this limitation. The team created hybrid nanoparticles to package and protect siRNA from enzymes that would degrade them.

Why it’s important – By altering the ratio of EV to liposome in the hybrid formulation, it is possible to choose which cells will take up the drug selectively. Multiple cell types, including kidney, nerve, and ovarian cells, could take up the hybrid particles without any toxic effect or adverse effect. These are essential factors when designing new drugs because, in the body, hybrids have to potential to target only diseased cells types and limit unwanted side effects. As with any new drug formulation, however, the team still has some hurdles to overcome before this treatment platform can become commercially available.

Watch for a more detailed discussion on the use of nanotechnology in health care in a post coming next week.

Detector Mask – Biological Circuits for Garments Reveal COVID-19 and More

Masks and testing have been vital to the ­COVID-19 pandemic response—and now devices that combine the two may be on the way. As published in Nature Biotechnology, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers used synthetic biology to create a face mask that accurately detects the ­COVID-causing virus. Previous efforts have used engineered bacteria in these sensors, but living cells bring chal­lenges (like keeping them fed) and biohazard risks. The new research makes wearable devices with freeze-dried “cell-free” circuits built from genes, enzymes, and other cell components, which can be placed on porous, flexible materials and easily stored. The technique makes versatile, “programmable” sensors that could be quickly adapted to detect virus variants.

Why it’s important – The prototype mask activates with a push-button that rehydrates the sensor, starting reactions that break the virus apart and amplify its DNA for detection. The complete process produces a color change within 90 minutes of activation—say, when worn by a hospital patient. The single-use masks need no power source nor operator expertise and work at typical room temperature and humidity. Sensitivity was similar to most lab tests. They hope to commercialize the mask to sell for around $5.

Custom 3D-Printed Wearables Never Need To Recharge

Researchers have developed a wearable device they call a “biosymbiotic device,” which has several benefits. Emily Dieckman authored an article in Futurity online that described research being done at the University of Arizona. Wearable sensors to monitor everything from step count to heart rate are nearly ubiquitous. But for scenarios such as measuring the onset of frailty in older adults, promptly diagnosing deadly diseases, testing the efficacy of new drugs, or tracking the performance of professional athletes, medical-grade devices are needed. The new devices are custom 3D-printed and based on body scans of wearers, but they can operate continuously using a combination of wireless power transfer and compact energy storage.

Why it’s important – Current wearable sensors face various limitations. Smartwatches, for example, need to be charged, and they can only gather limited amounts of data due to their placement on the wrist. The ability to specialize sensor placement allows researchers to measure physiological parameters they otherwise couldn’t. Because these biosymbiotic devices are custom fitted to the wearer, they’re also highly sensitive. The biosymbiotic device that the team has introduced uses no adhesive, and it receives its power from a wireless system with a range of several meters. The device also includes a small energy storage unit so that it will function even if the wearer goes out of the system’s range, including out of the house.

These “Focused Research” Organizations Are Taking On Gaps in Scientific Discovery

Adele Peters’ article in Fast Company online reports on a new organization called Convergent Research, spun out of Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic initiative founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, explicitly designed to take on the problems that can’t easily be addressed elsewhere. Inside Convergent Research, new “focused research organizations,” or FROs, will each take on specific challenges, with a startup-like team under a CEO aiming to deliver a solution that can help accelerate the field—without worrying about grants or making a commercially viable product.

A FRO called Cultivarium, for instance, will work to develop a platform that reduces the time, cost, and risk of studying and engineering different microbes that aren’t currently used in synthetic biology. Another FRO, called E11 Bio, will work on a platform for mapping the architecture of the whole brain. Convergent plans to launch similar organizations to tackle other gaps in technology for problems like climate change, developing new antibiotics, or generating data for preventing disease.

Why it’s important – Some scientific and technical challenges slip through the gaps of existing research because they’re not quite a fit for academic labs, or startups, or other organizations doing R&D. Creating these focused research organizations allows researchers to take on complex challenges that wouldn’t get funding or additional resources and removes structural obstacles that hinder essential research.

‘Virtually painless’ needle-free injections developed in Netherlands

Researchers in the Netherlands are creating laser technology to enable “virtually painless” injections without needles in what they call a breakthrough that will ease fear and lower the threshold for vaccinations. As reported in Reuters by Esther Verkaik, David Fernandez Rivas, a professor at Twente University and research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed The “Bubble Gun,” which uses a laser to push tiny droplets through the outer layer of the skin.

Within a millisecond, the glass that contains the liquid is heated by a laser; a bubble is created in the liquid, pushing the fluid out at a velocity of at least 100 km per hour (60 mph). That allows them to penetrate the skin without damage. You don’t see any wound or entry point.

Why it’s important – Roughly one in five Dutch people are afraid of needles, so it is expected that the invention will not only help more people get vaccinated but will also prevent the risk of contamination by dirty needles and reduce medical waste. It could, however, take 1-3 years for the method to be available to the general public, depending on the progress of research and regulatory issues.

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