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Applied Biotechnology, Stanford News, Technology

Stanford team produces free Braille notetaker app

Stanford team produces free Braille notetaker app

brailleIn 2011, we showed you a video demonstration of an app that enables visually impaired people to type on a touchscreen tablet. Over the past few years, Sohan Dharmaraja, PhD, and Adrian Lew, PhD, completely redesigned the prototype they first developed with New Mexico State University student Adam Duran at Stanford’s Army High-Performance Computing Research Center. Now, their app, called iBrailler Notes, is ready for prime time.

This finished product, as Dharmajara and Lew explain in a recent story in Stanford Report, looks nothing like the original prototype that caught the media’s eye over three years ago. “Creating a prototype is relatively easy when your audience is a handful of fellow classmates. We did it almost as a whim to see if we could do it,” Dharmaraja said. “But creating a real app, that potentially millions might rely upon every day, is a whole other ballgame.”

Redesigning the app was no small feat because the final design had to be intuitive for users that may have little to no experience with touchscreen technology. As Dharmaraja explains, several of their test subjects had never used a tablet before:

Our testers did not know what a tablet computer or a touchscreen was, much less how to use them. We had to teach them how to use a touchscreen before they could tell us how to improve our products.

Dharmajara and Lew patterned their iBrailler Notes app after the traditional eight-keyed Perkins Brailler. What makes iBrailler Notes unique is the app enables the user to type regardless of where they position their fingers on the touchscreen—the user simply places eight to ten fingers on the touchscreen and the app automatically encircles each fingertip with a key. More from the article:

“We constantly pushed ourselves to innovate because being born with a disability shouldn’t mean you get left out of today’s technology revolution,” Dharmaraja said. “When you see the smile of someone doing something that you and I take for granted, it’s motivating.”

Lew added, “We think the time was well-spent to get it right.”

Previously: Developing a touchscreen Braille writerTennis, anyone? New York Times examines tennis for the blindMap of the Carina Nebula for the visually impairedRubik’s Cube for the visually impairedThe blind can see, and The mind maps the visual world with minimal means.
Photo courtesy of Sohan Dharmaraja

Applied Biotechnology, In the News, Patient Care, Technology

Building bodies, one organ at a time

Building bodies, one organ at a time

bioprinting muscle. jpg

If you’ve been to a geek or tech event like the annual Maker Faire that happens every spring here in the Bay Area, you’ve probably seen demonstrations of 3D printers that can spit out toys or jewelry.

What’s really interesting is how researchers and doctors are harnessing that technology to help their patients by making prosthetics for amputated arms, or replacements parts for damaged bones. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News highlights this new frontier and features Stanford cardiologist Paul Wang, MD, who describes one of the biggest advantages of 3D printing:

“You can make things for tens of dollars rather than thousands of dollars,” said Stanford University professor Dr. Paul Wang, a cardiovascular and bioengineering expert who is among those studying the printers’ potential for prosthetics, replacement bones and other applications. “It’s totally opened up what’s possible.”

Printing prosthetics or bone substitutes using inorganic materials is just the beginning of how scientists hope to use 3D printing; many are trying to use the technology to print living tissue and organs. Doing so is a challenging endeavor – for starters, even relatively simple organs need networks of blood vessels that can constantly feed its cells – but several research teams are betting they can solve the puzzle:

University of Pennsylvania researchers say they’ve designed a way to print those [blood vessel] networks and a Russian company, 3D Bioprinting Solutions, has vowed this year to 3D-print a transplantable thyroid gland, which is laced with blood vessels.

Still other researchers are 3D-printing insulin-producing pancreatic tissues to help manage diabetes, viruses that can attack cancer cells and organ models that surgeons can practice on or that can be used to help design medical devices.

Stanford’s Wang, for example, has made a 3D-printed model of the heart along with a prototype of a tiny gadget he envisions one day could crawl though real hearts to gather information on the organ’s health or kill cells that damage it.

The field has the potential to be a financial windfall for companies that can bring a viable medical product to market, but one of the biggest hurdles is the regulatory process, which can stretch out over a decade or more for new devices. Still, as detailed in the article, proponents are “encouraged by the impact 3D printing already is having on health care” and remain optimistic about the future.

