Developments to Watch
Computerized Eyes to Read Fuzzy MRIs
A Picture could be worth a lot more than a thousand words. With assistance from a computer, it might even save a life. Two research groups are teaching computers to analyze and interpret magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, so the electronic systems can help discover better ways to diagnose-- and treat--lung disease, strokes, and other illnesses.
At Purdue University, Carla E. Brodley, an electrical engineer, has designed a visual database devoted to lung ailments. A new patient's MRI is compared with images in the database. The computer tags the best match plus four others as a way of helping the doctor diagnose the type of lung disease and rate its severity. The physician can also call up information on the treatments and outcomes in similar cases. Additional databases are being assembled for liver, knee, and brain diseases.
At the University of Massachusetts and Baystate Medical Center, researchers are working on a similar system for treating stroke victims. They hope to train their computer to spot clogged or ruptured arteries in the brain, which can cause one kind of stroke, and to estimate the extent of the trauma.
If machine-learning techniques can be used to teach computers to become progressively better at understanding the hard-to-interpret images of MRI brain scans, electronic systems could become even more valuable in health care. The machines might turn up insights that could lead to improved procedures for minimizing stroke damage, according to Dr. A. Bernard Pleet, Baystate's chairman of neurology.By Stacey Higginbotham; Edited by Otis PortReturn to top
High Tech from the Hive
If dutch researchers have their way, a spoonful of honey won't just help the medicine go down--it will be the medicine. Scientists at the Netherlands Agricultural Research Organization, or DLO, were surprised when they found antifungal proteins in the nectar from the purple flowers of heather. Curious, they analyzed some commercial honey and found the proteins had passed undamaged through the honey bees and into their honey.
That sparked a major program at the DLO's Center for Plant Breeding & Reproduction Research in Wageningen. A team led by biologist Tineke Creemers has rejiggered the genes of petunia flowers so they will yield medically useful proteins. Next year, the group expects to harvest the first test product--petunia honey containing an antidiarrhea vaccine for puppies.
But that's just for starters. Creemers predicts that flowers and bees could provide a rich bounty of drugs. Each flower variety could be modified to add a specific protein or two to its nectar. Some nectar could yield honey with a particular antigen: Ingesting it would trigger the body to produce antibodies and build immunity. Other honeys could contain the active proteins of drugs for treating various diseases. The DLO says a few drugmakers are already buzzing around its Wageningen laboratory, eager to put bees to work.Edited by Otis PortReturn to top
A Micropump with Bubble Power
Need a tiny, ultrareliable pump for dispensing liquids drop by drop? Andrea Prosperetti, an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, figures he has just the ticket--a micropump with no moving mechanical parts to wear out or malfunction. Instead of valves that open and close, it uses tiny bubbles to push drops from a wee orifice.
Potential applications range from medical implants to so-called labs-on-a-chip for chemical analysis and drug discovery. For example, the micropump could end diabetics' need for daily injections of insulin. Equipped with a glucose sensor, an implanted pump could dispense insulin on demand, whenever the sensor detected rising levels of blood sugar.
Currently, Prosperetti and his team have a postage-stamp-size working prototype. It consists of a plastic tube, 1.6 millimeters in diameter, that is connected to a thinner tube by an even narrower "throat." When liquid in the tubes is heated by an electrical current to the boiling point, bubbles form in the throat. By the time a bubble collapses a fraction of a second later, it has moved about 1 mm into the 1.6-mm tube, pushing a tiny amount of fluid ahead of it. Next, the researchers plan to shrink the pump by a hundredfold or more, until it is smaller than a pinhead.By Evelyn L. Wright; Edited by Otis PortReturn to top