A year in biomedicine

2013 has been a year with major advances in biomedicine.

In April, President Obama announced an ambitious federal initiative to map the activity of all the neurons in a brain circuit or, ideally, a whole brain. Monitoring thousands of neurons simultaneously could help neuroscientists understand the biological origin of cognition and perception and speed the development of treatments for disorders such as autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

This year, the FDA approved the first artificial retina prosthetic for use in the United States following the California-made device’s European approval in 2011.

2013 also brought to light a three-dimensional bit of brain tissue, grown from stem cells in a lab, which could be used to study brain function and dysfunction and to potentially screen new medications for toxicity and efficacy. A new type of deep-brain stimulator was implanted into a patient for the first time this year. Deep-brain stimulators are used to deliver therapeutic electric pulses to treat disorders ranging from Parkinson’s to obsessive-compulsive disorder, disorders that many remain difficult to treat.

Researchers developing gene therapies continued to see positive news this year. In March, NIH researchers announced that a two-year-old child infected with HIV at birth may have been cured of the virus.

Genetics has also been a source of news. The latest hit headlines in late November, when the FDA ordered personal genetics company 23andMe to stop selling its genetic analysis test.

A more detailed compilation of the year about to end biomedical stories can be found here.

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Something big is being cooked up…

You realize that the world is changing when the prestigious MIT offers a course on “How to build a tricorder” (a portable, handheld, wireless device to monitor and diagnose your health anywhere, anytime), Google launches a new venture to help us live longer and the FDA lays out its long awaited regulations for mobile, medical apps. All in the same week.

The convergence of medical technology, consumer wellness devices and rapid prototyping technologies for medical devices represents an opportunity to reinvent delivery of health and wellness. Advances in fields such as wireless sensing, imaging diagnostics, lab-on-a-chip, and molecular biology are enabling a more convenient, affordable, and accessible healthcare.

In January 2012, the XPRIZE Foundation announced the Qualcomm Tricorder 10 billion dollar global competition to bring the Tricorder —Star Trek’s legendary piece of medical technology— to life. The mission is to stimulate innovation in personal healthcare and to create a wireless, handheld device capable of monitoring a patient’s vital signs and diagnosing 15 diseases ranging from sleep apnea to atrial fibrillation.

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The contest closes in 2015. On Monday, September 23, the MIT announced a new course, “Engineering Health: How to Build a Tricorder“, inspired by the prize and starting this fall, that could help succeed to some of the teams that participate in the competition. In the program, Students will learn to fabricate, remix, and design detection and monitoring devices for health following the core focus of the Tricorder. Moreover, teams will have the opportunity to travel to Bangalore, India or Detroit, Michigan to test their devices in clinical settings.

MIT’s course it is not the only innovation initiative, relevant to global societal needs and challenges, that has been made public in the last few days. On Wednesday, September 18, Google Chief Executive Larry Page announced the launch of Calico, a venture that will focus on health and well-being. In particular, in tackling the challenge of extending human life and founding cures for aging related diseases.

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Everyone would have described the idea as completely crazy if it weren´t Google. But what exactly will the company do? Google is keeping its plans secret but it is likely to use its data-processing to shed new light on age-related maladies. Sources close to the project suggested to TIME magazine that Calico will start with a small number of employees and focus initially on researching new technology. Thanks to its investment in 23andMe genetics company and having former Genentech CEO and biotech pioneer Arthur D. Levinson as Calico’s Head, Google already has access to a fast-growing genomic database but finding a cure for an intractable disease requires time, enormous amounts of human and financial capital, cooperation and research. This is what makes Google’s announcement exciting as well as mysterious.

How Calico could impact, even transform, healthcare only time will tell.

Meantime, yesterday, September 23, the U.S. FDA finally issued its final guidelines for developers of mobile medical devices. Not all smartphone and tablet apps for health, such as a program reminding patients about an appointment and fitness apps, will be regulated medical devices.

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The FDA will focus only in those apps used in diagnosis or care, apps that turn mobile phones and tablets into de facto medical devices. For example, an application that turns a smartphone into an electrocardiography machine to detect abnormal heart rhythms or determine if a patient is experiencing a heart attack.

The guidance takes effect on September 25. The FDA will also host a Twitter chat on Sept. 26 and set up an email account to answer developers’ questions.

Elegant digital health solutions

Everyone knows hospitals as sterile places that often smell of industrial cleaners but, still and all, about 100.000 people die each year in the U.S. because of hospital-borne infections according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A lot of these infections occur because doctors, nurses, and technicians don’t wash well enough.

To solve this problem, a startup called IntelligentM has developed a bracelet that vibrates when the wearer has scrubbed his hands sufficiently. The wristband reads RFID tags on hand-washing and sanitizing stations. An accelerometer can detect how long an employee spends washing; the wristband buzzes once if it’s done correctly and three times if it’s not. Because RFID tags are also placed outside patients’ rooms and on some equipment, the system alerts healthcare workers to clean their hands before doing a procedure that carries a high infection risk, such as inserting a catheter. Here is the full video explaining how it works:

(More info: Technology Review)

How to reduce medical errors is a vexing issue for providers, healthcare professionals, oversight groups, and especially patients. Each hospital has its own system. Parallax Enterprises LLC, a health IT startup based near Baltimore, Maryland, has adapted the pilot checklist approach to operating room to create a standardized system for tracking medical practices and reduce errors.

The system is a heads up display that mimics what a fighter pilot sees on the canopy of a plane. The unit is mounted underneath the bed and an arm equipped with a laptop-size screen and a camera comes around the patient’s head. The heads up display uses gesture technology so that the surgeon can work through the checklist while remaining sterile. The same checklist is displayed on a large screen for everyone in the room to track. The patient can also be part of the experience through a web site to collect medical information before and after surgery. Parallax is planning for an end-of-summer beta launch with at least one Baltimore hospital.

(More info: Med City News)

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At the D11 conference hold last May in California, Motorola presented a swallowable electronic device: a pill from Proteus Digital Health company that you can ingest and it is switched on by the acid in our stomach. Then it creates an 18-bit ECG-like signal in your body that can be picked up by devices making our entire person an “authentication token.” The pill has already FDA’s approval and it is manufactured for medical purposes.

(More info: AllthingsD)