Previously: Countdown to Medicine X: 3D printing takes shapeCreating organ models using 3D printing3D printer in China makes tiny ear and 3D printer uses living cells to produce a human kidney
Photo of researcher printing muscle tissue by U.S. Army Materiel Command

Applied Biotechnology, Biomed Bites, Genetics, History, Research, Videos

Basic research underlies effort to thwart “greatest threat to face humanity”

Basic research underlies effort to thwart "greatest threat to face humanity"

Welcome to this week’s Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that introduces readers to Stanford’s most innovative researchers. 

Stanley Cohen, MD, isn’t a household name. But it probably should be. The Stanford geneticist was instrumental in the discovery of DNA cloning – the technology that underlies innumerable advances in biotechnology and medicine, and led to the founding of biotech giant Genentech.

It wasn’t always thought possible to snip out a gene, stitch it into a new stretch of DNA – often in a different organism – and have it produce a desired protein.

In the video above, Cohen emphasizes that striving to achieve a concrete – and profitable – goal didn’t enable the discovery of gene cloning. First, researchers had to work to understand the basic biological processes. “In order to apply knowledge, it’s necessary to get that knowledge somehow.”

These days, Cohen isn’t resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s striving to thwart what he considers perhaps the “greatest threat to humanity,” drug-resistent microbes.

“My lab is still interested in understanding microbial drug resistance and the way in which microbes exploit host genes to carry out microbial functions such as entering cells, reproducing in cells and exiting from cells,” he said. Scientists need that basic knowledge to develop strategies to thwart the process, he added.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving biomedical innovation here.

Previously: The history of biotech in seven bite-sized chunks, The dawn of DNA cloning: Reflections on the 40th anniversary and Why basic research is the venture capital of the biomedical world

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Ophthalmology, Stanford News, Videos

A medical invention that brings tears to your eyes

A medical invention that brings tears to your eyes

dry-eye-implantMore than 20 million Americans suffer from dry eye, a painful condition where a personal’s lacrimal glands don’t create enough tears to lubricate the surface of the eye.

But relief is around the corner for these sufferers – a tiny implantable device that stimulates natural tear production on a long-term basis is currently in clinical trials. The device increases tear volume by delivering micro-electrical pulses to the lacrimal gland. It’s inserted into the mucus lining of the sinus cavity or under the skin beneath the eyebrow. Tear delivery rates can be adjusted manually with a wireless controller. (You can watch a video of this device producing tears, below.)

This clever invention is the brainchild of bioengineer and former Stanford Biodesign fellow Michael Ackermann, PhD, who says he spent a good part of his boyhood in Louisville, Kentucky, taking apart things like VCRs, radios and weed-whackers.

“My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but it was very clear from a young age that I was going to be an engineer,” said Ackermann.

He’s now at the helm of Oculeve, a 20-person startup dedicated to helping people with dry-eye. Ackermann’s tale of how he took one crazy idea and turned it into a product that has the potential to help millions of people is featured in the latest issue of Inside Stanford Medicine.

More than one person’s story, it’s another example of the efficacy of the Stanford Biodesign training program, whose fellows have started 36 medtech companies and filed more than 200 patents, all of which have reached 250,000-plus patients.

Previously: Crying without tears unlocks the mystery of a new genetic disease, Instagram for eyes: Stanford ophthalmologists develop low-cost device to ease image sharing and Stanford-developed eye implant could work with smartphone to improve glaucoma treatments
Photo and video by Michael Ackermann

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Biomed Bites, Cancer, Imaging, Technology, Videos

Beam me up! Detecting disease with non-invasive technology

Beam me up! Detecting disease with non-invasive technology

Here’s this week’s Biomed Bites, a feature appearing each Thursday that introduces readers to Stanford’s most innovative biomedical researchers.

Star Trek fans rejoice! Stanford radiologist Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, hopes that someday he’ll be able to scan patients using a handheld device — similar to the one used by Bones in the popular sci-fi series — to check their health.

