Health Tech News This Week – June 4, 2022

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

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Tiny Robot Crab to Perform Tasks Inside Body

Conn Hastings in Medgadget reports on work by engineers at Northwestern University who have developed a tiny remote-controlled crab robot. The device is just half a millimeter wide, and can perform various impressive tasks, including jumping, twisting, bending, turning, and walking. The tiny devices do not require electricity and instead are powered through heating using a laser. The shape-memory alloy that forms the bulk of the robots rapidly changes shape when heated and returns to its original shape rapidly when the heating ceases, forming the basis for the device’s movements. While in its technological infancy, the method could have eventual applicability in medicine as a means to perform minimally invasive surgical tasks within the body.

Why it’s important – The future of micro-robotics can have them act as agents to repair or assemble small structures or machines in industry or as surgical assistants to clear clogged arteries, stop internal bleeding, or eliminate cancerous tumors — all in minimally invasive procedures.

Infographic of the week – Rare diseases affect 30 million Americans. And there are approximately 7,000 different known rare diseases today. Only ~5% have a treatment option available.

Image Credit: Viscadia

Artificial Skin Senses Pressure, Temperature, Humidity

More from Conn Hastings in Medgadget. Researchers at Graz University in Austria have created an artificial skin that is more sensitive than your fingertip. The skin contains 2,000 sensors per square millimeter, and the researchers designed it to sense humidity, temperature, and pressure, just like human skin. The tiny sensors within the skin material consist of a hydrogel core and a piezoelectric zinc oxide shell. The hydrogel expands or contracts depending on the temperature and when it absorbs moisture. Pressure can also affect the zinc oxide shell, and these changes lead to an electrical charge, forming the basis of the sensing technology.

Image Credit: Graz University, Austria

Why it’s important – The material could form a component of advanced prosthetic devices that allow their users to experience their environment more realistically. The resulting e-skin can outperform our skin in terms of sensing small objects. Human skin can detect things that are approximately 1 square millimeter in size, whereas this artificial skin can reportedly detect ones that are up to one thousand times smaller.

When will augmented reality glasses be ready for consumers?

Since Apple’s WWDC conference begins on Monday, and there’s a ton of speculation about whether they will introduce an augmented reality glasses product, Robert Scoble posts this look at when the technology will be ready for prime time in his Scobleizer blog. His take:

“Until this next generation of devices happens these glasses will mostly be used for R&D or enterprise uses, like controlling robots or production lines, or doing things like surgery, where field of view, brightness, etc aren’t as important as they will be for consumers. Lumus is selling their much better lenses to consumer-focused partners, but they don’t expect the really interesting glasses until 2024.”

Robert Scoble

Why it’s important – While I believe that augmented reality applications will ultimately be a more important use in health care than VR, it’s important to understand what works today and what needs to happen for mainstream adoption. I’ll be watching the Apple WWDC Keynote with interest on Monday. But I’ll need to temper my enthusiasm for their next “new big thing” with the reality of the current capabilities.

Gene Therapy Successfully Treats Spinal Cord Injuries Without Side Effects

An international team of researchers led by scientists at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine reported that a gene therapy that inhibits targeted nerve cell signaling effectively reduced neuropathic pain in mice with spinal cord or peripheral nerve injuries with no detectable side effects. The team published the results in the online edition of Molecular Therapy on May 5, 2022, and in an article on SciTech Daily.

Why it’s important – The results in this study suggest a possible new treatment option for a condition that may affect more than half of individuals with spinal cord injuries. Neuropathy involves damage or dysfunction in nerves elsewhere in the body, typically resulting in chronic or debilitating numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, and pain.

NZ-based AI firm launches tool to assess heart risk through retinal scans in US

Fierce Health’s Anastassia Gliadkovskya covered this announcement by Toku Eyes. This New Zealand-based healthcare AI company is launching its tool that assesses heart risk through a retinal scan in the U.S. The device, called ORAiCLE, uses an AI platform to identify cardiovascular threats more accurately than existing risk calculators, the company claims. The platform recognizes subtle changes in aspects like blood vessels and pigmentation to identify a person’s risk of a stroke or heart attack in the next five years.

Why it’s important – Many Americans with diabetes are at risk of long-term complications like heart disease and blindness. Early diagnosis is critical for mitigating morbidity, but the diagnosis has historically been a challenge. Since using a retinal camera and the AI software requires minimal training, it is more cost-effective and accessible, the company argues. The AI platform uses an image of the back of the eye to do its assessment. It then provides personalized health guidance or recommends a specialist referral.

Artificial Intelligence Can Now Accurately Describe Your Poop

In one of those “I never thought I’d see this headline” moments, Vice’s Ella Fassier reports on a new randomized clinical trial presented at the Digestive Disease Week conference in San Diego. Artificial Intelligence categorizes the poops into one of seven categories following the Bristol Stool Scale, a diagnostic stool tool.

Why it’s important – Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects up to 1 billion people worldwide. And these apps are part of a growing trend of AI-assisted healthcare. At its best, the health-promoting technological design would be driven by the needs and desires of the most vulnerable patients, would be equally and freely accessible to all, and would allow communities to surpass gatekeeping inherent in the medical-industrial complex. Not as expensive as a smart toilet like the Tyto Wellness Toilet, which also performs fecal analysis, it is hoped that the use of an AI-assisted algorithm will encourage awareness in a more significant portion of the population.

Doctors Transplant 3-D Printed Ear Made of Human Cells

3DBio Therapeutics, a biotech company in Queens, said it had for the first time used 3-D printing to make a body part with a patient’s own cells. As reported in The New York Times by Roni Caryn Rabin, independent experts said that the transplant, part of the first clinical trial of a successful medical application of this technology, was a stunning advance in tissue engineering.

Image Credit: Dr. Arturo Bonilla, Microtia-Congenital Ear Institute

Why it’s important – Companies have previously used 3-D printing technology to produce custom-fit prosthetic limbs made of plastic and lightweight metals. But the ear implant, made from a tiny glob of cells harvested from the woman’s misshapen ear, appears to be the first known example of a 3-D printed implant made of living tissues. The new procedure can be done in a few hours and outside a hospital.

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