And Thou Shalt be Healed

Needle? What needle?
Needle? What needle?

While one half of our world spins wildly down the rabbit hole of ignorance, disavowing anything they can’t understand, the other half seems hell bent on saving their sorry asses anyway. It’s an interesting dichotomy. While I could waste all the remaining internet writing about the former I thought I’d save some space, and what’s left of my sanity, by writing about the latter. The reasons for this decision are multitudinal but they come down to one basic concept; unlike anything offered by those who wish to live in the dark, these scientists I’ll be writing about actually offer something useful to humanity. And there are some philosophical issues we’re going to need to touch on at the end so consider yourself warned. Moreover some of this is going to seem like the rawest science fiction, the kind of stuff that makes it to a napkin at 3:00 AM in a bar but goes no further. I assure you this is not the case. Everything you’re about to read is real and headed to a medical professional near you.

One problem that has been coming into sharper focus, ironically, lately is the study of Alzheimer’s. I say ironically since the opposite is true for its sufferers. Once diagnosed their lives are forfeit. While there are treatments to alleviate the pain, and methods to help families cope, there is no cure. I’ve written before about several promising treatments that were being experimented with, but none had enough of a success rate to be called a cure. Each showed value, and promise, but that was all. Charmaine Caparas, over at the Futurist, tells us about a group of scientists who decided to test all the possible cures at one time on each patient.

And, guess what? That nutty idea worked.

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles found a new treatment that could potentially reverse memory loss and cognitive impairment among patients with early Alzheimer’s disease.

In a small clinical trial, 10 individuals underwent a treatment called “metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration,” or MEND. The treatment is based on 36 different factors, including changes in diet, exercise, and sleeping habits. It also includes the integration of certain drugs, vitamins, and brain stimulation therapy to a patient’s regular routine.

The 10 patients in the trial were subjected to these specific lifestyle changes and treatments over the course of five to 24 months.

Remarkably, results showed that the brain improvements were sustained, and some patients’ conditions improved so much they could return to work and even regain their ability to speak different languages. In some of the patients undergoing the treatment, an increase in brain matter volume was observed after just a few months.

One patient even went so far as to take, and pass, his driver’s license test and become a fully functional member of society. They are currently redoing the study with sixty subjects and working with other scientists to ensure transparency in their results. The basic idea is simplicity itself, they tailor the treatment to each patient based on questions asked of the patient and their caregivers. Some might need more of treatment A while others might need treatment L. Whatever they need, that’s what they get.

Another thing that has long stymied researchers is getting a body to heal more effectively. While especially true in Alzheimer’s patients, who can easily injure themselves unintentionally, it applies to anyone who’s ever been in an accident. Even more so for those injured in remote places, like space. Sarah Scoles, over at WIRED, writes like I do (she’s a naughty girl) and says there may be a way to heal wounds from the most unlikely source.

Airplane wings.

WHAT GENERATES VOLTAGE when you warm it up, push on it, or blow on it?

Get your mind out of the gutter. The correct answer is polyvinylidene fluoride, a material NASA researchers have refined for use in morphing aircraft that shapeshift in response to their environment. But wait! There’s more: It can also kickstart the human body’s healing process.

Because of its potential to heal the world and make it a better place, the polymer’s inventors, Mia Siochi and Lisa Scott Carnell, have now turned it over to the public through NASA’s Technology Transfer Program. Through that process, companies license NASA technology for cheap and turn it into products to sell to non-astronauts. But transforming space stuff into Earth stuff isn’t always smooth. Turned-over technology can get lost inside the catalog, stall out in the bowels of a company, or become part of a product the original inventors wouldn’t approve of.

Polyvinylidene fluoride certainly has the potential to do what its inventors hope it will: heal humans. It’s a so-called electroactive substance that gins up an electric field when stimulated. The researchers developed a process to align and weave its fibers—which in previous productions were strewn randomly—into a kind of high-tech gauze.

Although that work began with aerospace in mind, Siochi and Carnell quickly saw its medical applications, including how it could help wounded astronauts—a medical gap NASA has noted in its technology roadmap. They knew the body’s natural electrical properties already help it heal: Damaged skin layers generate a voltage across themselves (TIL, anyway), which creates an electric field that healing cells called keratinocytes move toward, like geese that align their flight with Earth’s poles.

And they saw that when they warmed the polymer to body temperature, its electric field activated. Adult stem cells responded to that electric field. What if, Carnell thought, they put the gauze directly on a person’s body and let their natural warmth activate its electricity?

Doctors have long voltaged the body to jolt cell migration and coax healing along. But normally, a patient has to go into the hospital and plug in to a device. Siochi and Carnell’s gauze could do the same duty as an unassuming, apply-at-home first-aid pad, pressed like the cushion of a Band-Aid to the skin.

NASA liked the idea, and how it could help astronauts and the rest of us. And that’s when the Technology Transfer office took notice. Let’s take this to the commercial space, they said.