“Our long-term goals are to be able to figure out what’s going on in each and every one of you cells anywhere in your body by essentially scanning you,” Gambhir said in the video above. “We’ve been working on this area for well over three decades.”

This is useful because it will help doctors diagnose diseases such as cancer months or even years before the symptoms become apparent, Gambhir said.

And these advances aren’t light-years away. “Many of the things we’re doing have already started to move into the hospital setting and are being tested in patients. Many others will come in the years to follow,” he said.

Gambhir is chair of the Department of Radiology. He also directs the Molecular Imaging Program and the Canary Center for Cancer Early Detection.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving biomedical innovation here.

Previously: Stanford partnering with Google [x] and Duke to better understand the human body, Nano-hitchhikers ride stem cells into heart, let researchers watch in real time and weeks later and Developing a new molecular imaging system and technique for early disease detection

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Global Health, Microbiology, Stanford News

Foldscope beta testers share the wonders of the microcosmos

Foldscope beta testers share the wonders of the microcosmos

Foldscopes-TanzaniaChristmas came early for citizen-scientists who received the first batch of Foldscope build-your-own paper microscope kits from Stanford’s Prakash Lab over the last several months. These beta testers have begun sharing a variety of fascinating images, videos, tips and ideas on the Foldscope Explore website.

From this site, you can watch Foldscope videos of fluid pulsing through the brain of a live ant or the suction mechanism of a fly foot. One citizen scientist analyzes the structural differences between his brown and gray hair follicles. Another provides a tutorial on FBI bird-feather forensics. (Germophobes might want to skip the close-ups of a face mite or the fungus that grows in half-eaten yogurt cartons.)

Half the fun of receiving a Foldscope kit is the unboxing and building process, which has been captured in YouTube videos by Foldscope fans Christopher and Eric.

lens-mounterEach kit includes parts for building two microscopes, multiple lenses, magnets that attach a Foldscope to a smartphone camera lens, slide mounts, and a battery-powered light module. This allows users to view magnified images with the naked eye or projected on a wall. Photos or videos of Foldscope images can easily be captured and shared via smartphones.

For those of you who haven’t received your Foldscopes yet, rest assured that those who signed up on the beta test site will receive them soon. It’s taking longer than anticipated to build and ship 50,000 microscopes. (The gadget on the right was custom-designed to insert the tiny spherical ball lenses into the magnetic smartphone-mounting platform.)

For Foldscope updates, sharing and inspirations, bookmark Foldscope Explore.

Previously: Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscopeStanford microscope inventor invited to first White House Maker Faire, The pied piper of cool science tools and Free DIY microscope kits to citizen scientists with inspiring project ideas
Photo of Foldscope co-inventor Jim Cybulski and Tanzanian children building foldscopes by Manu Prakash; photo of lens mounting gadget by Kris Newby

Applied Biotechnology, Stanford News, Videos

How Stanford researchers are engineering materials that mimic those found in our own bodies

How Stanford researchers are engineering materials that mimic those found in our own bodies

Modern medicine is quite good at replacing the mechanical functions of the body with prosthetics – which have been in development for the past 4000 years – but research into creating synthetic tissues that are biochemically functional is just beginning. Sarah Heilshorn, PhD, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, shares her research on engineering materials that mimic those found in our own bodies in this Stanford+Connects video, “Materials that Heal.”

Approximately 50 percent of the human body can be recreated; what are missing are systems that depend upon cells, such as the nervous or gastro-intestinal system. Scientists can keep cells alive in a Petri dish, but making them into functional tissue requires some kind of material to serve as an interactive cell-scaffolding. Heilshorn describes how her lab is producing protein-based synthetic material that effectively interacts with cells on a chemical and biological level. Watch the video to learn more.

Heilshorn heads the Heilshorn Biomaterials Research Group at Stanford.

