Week in BioE (June 26, 2018)

Holy Grail Found

holy grail
Several types of blood cells under scanning electron microscope.

We cover many highly complex innovations here, and many of these innovations solve vexing problems in the healthcare field.  However, sometimes the problems addressed by these innovations are not particularly complex, even if the impact is economically significant. For instance, venipuncture — commonly referred to as a blood draw — is one of the most basic medical procedures and is mainly performed by medical technicians. There are two problems with venipuncture, however. First, either the health specialist might not be very good at drawing blood or the patient might be non-compliant. Second, the sample must be sent to a lab for analysis by someone else days later, making the costs for blood draws high. A device that could combine these procedures has been considered the “holy grail” of blood testing.

Engineers at Rutgers University might have found this holy grail. Reporting in the journal Technology, the engineers, led by Martin L. Yarmush, PhD, Paul & Mary Monroe Chair and Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers, describe how they combined robotics and lab-on-chip technology to create a point-of-care blood testing device. In the article, the authors report the testing of their device with a blood-like fluid loaded with microbeads and with model veins. The automated blood draw technique is the same across all patients, and the analysis of blood can occur immediately after isolating the blood, making it safer, faster, and more cost-effective. Animal testing should follow soon, and a longer-term view envisions expansion of the initial model to accommodate different types of blood testing.

Preventing a Water Crisis

One of the looming crises humankind faces is access to clean water. Nearly one third of the human population either lacks access or has threatened access to potable water. The rapid population growth in the southern hemisphere means that this proportion will increase, even as preventable water-borne diseases like cholera take their toll. Solutions such as desalinization or mass purification could provide solutions, but they are currently prohibitively expensive and create environmental problems of their own. Less expensive and less burdensome solutions continue to be sought.

Now, engineering professors from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) might have identified a solution. Robert Tilton, PhD, and Todd Przybycien, PhD, both Professors in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering at CMU, are lead authors on a new study in ACS Langmuir describing how proteins produced by the drumstick tree — a very hearty tree native to India that is conducive to a broad range of climate and is already widely cultivated for its fruit and oils — could be used to address water scarcity. The authors exploited the knowledge that cationic protein-modified sand can be used to filter water and showed how to engineer drumstick tree proteins to optimize the filtration process. Testing showed that the authors’ engineered filtration system was more effective and might even lend itself to repeated use.

Innovating for Pediatric Care

Penn Health-Tech is one of the newer initiatives here at the University of Pennsylvania dedicated to catalyzing medical device innovation. However, Penn isn’t the only Philadelphia institution dedicating resources to innovation and invention in medical devices. In the June issue of DOTmed HealthCare Business News magazine, Andrew Rich, who is Senior Director of Biomedical Engineering at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), discusses the initiatives being undertaken at CHOP to integrate data from medical devices with electronic health records, as well as other projects.

Improving Limb Prosthetics

Prosthetics have provided a solution for amputees for more than a century, and engineering has been the source of many improvements over that time. A significant goal of scientists studying prosthetics has been the ability of patients to control their artificial limbs with their own neuromuscular signals. While progress has been made in this direction with machine learning, many patients have to spend a lot of time “training” their prostheses to react properly to these signals, which can be deeply discouraging to patients who have already experienced trauma.

A possible solution has been suggested by He (Helen) Huang, PhD, Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the joint department of the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, and Stephanie Huang, PhD, Research Assistant Professor in the joint department. In a paper newly published in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, the professors used the muscle activation patterns of the residual muscles remaining in patients after amputation. They tested their approach in 10 patients and found highly statistically significant improvement in movement accuracy. Testing in more subjects and allowing users longer training periods during testing could both yield even more impressive outcomes.

People and Places

Synthetic biologists at Colorado State University received a $1.7 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to genetically engineer sporopollenin — a naturally occurring, chemically inert polymer found in pollen grains — to create what they hope will be the world’s strongest material. Early success could lead to another $2 million in DARPA funding in a couple of years. Matt Kipper, PhD, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is a co-investigator on the grant.

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, has announced that it will be adding a new major in engineering design to its curriculum. Patsy Brackin, PhD, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will lead the new program as director.