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Knowledge From Within: Medical Implant Technology on the Rise

Implanted devices aren’t anything new. For decades, surgeons and physicians have utilized medical implant technology to enhance patient care. But in the past, these types of devices tended to provide therapeutics. Specific implants could improve some conditions while preventing others. Examples of this included pacemakers for cardiac arrythmias and cochlear implants to aid hearing difficulties. But this is rapidly changing as implanted devices are now increasingly focused on health monitoring. And this not only has repercussions for medical providers but for patients as well.

As medical implant technology has evolved, the potential applications for implanted devices have expanded. What began as wearable health monitors has now moved into a more invasive arena with microchips under the skin. As with all technologies, pros and cons may both be considered in terms of these developments. On the one hand, such technologies provide much better information that can lead to better care. But likewise, many fear that such devices could be misused in ways that undermine privacy rights. Regardless, it’s worth taking a look at some of these recent developments related to medical implants.

“We started to see this line blur with Fitbit. When you start looking into medical applications, there’s going to be a convergence, and I think that’s going to be inevitable.” – Amal Graafstra, Founder,  Dangerous Things

The Latest in Medical Implant Technology

Several medical fields rely on implanted devices to provide better healthcare services to patients. Cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons place defibrillators and pacemakers to prevent fatal arrythmias. Neurologists prescribe implanted neurostimulators to reduce painful conditions. Even ophthalmologists use retinal implants to correct vision. But these types of implanted devices differ greatly from the latest medical implant technology. Newer devices are much smaller and boast greater connectivity to programs and mobile applications. And as a result, the potential uses for these newer technologies are much more expansive.

In recent years, these newer types of implanted devices have made quite the impact. For example, there now exists microchip implants that are being used to assist with prosthetic limb control. Extremely slim, digital implants exist within the prosthesis and improve its level of function. Other implantable technologies are even more intriguing. Smart tattoos with digital functions are now being utilized in patients with epilepsy. (Dive deeper into smart tattoo technology in this Bold story!) These special tattoos monitor brain wave function and then provide brain stimulations to thwart off seizures. As medical implant technology offerings have become smaller and more advanced, these are a few of the evolving uses.

More recent devices are more involved in monitoring than they are function. For example, accelerometer microchips can detect the severity of a tremor in Parkinson’s disease patients. This information can then be used to guide better medical care. Another company, Eversense, introduced a 90-day continuous glucose monitoring system as an implantable device. This medical implantable technology is FDA-approved and provides diabetic patients with haptic vibrations when glucose is too high or low. Likewise, it communicates via a mobile smartphone app that utilizes “tap” technology. And researchers at the University of Pisa are developing a lab-on-a-chip as one of its implantable devices. Not only can this microchip provide laboratory data without going to the lab. But it also is bioabsorbable, disappearing after it is no longer needed. These types of implanted devices are more about sensory monitoring. And it is this shift from function to monitoring that reflects the most notable developments in medical implant technology today.

“This technology exists and is used whether we like it or not. I am happy that it is brought into the public conversation. New technologies must be broadly debated and understood. Smart implants are a powerful health technology.” – Hannes Sjoblad, Managing Director, Dsruptive Subdermals

Implanted Devices Beyond Medicine

Without question, medical implant technology is rapidly advancing. This is creating new opportunities for providers to better manage patients. Likewise, it is also enabling patients to be more involved in their own wellbeing. But the use of these same technologies is being explored in non-therapeutic areas as well. For example, implanted devices that can be pre-programmed and scanned offer opportunities to store medical records and information. Rather than relying on electronic databases remotely, this type of health information could be accessible on each individual.

An x-ray of someone with a medical implant
Innovations in medical implant technology are leading to greater understanding–and real-time data–of what goes on within.

This is already happening as it relates to the pandemic. Dsruptive Subdermals is a company that recently introduced implanted devices that store COVID vaccine information. Their 2mm X 16mm implant serves as a vaccine passport for those who have been vaccinated. Rather than carrying vaccine card, the device exists on a person’s arm and can be readily scanned. Despite the convenience associated with this medical implant technology, many people have serious concerns about its use. Such implanted devices pose new cybersecurity threats where unauthorized access to private health information might occur. Given that some already distrust vaccines in general, these implanted devices increase their worries further.

“…[P]eople don’t want things in their body, but I will say that what I’ve learned with deep brain stimulation, even hip replacement, is that it’s something that is scary at first but, generally speaking, people do in my opinion adapt to it as they see the benefits of it.” – Hubert H. Lim, Implantable Device Researcher, University of Minnesota’s Department of Biomedical Engineering

A Brave New World of Implants

It now seems that technology is pushing boundaries when it comes to health and wellness. What began with wearable fitness devices has now moved into the medical implanted technology arena. From implanted devices that enhance function to those that provide real-time data, change looks to be inevitable. In fact, Elon Musk recently announced Neuralink expected to start examining implanted brain chips with human experiments this year. The use of implanted devices for vaccine passports and enhanced human functioning will take this to an even higher level. How the use of these implanted devices unfold over the next decade will certainly be something to monitor.