Previously: The “new frontier” of synthetic biology, Drew Endy discusses the potential to program life and future of genetic engineering at TEDxStanford and Drew Endy discusses developing rewritable digital data storage in DNA

Applied Biotechnology, Health and Fitness, Stanford News

Fits like a glove: Stanford researchers develop medical applications for the Cooling Glove

Fits like a glove: Stanford researchers develop medical applications for the Cooling Glove

Weightlifting1-CoreControlTwo years ago we wrote about the Cooling Glove, a device developed by Stanford biologists Craig Heller, PhD, and Dennis Grahn that helps athletes cool off and recover from active play more easily. At the time, the Cooling Glove was being used by a few sports teams, especially Stanford football, but others included the San Francisco 49ers and Manchester United. This past July, the glove was used by the Germans in the FIFA World Cup soccer competition, where they handily beat the heavily favored Brazilian team on their home turf.

The device fits over an athlete’s hand and is connected to a cooler and a vacuum source. Grahn and Heller’s major insight was that the non-hairy skin of the palms, soles, and face are our major sites of heat dissipation. These areas have special blood vessels that can receive a large volume of blood and act as radiators, and the cooled blood from these surfaces flows back to the body’s core.

When asked about other applications for the glove, Heller rattles off half a dozen that his lab is looking into in quick succession. One includes building a prototype for military working dogs. If they’re in an extremely hot climate, they pant more, which compromises their ability to sniff and find the dangerous compounds they are searching for. A canine cooling device that keeps their body temperature cool can help their sniffers work more efficiently.

The team is also working on several medical applications. One variant aims to maintain patient’s temperature during surgery. In this application, booties can be used leaving the arms free for IV lines and other instrumentation. The researchers are also looking at how the Cooling Glove can help menopausal women manage their hot flashes. Heller will soon begin enrolling volunteers for this trial. Another application involves using the glove in its heating mode to stave off migraine headaches before they become full-blown.

The U.S. Department of Energy is interested in how personal heating and cooling devices could be used as an alternative to heating and cooling whole buildings or rooms. The glove or bootie technology could mean a broader dead band on thermostats – the temperature range within which neither the cooling or heating system needs to be turned on – thus saving lots of energy.

Despite the recent success at the World Cup, Heller says the Cooling Glove has not been as popular with athletes as it could be. He notes that Avacore, the company marketing the glove commercially, is relatively small and doesn’t have a large enough budget to develop a more streamlined and user-friendly version or market it widely. He says that the device’s novelty also slows down acceptance:

If you have a concept that doesn’t fit existing ideas, breaking into a market is difficult. We had to overcome skepticism that we were selling snake oil. We overcome that with research, but getting basic research translated and disseminated for the user community is not easy.

One finding of the research is that use of the glove in a conditioning program produces impressive results – beyond what is produced by performance enhancing substances, such as steroids. In a study involving students, some freshmen women – not varsity athletes – were did more than 800 pushups in less than 45 minutes. Some professional athletes tripled their capacities in particular routines such as dips or pullups in 5-6 weeks.

Heller is optimistic about the Cooling Glove’s future in sports. “I expect it will be adopted eventually. If, for no other reason, safety – in sports and many other endeavors such as emergency response.”

Heller is a founder of Avacore, but no longer affiliated with the company.

Previous: Researchers explain how “cooling glove” can improve exercise recovery and performance
Photo courtesy of Avacore

Applied Biotechnology, Research, Stanford News, Technology

Tiny size, big impact: Ultrasound powers miniature medical implant

Tiny size, big impact: Ultrasound powers miniature medical implant

14395-chip_newsFor years, scientists have been trying to create implantable electronic devices, but challenges related to powering such technologies has limited their success. Enter a prototype developed by Stanford engineer Amin Arbabian, PhD, and colleagues that uses ultrasound waves to operate the device and send commands.

As explained in a Stanford Report story, researchers designed the “smart chip” to use piezoelectricity, or electricity generated by pressure, as a source of power and selected ultrasound because it has been extensively, and safely, used in medical settings:

[The researchers’] approach involves beaming ultrasound at a tiny device inside the body designed to do three things: convert the incoming sound waves into electricity; process and execute medical commands; and report the completed activity via a tiny built-in radio antenna.

“We think this will enable researchers to develop a new generation of tiny implants designed for a wide array of medical applications,” said Amin Arbabian, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford.

Every time a piezoelectric structure is compressed and decompressed a small electrical charge is created. The Stanford team created pressure by aiming ultrasound waves at a tiny piece of piezoelectric material mounted on the device.