NASA’s program allowing patents to be used by the public has been around for a long time and has helped fund the agency and make your world a better place. Everything from ballpoint pens to Tang to LEDs have come from there. In fact everything from Super Soakers to insulin pumps have come from NASA. The odds are staggeringly in favor of you having, at least, one item in your home that comes from this research.

Okay, so now your brain works ad your skin is healed. Good for you. What if your legs don’t work? What if you’re crippled and can’t truly enjoy your newfound health? Lora Kolodny, over at Tech Crunch, says not to worry, science has that sussed too.

The Boston-based company that was first to provide robotic legs to paralyzed veterans in the U.S., Rewalk Robotics Ltd., has a new product in development that you won’t see this week at CES. The device is a “soft exoskeleton,” designed to help people who have lower limb disability but who have not severed their spinal cord or otherwise become paraplegic.

According to Rewalk CEO Larry Jasinski, “Many people who have had a stroke can stand up but cannot lift their feet well or cannot put their legs down or propel the leg on their own to walk. If you could help them move their legs, but not have to put a big structure around them, it would be a very attractive option.”

The new product will help Rewalk broaden its market, addressing patients recovering from a stroke, or dealing with everything from the effects of old age to diseases that impair their mobility like MS and Parkinson’s disease. The soft exoskeleton could be utilized by these patients, either long-term or as part of a rehab process.

Today, Rewalk’s soft exoskeleton prototype looks more like something a rock climber might wear than Transformer parts. Its main elements are: a belt and fanny pack with motors and a computer within, cables that extend down the legs, knee braces to keep them in place and sensor-laden footplates that can fit into a sneaker or other soft shoe.

The waist belt weighs about eight pounds and the cables, braces and footplates add about two more pounds to the total weight, at this point. Rewalk acquired the initial technology design from the Wyss Institute at Harvard, which had begun developing a “biologically inspired smart suit,” the Medexo, with funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) back in 2014. DARPA has long had an interest in technology that can be applied to help soldiers or medics walk farther, or for longer, and carry more weight in the field.

Jasinski tells TechCrunch that one reason for the tech transfer deal was that Harvard researchers had a great design, but needed to marry it with expertise around motors, gears and software to make it work in the real world. Rewalk had done all that with its earlier systems, and had also figured out how to work with the FDA and the VA to get its devices approved for veteran benefits reimbursements.

 Here’s how the new technology helps a patient to walk on their own, Jasinski explained: “Think about a bicycle. You have cables that transfer force down a line to close a brake down on the bike’s tires. This uses the same principal but is obviously more complex. One cable runs along the outside part on the front of your leg and another on the back. The motor and gear are on your waist attached to the cables. A lightweight brace worn on your calf keeps the cables in place. The computer and our software will tell the motor to turn just enough to lift the cable, pull it and get you ground clearance, then propel your foot forward. Sensors in a footplate in your shoe send data to the computer to let it know everything about your position and when you are walking.”

Here’s the cool part. The exoskeleton is as thin as a wet suit and can be worn under your clothes. Also, as noted above, while the basic tech is old, this reworking of it is revolutionary. No more canes, no more walkers, no more assistants, just you, your legs, and whoever you feel like jogging with. And, yes, you can jog with this thing. All they need to do now is figure out how to mass produce it at a price point everyone can live with. For insurance companies this thing is a wet dream come true. A one time payment versus decades of therapy. don’t think for a second there aren’t a lot of people cheering this on who you might not of thought of as having your best interests at heart.

All right, let’s take all this tech to its logical conclusion. The nice folks over at Futurism have put together a video presentation about something that seems like it escaped from a bad sci-fi movie.

Becoming Cyborg: Scientists Figured Out How to Put Electronics Inside Our Bodies

Electronics and fluids don’t mix—this is largely the reason why, despite advances in the field, we have yet to really tap into the possibilities of using technology to heal and even improve our bodies. Now, a team of MIT researchers seem to have found a way to make sure that our immune system doesn’t reject foreign objects—using hydrogel. Watch this video to see how this new material create a bridge between technology and biology.

Tired of getting lost? Have a GPS implanted. Need access to research at a moment’s notice? Just plug yourself into some wi-fi. Okay, those are slightly whimsical, and all doable now, but the tech will also work with prosthetic eyes, pacemakers, and many other things which can make your life better and help you live a longer, and more active life.

Which brings us to philosophy.

Most scientists believe humans can easily attain a life span of around one hundred and twenty years. The primary barriers which currently prevent that are being removed every day. The question becomes, what do we do with everyone? Do we keep forcing them to retire at sixty-five? Seriously. What will we do with these people. These are not going to be old people living in nursing homes blowing out candles on local TV when they hit a hundred years old. They will be active, alert, and willing to contribute. And they will be demanding a viable role in the world they, and you, live in.

I’ll leave that to another blog.

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