10 Health Inventions That Will Improve Your Life
1. Sight Saver
This bionic eyeball might look like it’s been plucked from the skull of a movie android, but it’s really a symbol of hope for millions of people with retinal disease and age-related macular degeneration, two major causes of blindness.The invention works like this: A tiny camera, attached to a pair of glasses worn by the patient, gathers images much as a real eye would, then transmits them wirelessly to a titanium-encased microchip on the eyeball. The chip stimulates retinal nerve cells, which then send pictures along the optic nerve to the brain. “The implant can’t restore full vision,” says co-inventor John Wyatt, PhD, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “but our goal is to provide enough that a patient can walk down a familiar street without a cane or a guide dog.” He’s aiming for FDA approval within three years.
2. Fun and Functional Fitness
It’s soccer’s newest utility player: A ball called the sOccket generates and stores energy as players kick it, then provides energy at home. Fifteen minutes on the field captures enough energy to power a small light for three hours and may help people in developing nations replace kerosene, a leading cause of respiratory illness and fires. Working on the principle of flashlights that charge when shaken, the sOccket is the brainchild of Harvard students Jessica Lin, Julia Silverman, Jessica Matthews, and Hemali Thakkar and is being funded by the Clinton Global Initiative University and the Walmart Foundation. The ball will be sold in the U.S. as a high-end cell phone charger, and profits will provide low-cost balls to Third World nations.
3. No-Drill Dental Work
Blasting through a decaying tooth to reach a cavity can involve “drilling out healthy parts of a tooth to get to a small area of infection,” says Wayne Flavin, director of scientific affairs for DMG America, a dental-materials company. Enter Icon, the company’s new treatment for early cavities, which works by injecting liquid resin into the tooth. The quick-flowing resin reaches the inner “lattice” of decay faster than traditional metal or composite fillings can. Once inside the problem spot, it solidifies and stops the cavity from progressing. “Patients love it because there is no anesthetic and no drilling,” says John Rowe, DDS, a dentist in Jonesboro, Arkansas, who has been testing the product for more than a year. Already on the market in Europe, Icon will be widely available in the United States this year.
4. Hope for Heart Patients
A new heart pump stands to dramatically improve the odds of survival for patients who are so sick, they aren’t eligible for transplants. Just approved by the FDA, the Heart Mate II is implanted into patients’ abdomens. Driven by a turbine engine the size of a D battery, it routes oxygenated blood from the weakened heart through its turbine to the rest of the body. In clinical trials, the chance of living two years more than doubled, says Joseph Rogers, MD, of Duke University, who coauthored a study of the device. “We can now take patients who previously had no options for treatment,” he says, “and help them feel well and live longer.”
5. Colonoscopy in a Capsule
About 40 percent of Americans over age 50 don’t get screened for colon cancer, in part because the scoping procedure (complete with fasting, cleansing solutions, and anesthesia) is so unpopular. What if patients could swallow a camera-carrying pill instead-one that beams back images to their doctor’s computer? Would the less-fuss, less-muss approach bump up screening rates for the disease that’s the No. 2 cancer killer? Already used to view the esophagus and small intestine, the pill is “a good first step,” says Sherman Chamberlain, MD, a Georgia gastroenterologist who has tested the device (it would be followed by the traditional test only if the doctor has concerns). Europe has approved the pill; U.S. tests are planned.
6. Do-It-Yourself Glasses
Nearsighted atomic physicist Josh Silver had a vision. If he could design a pair of glasses he could adjust himself, maybe others would want them too. After ten years, the Oxford professor discovered that liquid–specifically silicone oil–was the key. To make the lenses, he filled two flexible membranes with the oil and encased them in hard plastic. Now for the self-adjustment: To make the glasses stronger, you twist a plastic dial on each lens to add more liquid, which changes the shape of the lens. Specs too strong? Twist the other way, removing a bit of oil. There’s a cause greater than one’s own convenience too. Think of places like sub-Saharan Africa, where there’s one optometrist for every million people. A pair of glasses that lasts forever takes on new meaning there. Now retired, Silver has started a nonprofit with a goal of distributing 1 billion pairs to poor nations. We’ll see them here in the next few years.
7. Sex Boost for Women
Almost a decade after the FDA approved a little blue pill to enhance the male libido, women may now get their turn. A German pharmaceutical company studied Flibanserin as an antidepressant, but it failed to perform better than a placebo. When tested later on 1,500 premenopausal women with reduced sex drives and sex-related distress, however, the new drug showed real promise. Flibanserin would be the first treatment for female sexual dysfunction that works on neurotransmitters in the brain, not hormones in the body. Why that’s good news: “There are no concerns about serious side effects like blood clots or potential risks like cancer, as there are with hormone therapies,” says Anita Clayton, MD, who coordinated the drug’s third clinical trial at the University of Virginia. Now, if they could just find a sexier name for it.
8. Safer Helmets
Place a finger to your scalp and move it to and fro and you’ll feel the skin slide gently over the skull. Scientists took a tip from this bit of human physiology to develop a more protective motorcycle helmet. The secret is SuperSkin, a thin gelatinous layer covered with a tough plastic coating. When a biker falls and scrapes his or her helmet across the ground, the motion rotates the head, often causing brain and neck damage. With SuperSkin, the helmet behaves as the scalp does: It stretches a bit before breaking. “It took us 14 years to find a plastic that would work,” says Ken Phillips, a British physician and the helmet’s inventor. “Now we’ve got one that stretches 800 percent. The helmet’s skin will break if it stretches too far, but you can actually save someone in the meantime.” Currently, only motorcycle helmets are made with SuperSkin, but other sports helmets may not be far behind.
9. Anti-Smoking Vaccine
We know that quitting smoking is tough. Even tougher: quitting for good. A new vaccine holds promise for the 90 percent of quitters who relapse. After six monthly injections, users of NicVax build up antibodies to nicotine, just as they would to a disease. If you smoke when you’re on it, your bloodstream is flooded with nicotine. The antibodies attach to the nicotine’s molecules, making them too big to cross into the brain’s pleasure center. Result: smoking buzz officially killed. Unlike some antismoking drugs, the vaccine doesn’t act on the central nervous system, which may result in fewer side effects like dry mouth and difficulty sleeping. In clinical trials, heavy smokers with high antibody levels were twice as likely to quit for a year, prompting Nora Volkow, MD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, to extol NicVax as “giving smokers a fighting chance to end the addiction-relapse cycle.” The vaccine could be available in 2012.
10. Needle-Free Vaccines
Boston University researchers are working on a new method of inoculation–no injection necessary. The vaccine is deposited inside nanoparticles, each no bigger than a human pore. These particles are then applied to a foil-backed film that is placed on the skin much like a nicotine patch. A mild electrical charge from a small device, shaped like a gun, is used to drive the particles into the skin, where they’re transported into the body. The new idea beats the old needle method: no need to buy syringes and no need to fill them either. And nobody will miss the pain. “It’s easier for both doctor and patient,” says David Sherr, PhD, the BU professor of environmental health who has developed the technology with engineering professor Mark Horenstein. A pilot study is under way.
Contributing writers: Joseph D’Agnese, Kathleen Fifield, David Hochman, Denise Kiernan, Joe Kita, Fran Lostys, Bridget Nelson Monroe, and Sally Schultheiss.