“The implant is like an electrical spring that compresses and decompresses a million times a second, providing electrical charge to the chip,” said Marcus Weber, who worked on the team with fellow graduate students Jayant Charthad and Ting Chia Chang.

The prototype is about the size of a ballpoint pen head, but the team ultimately wants to make it one-tenth that size. Arbabian and his colleagues are now working with other Stanford collaborators to shrink the device even further, specifically to develop networks of small implantable electrodes for studying brains of laboratory animals.

Previously: Miniature wireless device aids pain studies, Stanford researchers demonstrate feasibility of ultra-small, wirelessly powered cardiac device and Stanford-developed retinal prosthesis uses near-infrared light to transmit images
Photo by Arbabian Lab/Stanford School of Engineering

Applied Biotechnology, Genetics, In the News, Nutrition, Public Health, Research

"Frankenfoods" just like natural counterparts, health-wise (at least if you're a farm animal)

"Frankenfoods" just like natural counterparts, health-wise (at least if you're a farm animal)

cow2More than a hundred billion farm animals have voted with their feet (or their hoofs, as the case may be). And the returns are in: Genetically modified meals are causing them zero health problems.

Many a word has been spilled in connection with the scientific investigation of crops variously referred to as “transgenic,” “bioengineered,” “genetically engineered” or “genetically modified.” In every case, what’s being referred to is an otherwise ordinary fruit, vegetable, or fiber source into which genetic material from a foreign species has been inserted for the purpose of making that crop, say, sturdier or  more drought- or herbicide- or pest-resistant.

Derided as “Frankenfoods” by critics, these crops have been accused of everything from being responsible for a very real global uptick in allergic diseases to causing cancer and autoimmune disease. But (flying in the face of the first accusation) allergic disorders are also rising in Europe, where genetically modified, or GM, crops’ usage is far less widespread than in North America. It’s the same story with autoimmune disease. And claims of a link between genetically modified crops and tumor formation have been backed by scant if any evidence; one paper making such a claim  got all the way through peer review and received a fair amount of Internet buzz before it was ignominiously retracted last year.

But a huge natural experiment to test GM crops’ safety has been underway for some time. Globally, between 70 and 90 percent of all GM foods are consumed by domesticated animals grown by farmers and ranchers. More than 95 percent of such animals – close to 10 billion of them – in the United States alone consume feed containing GM  components.

This was, of course, not the case before the advent of commercially available GM feeds in the 1990s. And U.S. law has long required scrupulous record-keeping concerning the health of animals grown for food production. This makes possible a before-and-after comparison.

In a just-published article in the Journal of Animal Science, University of California-Davis scientists performed a massive review of data available on performance and health of animals consuming feed containing GM ingredients and  products derived from them. The researchers conclude that there’s no evidence of GM products exerting negative health effects on livestock. From the study’s abstract:

Numerous experimental studies have consistently revealed that the performance and health of GE-fed animals are comparable with those fed [otherwise identical] non-[GM] crop lines. Data on livestock productivity and health were collated from publicly available sources from 1983, before the introduction of [GM] crops in 1996, and subsequently through 2011, a period with high levels of predominately [GM] animal feed. These field data sets representing over 100 billion animals following the introduction of [GM]crops did not reveal unfavorable or perturbed trends in livestock health and productivity. No study has revealed any differences in the nutritional profile of animal products derived from[GM]-fed animals.

In other words, the 100 billion GM-fed animals didn’t get sick any more frequently, or in different ways. No noticeable difference at all.

Should that surprise us? We humans are, in fact, pretty transgenic ourselves. About 5 percent of our own DNA can be traced to viruses who deposited their  genes in our genomes, leaving them behind as reminders of the viral visitations. I suppose that’s a great case against cannibalism if you fear GM foods. But I can think of other far more valid arguments to be made along those lines.

Previously: Ask Stanford Medicine: Pediatric immunologist answers your questions about food allergy research, Research shows little evidence that organic foods are more nutritional than conventional ones and Stanford study on the health benefits of organic food: What people are saying
Photo by David B. Gleason

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