The great majority of biotech investment and research is happening today in the field of medicine, stimulating critical advances that are helping restore, improve, and extend our lives. Read on for a closer look at seven biotech innovations that are changing the face of medicine as we know it.
1. Smart contact lenses.
Contact lenses developed by researchers at UC Davis are helping monitor and track patients’ risk for glaucoma, the second-leading cause of blindness. Glaucoma develops due to a buildup of pressure inside the eye, which damages delicate retinal cells. To help prevent this, smart contact lenses are fitted with conductive wires that continuously monitor pressure levels and fluid flow inside the eyes of people at risk for glaucoma. Patients wearing the contact lenses also wear a small device that receives information relayed by the lenses and wirelessly transmits it to a computer. This constant stream of data helps doctors monitor any changes in a patient’s condition and provides valuable insight into the causes of the disease. In the future, more sophisticated lenses may even dispense drug treatments automatically in response to detected changes in eye pressure.
2. Cancer spit test.
A groundbreaking device designed by researchers at UCLA could dramatically change the way that oral cancer is diagnosed. A single drop of saliva is all that the device needs: dyes on the device’s sensor react with proteins in the saliva that are associated with cancer, producing fluorescent light that can be seen through a microscope. While the device is currently designed only for detecting oral cancer, the same basic principle could be used to create new, saliva-based diagnostic tests for a variety of other diseases, thus making painful, time-consuming biopsies a thing of the past.
3. More sensitive prosthetics.
Up till now, a major challenge for people with prosthetic limbs has been the inability to sense where a limb is spatially rather than just visually; in other words, it’s difficult for someone with a prosthetic limb to know exactly where that limb is in space, unless they can see it. Graduate students at Stanford University are working to address this issue by harnessing the sensitivity of skin for use as a feedback mechanism. Skin is so sensitive to being stretched that it’s able to detect even very small changes in pressure intensity and direction. Stanford researchers are therefore working to develop a device that would stretch a person’s skin near a prosthetic limb in ways that would give key feedback and information about the position and movement of the limb.
4. Nerve regenerator.
Soon, scar tissue may no longer be an impediment to the growth of nerve fibers along injured spinal cords thanks to a nanogel developed at Northwestern University. The nanogel is injected as a liquid into the body near the spinal cord, where it self-assembles into a kind of scaffold of nanofibers. This scaffold has two purposes: the peptides expressed in the fibers stop stem cells from forming scar tissue by instructing them instead to produce cells that promote nerve development, while the scaffold itself acts as a supportive structure for new axons growing up and down the spinal cord.
5. Phonetic speech engine.
Imagine a device that could translate your thoughts into audible speech. That’s the principle behind the Audeo, a phonetic speech engine being developed by Ambient Corporation and Texas Instruments. The speech engine, which uses electrodes to detect neuronal signals sent by the brain to the vocal cords, is about the size of a quarter and located in a neck brace. As patients imagine slowly sounding out words, those impulses are picked up by the device and transmitted to a speech-producing computer or mobile phone. An innovation like this could greatly improve quality of life for people who have lost the physical ability to talk.
6. Muscle stimulator.
Muscular atrophy can be a significant problem for people waiting for broken bones to heal. An Israel-based company is working to address this with a battery-operated muscle stimulation device. Known as the MyoSpare, the device uses very small electrical stimulators, which can be worn underneath or inside casts, to exercise muscles regularly and keep them strong during the recovery process.
7. Absorbable heart stent.
In cases of coronary artery disease where arteries have become narrowed or blocked, a common treatment practice is the insertion of a stent, which reopens the artery and allows for proper blood circulation. Recent years have seen the development of drug-eluting stents, which release drugs over a period of six to nine months that help prevent restenosis (or the re-narrowing of the artery as the body heals). The next wave of stents takes the process one step further: an Illinois-based laboratory has created a bio-absorbable version that begins to dissolve after six months, when most of the risk of restenosis has passed. After two years, the stent disappears completely, leaving nothing but a healthy artery behind.