High-tech healthcare technology gone wild

DNA chips, microworms and a real-life Star Trek Tricorder are just a few of the latest high-tech healthcare developments

High-tech research and development for the healthcare world is one of the most interesting places to be these days. There's a good amount of money and the technologies that come from that investment are sometimes pretty advanced. Here we take a look at but a few of them such as chips to develop DNA, a car that will help you fight allergies and a prize to develop an actual Star Trek Tricorder.

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Need DNA? There's a chip for that: Duke University bioengineers say they have created a one-by-three inch chip that can produce custom-made segments of DNA in two days in what it now takes many large pieces of equipment and significant manpower to produce in two weeks. Creating and then making copies of DNA quickly and inexpensively could have broad implications in the production and screening of new drugs, as well as replacing current technologies for genetic cloning, the researchers said. "Using current technology, it takes between about 50 cents to a dollar to create each base pair of DNA; using the new chip reduces costs to less than half of 1 cent per base pair," said Jingdong Tian, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering. "In addition, current methods create many mistakes that must be accounted for. The chip-based method is self-correcting, so that whenever an error in copying is detected, it is automatically fixed."

Got allergies? Buy a Ford: In May, Ford said it was building a voice-controlled wireless system for its cars that would let drivers monitor blood glucose, location-based allergy and pollen alerts and voice-controlled, cloud -based health management services. According to a Computerworld story, Ford said it's developing its initial offering by working with medical device maker Medtronic, mobile health vendor WellDoc, and health analytics provider SDI Health, which developed the allergy website .

Must be some real smart apps: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently said it would fund the development of a new generation of what it called novel, unconventional intelligent applications that could help people make complex health decisions. Specifically, the agency said it is looking to develop intelligent computer programs that could combine a person's computer-based health records and knowledge sources in the public domain. "The personal information may be drawn from a personal electronic health record maintained by the patient or from electronic medical records managed by a caregiver or hospital, or both. The intelligent computer program should be able to explain its reasoning and defend its conclusions to the patient, and state the certainty and reliability of its recommendations."

Beam me up doctor: The X PRIZE Foundation, recently announced a $10 million prize for the public to develop a mobile application with the task of diagnosing patients "better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians." The X PRIZE Foundation in combination with want to build a Tricorder device similar to the one made famous in Star Trek that could scan a person and basically tell the doctor what was wrong. In fact they went so far as to include a quote from Eugene Wesley "Rod" Roddenberry, Jr., son of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry in their press kit: "It is great to see two amazing organizations - the X PRIZE Foundation and Qualcomm - bring the technology of Star Trek to life and make the Tricorder a reality for people everywhere."

Really sensitive chips: While Duke is looking to advanced chips for DNA processing, Stanford researchers say they have developed a new biosensor microchip that could speed up the drug development process. According to Stanford researchers , the microchips, packed with highly sensitive "nanosensors," analyze how proteins bind to one another, a critical step for evaluating the effectiveness and possible side effects of a potential medication. A single centimeter-sized array of the nanosensors can simultaneously and continuously monitor thousands of times more protein-binding events than any existing sensor. "You can fit thousands, even tens of thousands, of different proteins of interest on the same chip and run the protein-binding experiments in one shot," said Shan Wang, a professor of materials science and engineering, and of electrical engineering, who led the research effort.

Over 50? You'll like this: Few things can inspire grown men to shake and sweat like the prospect of the over-50 colonoscopy. Researchers at Tufts University's School of Engineering say they are using fiber optic sensors, quantum dots and digital display electronics to develop a new endoscope, the scary-looking tool that doctors use to perform the exam. Without getting into the gory details, Tufts endoscopic fiber optic shape tracker ( EFOST ) basically lets a doctor see and navigate the colon better and most important, with less pain.

Big Blue goes after big disease: IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology this year said they have developed new types of polymers were shown to physically detect and destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA. Discovered by applying principles used in semiconductor manufacturing, these nanostructures are physically attracted to infected cells like a magnet, allowing them to selectively eradicate difficult to treat bacteria without destroying healthy cells around them. If commercially manufactured, these biodegradable nanostructures could be injected directly into the body or applied topically to the skin, treating skin infections through consumer products like deodorant, soap, hand sanitizer, table wipes and preservatives, as well as be used to help heal wounds, tuberculosis and lung infections.

IT disaster hub? Could telemedicine networks be harnessed to save lives in the event of a national or international disaster? Researchers with Cornell, the University of California-Davis and others think so. They wrote a paper recently that states: "A regional telemedicine hub, providing linkage of a telemedicine command center with an extended network of clinical experts in the setting of a natural or intentional disaster, may facilitate future disaster response and improve patient outcomes." A lot of work would need to be done ahead of time to set such a system up but it is an interesting idea.

Nano worms under your skin: Researchers at MIT and Northeastern have come up with a system for monitoring biomedical indicators that could lead to implantable devices that would let, for example, people with diabetes check their blood sugar just by glancing at an area of skin. According to MIT's Karen Gleason these " microworms ," can then be injected under the skin to form a fluorescent "tattoo." By filling the tiny hollow tubes with a material that fluoresces — that is, emits light of a particular color — in response to the presence of a specific chemical, "the degree of fluorescence provides continuous physiological monitoring of a specific chemical" in the body, and can be monitored right through the skin. The light emitted by the fluorescing chemical "is visible to the human eye, and thus can be directly interpreted by the patient without the need for bulky monitors," Gleason stated.

Mr. Robato's wife, the nurse: Surgeons of the future might use a "vision-based hand gesture recognition" technology system that recognizes hand gestures as commands to control a robotic scrub nurse or tell a computer to display medical images of the patient during an operation. The approach uses a camera and specialized algorithms to recognize hand gestures as commands to instruct a computer or robot. Both the hand-gesture recognition and robotic nurse innovations might help to reduce the length of surgeries and the potential for infection, Purdue University researchers said. Purdue has developed a prototype robotic scrub nurse, in work with faculty in the university's School of Veterinary Medicine.

The field lab in a can: Those bleeding edge scientists at the DARPA want soldiers in the field to be able to perform blood tests and the like and get results quickly without having to wait sometimes weeks for test workups sent to a central lab. "Notwithstanding the virtues of laboratory centralization the limited capability to test biomarkers at the point-of-need challenges the military's ability to provide timely health care and maintain the operational readiness of its service members in deployed settings. New diagnostic devices are needed that provide clinically valid results and meet operational requirements, such as field portability and storage, operation by unskilled users, and performance across a broad range of environmental conditions. Such devices would also require FDA approval," DARPA says.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.