 

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Is a Single Vaccine Against All COVID Strains Around the Corner?

The emergence of the COVID-19 virus has proved to be quite problematic. The pandemic resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. It also overwhelmed healthcare systems, supply chains, and economic viability for many businesses. Despite the rapid development of a vaccine through innovative techniques, COVID continued to adapt and spread. Now, we are dealing with its latest variant, Omicron, which looks to be the most contagious strain yet. While Omicron looks to be milder in severity, it nonetheless appears resistant to existing vaccines and boosters. This is why some are pursuing the development of a single vaccine against all COVID strains as a long-term goal.

(Check out Bold Business’ breakdown of 10 companies using innovation to battle COVID-19!)

At Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, scientists have been working on a single vaccine against all COVID variant. Rather than targeting the most recent strain of the coronavirus, the Army’s own vaccine takes a broader look. Viruses, by nature, constantly mutate and change in order to evolve and survive. Thus, such changes are not only likely but inevitable. As a result, any long-term solution must consider this and create a way to neutralize emerging forms. The Army’s own vaccine looks to do just that by targeting a variety of different strains at once. While human trials are still ongoing, evidence suggests a single vaccine against all COVID types may be around the corner. Notably, this could be a game-changer that may ultimately end the pandemic.

“The threat from COVID-19 continues as it evolves, and eventually there will be other emerging disease threats. Our investment in developing a next generation vaccine is an important step towards getting ahead of COVID-19 and future disease threats.” – Dr. Nelson Michael, Director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research

The Evolution of the COVID-19 Variants

Since the initial outbreak of the original COVID-19 virus, a series of mutations have since occurred. This among other things have led to many vaccine challenges. The initial mutation involved the Alpha variant that ran rampant in the United Kingdom. This was then followed by Delta, which was more infectious and spread more rapidly. Now, the world is experiencing the rapid spread of the Omicron strain of the virus. According to the most recent CDC data, Omicron accounts for about two-thirds of COVID cases in the U.S. And all the remaining ones are Delta variant cases. This has developed despite roughly 70 percent of the population being vaccinated. This highlights not only how quickly mutations occur but also their resistance to existing vaccines.

With this in mind, it’s reassuring that the Army has been aggressively pursuing a single vaccine against all COVID strains. The Army’s own vaccine has already been tested in non-primate animals with noted success. This then led to human trials that started in April of 2021. These Phase 1 trials have also shown promise, with antibodies induced by the Army’s own vaccine have significant neutralizing effects. This not only involves the original strains of the coronavirus but the Omicron variant as well. The hope is that subsequent Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials will further demonstrate effectiveness and safety. If so, a single vaccine against all COVID types is highly likely.

“We want to wait for those clinical data to be able to kind of make the full public announcements, but so far everything has been moving along exactly as we had hoped.” – Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, Director of Infectious Disease, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research

The Army’s Approach to a Single Multi-Strain Vaccine

Without question, the innovative approaches pursued by existing vaccine companies has been remarkable. But from the start, the Walter Reed decided to take a longer-term approach. Having had experience with SARS in 2002, it was readily recognized virus mutations would occur. Thus, any lasting strategy had to assume the virus would evolve and adapt. The effort to develop a single vaccine against all COVID strains would therefore need to be multifaceted. As a result, the Army’s own vaccine contains nano-proteins that have numerous sites spikes for multiple COVID strains. This is how it can provide lasting protection against COVID infections as new mutations occur.

A medical professional giving a soldier a shot
A single vaccine against all COVID variants is within reach thanks to US Army researchers.

In thinking about the Army’s own vaccine, the best way to envision it is like a soccer ball. Assume the soccer ball has 24 different sides that give it its semi-round shape. The design for the Army’s own vaccine allows a different spike nano-protein to exist on each of these 24 sides. Thus, when administered to an individual, an immune response develops against each of these different spikes. In theory, such a single vaccine against all COVID types could cover 24 different strains. Thus far, this approach has appeared to be highly effective and offered protection against all known COVID strains to date. Notably, this is highly promising for the future and could bring an end to the pandemic for good.

“We decided to take a look at the long game rather than just only focusing on the original emergence of SARS, and instead understand that viruses mutate, there will be variants that emerge, future viruses that may emerge in terms of new species. Our platform and approach will equip people to be prepared for that.” – Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad

Questions to Be Answered

At this point in time, the possibility of a single vaccine for all COVID types looks promising. However, several questions still remain unanswered. For one, researchers are not yet clear how the Army’s own vaccine affects those who have already had COVID. Likewise, the same question needs to be answered for those who have received other types of vaccines. Additional human trials will be required in order to address these issues. Regardless, the Army’s research offers hope that a long-range solution other than herd immunity may indeed be close.

