Cyborg skin, robotic space surgery, and glucose-measuring contact lenses

I’ve run across a number of interesting stories about some amazing advancements in medical science stories, and thought it might good to do one story looking at all them.

Let’s start with…

Cyborg skin?

Scientists have developed gold nanothread technology that will allow for pressure sensing (i.e., sensing heart rate and blood pressure).

The gold threads are embedded in a flexible matrix that can be placed over skin to measure those parameters.

The soft matrix could easily be applied and be worn comfortably. Additionally, theyre’ saying that this could be the first step in producing a cyborg-skin, too.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in the hit cyborg movie, the Terminator.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in the hit cyborg movie, the Terminator.

Contact lenses to measure glucose levels

Google is working on a contact lens that can take very frequent measurements of a patient’s glucose level.

The lens can record and store the measurements and alert the patient if glucose rises or falls outside of preset limits. When that happens, the patient would know that he needed to take insulin or take some sugar.

It still needs some work before it would be ready to get clinical tests, but could be very helpful in keeping glucose levels under control for millions and millions of diabetics.

An insulin inhaler

In other diabetes news, MannKind Labs yesterday got FDA approval to market its insulin inhaler.

Yes, inhaler.

This device, somewhat similar to the oral inhalers that asthmatics use, allows diabetics to just inhale a dose of ultra fast-acting insulin. It’s been approved for use in type I and type II diabetics. It’s taken at mealtimes.

The insulin level peaks within about 15 minutes after dosing (much like normal endogenous insulin does around meal times), and is fairly quickly removed from the circulation.

It would certainly be more convenient for diabetics to just carry an inhaler than insulin, alcohol, syringes (or an insulin pen). Data presented to the FDA also shows that this new ultra-fast-acting insulin, Afrezza, causes fewer episodes of hypoglycemia than injectable insulin, another plus.

On the downside, research has shown a slight decline in pulmonary function when using Afrezza that will require each user to have occasional pulmonary function tests. Also, no word on price, but probably, as with almost all new drugs, it will be expensive. And, so far, it’s not covered by any insurance since it was just approved.

Nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections

As I’ve written before, patients are at risk of getting infected when they are admitted to a hospital. This can cause them to become even more ill than they already are, increase length of hospital stay, cost, increase antibiotic use and, in some cases, lead to death from the acquired infection.

The best way to decrease nosocomial infections is through frequent hand washing or hand sanitizing. But in busy hospital areas, sometimes hand washing/sanitizing gets forgotten.

This new hand sanitizer dispenser is actually the door handle on patient rooms, nurses’ stations, supply closets, bathrooms, etc. It will dispense sanitizer every time the door is opened, which makes it easy to use sanitizer much more frequently.

It also tracks how frequently the sanitizer is used. That makes it more effective when it alerts hospital infection control officers as to which areas of the hospital might not be complying with hand sanitizing protocols.

Doing surgery in space, by robot

Robot-assisted surgery is nothing new on Earth. There are robots that, acting under human guidance, routinely perform surgery here. Like da Vinci and others

Doing surgery in space is going to become a possibility.

Virtual Incision has developed a small, portable robot that can cut and suture, and has done surgeries on pigs. Of course, doing surgery in space, under conditions of weightlessness, is a different story. But the engineers involved, who have been working on this project for years, think that this problem can be overcome.

So, in an emergency, an astronaut on the International Space Station could have urgent surgery aboard, rather than being returned to Earth in an escape pod. The problems increase, however, if the surgery were to be conducted during an interplanetary voyage. As the distance from home increases, there would be a delay in radio signal transmission that could be a real challenge to the surgery. (It currently takes around 14 minutes for a signal from earth to reach Mars, one of our closest planetary neighbors.) The surgeon would move the joystick and then have to wait till the robot received the signal and made the cut. It would then take another 14 minutes for any images or other status information of the surgery to come back to earth.

But, it would probably be better than not having any other option at all.

Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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