 

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How to Be an Interplanetary Gardener on Earth

According to Elon Musk, space travel to Mars is expected to occur in no less than a decade. This is quite a bold prediction considering human lunar missions. In fact, initial projections for astronauts to return to the moon in 2024 has been pushed back to 2025. Regardless, this doesn’t mean that researchers and scientists aren’t invested in eventually landing on the red planet. But in order to inhabit the planet for any length of time, farming beyond Earth will be necessary. This is why a number of universities and private companies are exploring space gardening on Mars and beyond.

To some extent, astronauts have been farming beyond Earth in a limited capacity. On the International Space Station, NASA has constructed a variety of space gardening systems. These projects strive to deal with issues like microgravity and the use of artificial light. And to a degree, they have had some success. But farming beyond Earth on remote planets requires taking this to the next level. And many other additional challenges exist that pose problems, including the fact that the planets are so distant. Despite this, however, scientists are actively pursuing investigations into space gardening so they’ll be ready when the time comes.

“It actually makes a lot of sense why planetary scientists, whose phenomena are removed in time and space, would think that simulation and replication would be how they could still study that which is remote, because that’s what science has been doing for hundreds of years.” – Lisa Messeri, Anthropologist, Yale University

Simulating Remote Planetary Systems

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to space gardening is simply the lack of access. However, agriculture represents an important part of the future space economy. (Check out this Bold Business 2021 update on our Space Economy series here.) Scientists have learned much from space observation and interplanetary rovers, but this information is far from complete. Actually growing plants in foreign terrestrial soil isn’t possible as of yet. As a result, researchers turn to simulations and replicas of other plants that are called terrestrial analogues. These analogues are areas on Earth that highly resemble terrains and soils of other planets. Or they create “test-tube” simulations that attempt to recreate remote planetary surfaces and atmospheres. This is the only option currently in evaluating which processes best support farming beyond Earth.

A weird tree growing next to a constellation
Farming beyond Earth means sustainable living in distant galaxies… and possibly here on Earth.

In this regard, several such simulations and analogues currently exist. For example, The Haughton-Mars Project explores space gardening on Devon Island in Nunavut, Canada. The uninhabited island is an Artic outpost that mimics the lunar South Pole in many ways. Its dry, permacold atmosphere as well as its valleys and canyons offer some opportunity to explore farming beyond Earth. Other institutions, including Wageningen University in the Netherlands creates “Mars jars” that simulate Martian conditions. Its Food For Mars and Moon project uses such simulations to test pea and potato space gardening. Until actual astronaut landings occur, these represent the best approach currently available to these researchers.

“Mars doesn’t have clouds. We have cloudy days and rainy days here; on Mars, you don’t have those. So overall, you get about 60% of the total energy of light over the Martian year.” – Edward Guinan, Professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Science, Villanova University

Specific Challenges to Space Gardening on Mars

In considering Mars specifically, there are several unique features that pose challenges to space gardening. For one, the atmosphere on Mars is much thinner, and the planet is 50 million miles further away from the sun. This means temperatures are extremely cold, requiring any farming beyond Earth on the planet to take place inside. On a positive note, however, the gravity is 38 percent less on Mars. This means that any water in Martian soil will hang around much longer when compared to Earth. Therefore, plants grown in this type of atmosphere will generally require less water overall.

One of the most notable issues with space gardening on Mars involves its red-colored soil. In addition to being iron-rich, its soil consists of a sand and dust mixture known as regolith. Regolith poses all sorts of difficulties as it blocks solar panels and clogs filters. It also makes it challenging for transportation and damages equipment with moving parts. In addition, regolith also contains a high amount of perchlorates, which are quite hazardous. For farming beyond Earth to be successful on the planet, however, scientists must develop feasible solutions to address these issues.

“You can have the worms in the Martian regolith, which is really important because they can help to transform it from that sandy clay-like texture into an actual soil more similar to Earth through the introduction of organic matter, in the worm castings.” – Alicia Eglin, Villanova University Student Overseeing Mars Garden Project

Early Success with Terrestrial Analogues and Simulations

While challenges are notable, that doesn’t mean farming beyond Earth doesn’t look to be feasible. Several researchers are already showing some success. Using simulated regolith from Hawaiian volcanic cinder, scientists have shown space gardening can yield edible products. For example, The Martian Garden has produced odd-looking radishes and carrots. Those in the Netherlands have grown peas and potatoes. And researchers at Villanova have space gardens that yield hops, peanuts, and Jerusalem artichokes. Though the quality and yields of these vegetables are lacking, researchers are encouraged by their results. They believe these demonstrate that farming beyond Earth will be possible.

Understandably, it will be many years before humankind actually sets foot on Mars or other plants. Therefore, scientists have time to continue their experiments and explorations. But thus far, their early results look promising when it comes to space gardening. Whether it’s hydroponic farming or environmental manipulations of foreign planets, extraterrestrial gardening has potential. And year after year, scientists are inching closer to farming systems that could meet human nutritional needs abroad. Given that this is an important piece of the space travel puzzle, this is definitely encouraging news.

 

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