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News from the World of Medicine

We round up the latest medical advances and emerging breakthroughs in science and technology.

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United States: Improve Your Eyesight with an App

November 2012 — Hate reading glasses? A new app called GlassesOff might let you drop them by training your brain to better interpret that fuzzy print in the newspaper. Users play quick games that employ special wavy images to stimulate connections in the visual part of the brain. In a recent small study, people could read the paper without reading glasses after three months of training (15 minutes three times a week), and their reading speed increased by 17 words per minute. The developers plan to launch the app for iPhones and iPads by early 2013, followed by an Android version.

Source: Ucansi, Inc., New York, New York,

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United States: Calculate Your Heart Rate with Your Face

November 2012 —Cardiio, a new app for iPhone and iPad developed by Harvard and MIT researchers, can calculate heart rate by merely gazing at your face. It uses your device’s camera to measure tiny changes in blood flow in your face that occur when your heart beats. Simply line up your image with the displayed target, and the app reports your heart rate in seconds; when used in a well-lit environment, it’s accurate to within three beats per minute of devices used by doctors. You can track heart rate over time and get info about your fitness level and estimated life expectancy. The app is available now on iTunes.

Source: Cardiio, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts

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United States: ID Skin Cancer with Your iPhone

University of Michigan doctors helped develop the UMSkinCheck app, which lets you do a skin self-exam at home using an iPhone or iPad. The app guides you through 23 head-to-toe locations. It has you snap photos of suspicious spots with the device’s camera, then saves the images so you can reference them against future changes or show them to your doctor. There’s also a tool to track worrisome spots, get reminders for your next self-check, and calculate your skin cancer risk. The free app is available now on iTunes; an Android version will follow soon.
Source: Dr. Michael Sabel, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Italy: Quicker Stroke Recovery

October 2012 —When a stroke strikes the right side of the brain, it can disrupt communication with the brain’s left side, sometimes making people completely unaware of objects located to the left side of their bodies. In a recent small study, patients who received just two weeks of a special type of magnetic therapy saw a 22 percent increase in their ability to react to their environment on both sides of their body compared with those who received standard therapy. The researchers hope to test other types of brain stimulation soon. 

Source: Giacomo Koch, MD, Santa Lucia Foundation, Rome, Italy

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Austria: Parkinson’s Vaccine

A new inoculation may be the first to stop the debilitating neurological disease by targeting its cause in the brain. Researchers think that most cases of Parkinson’s develop when a certain protein, called alpha-synuclein, accumulates in the brain and injures and eventually kills nerve cells, leading to the disease’s well-known tremors and other symptoms. The vaccine teaches the immune system to produce antibodies against the protein. The vaccine’s developer, AFFiRiS, recently started its first human trial to test for safety.

Source: Achim Schneeberger, MD, chief medical officer, AFFiRiS AG, Vienna, Austria   

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United States: A Smart Pacifier for Premature Babies

October 2012 —Babies born early often don’t know how to suck, a crucial skill for feeding. The Pacifier Activated Lullaby helps by utilizing their innate love of music. When babies suck correctly, they hear a soothing lullaby to encourage them. Studies show that babies who use the pacifier gain weight faster and leave the hospital on average five days earlier than those who don’t. The FDA-approved binky is currently designed for hospital use only; the next generation will help babies at home.

Source: Christine Clark, RN, director of hospital services, Powers Device Technologies, St. Augustine, Florida

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Germany: Smarter Hip Implant

September 2012 — Many hip implants are metal, which requires extra care during surgical implantation and can cause problems if parts grind against each other and release particles that may cause inflammation and damage organs. Now researchers have developed a metal-free alternative, a special blend of plastics. The pins that hold the two pieces in place are made of bone mineral (not metal or cement). In early tests, a robot simulated walking up and down stairs; researchers hope to market the hip in Europe within five years.

Source: Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA, Stuttgart, Germany

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Japan: Stem Cell Cure for Baldness

September 2012 — Scientists have grown hair on bald mice using stem cells collected near the mice’s whiskers (so embryos aren’t necessary). The hair strands grew back even after being plucked and were able to rise into goose bumps as normal hair does. If it proves successful in humans, the therapy could replace current hair-loss treatments (such as hair transplantation surgery and topical medicine like Rogaine) for male-pattern baldness. The researchers hope to start clinical trials in humans within three to five years.

Source: Takashi Tsuji, Research Institute for Science and Technology at the Tokyo University of Science, Japan

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United States: A Device That Predicts Heart Attacks

September 2012 — A silver-dollar-size implant that is placed under the skin near the left shoulder, the AngelMed Guardian may help ID a heart attack quickly by monitoring the heart’s electrical activity for unusual patterns, potentially before the wearer notices any symptoms. If the implant detects a problem, it will vibrate, and a portable pager will sound an alarm and flash a warning light. It’s approved for sale in Brazil and Europe, and the manufacturer will seek FDA approval here within a year.

Source: Angel Medical Systems, Shrewsbury, New Jersey

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Japan: Clever Use of Bad Breath

July/August 2012 — Nippon Dental University researchers found that dental pulp—soft tissue inside teeth that’s removed during root canals—has up to 80 times as many stem cells as previously thought. Even better, hydrogen sulfide, the chemical that causes the rotten-egg smell in bad breath, helps them develop into liver stem cells. Scientists hope that extracted wisdom teeth (or baby teeth saved from childhood) might be used to heal livers damaged
from cirrhosis and the hepatitis C virus. 

Source: Dr. Ken Yaegaki, professor,
Department of Oral Health, Nippon Dental
University, Tokyo, Japan

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United States: IBM’s Watson to Treat Cancer

July/August 2012 —The Watson computer that famously won on last year will work with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to diagnose and treat cancer. Watson is ingesting massive amounts of information from textbooks, articles, and decades of patient cases. Once the computer finishes training, doctors can ask it
a question in plain English and get
a quick, relevant answer (Watson can scan one million books in less than three seconds). Doctors will test the system for lung, breast, and prostate cancers by the end of this year.

Sources: IBM; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York

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Germany: Help for Ringing Ears

July/August 2012 —A new device
might help fix tinnitus by treating
the brain. In people with tinnitus, brain cells fire in bizarrely hyperactive rhythms, fooling the mind into thinking it hears a loud noise. The iPod-sized device has the user listen to a sequence of quiet tones to stop abnormal rhythms; it reduced tinnitus in 75 percent of patients in early tests. Its developer, Adaptive Neuromodulation, is finding partners to launch it here.

Source: Derek Hoare, PhD, senior research fellow, National
Institute for Health Research; Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit, Nottingham, United Kingdom.

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Australia: Eyeglasses to Prevent Drowsy Driving

June 2012 —New driving glasses contain sensors embedded in the frame to measure how often eyelids blink and how much they droop between blinks. Sensors translate this into a “drowsiness score” shown on the dashboard and deliver an auditory warning when scores exceed safe limits. Designed for commercial drivers, the glasses may be available for regular drivers within the next two years.

Source: John Prendergast, CEO, Optalert Ltd.

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Singapore: A “Crab Robot” for Stomach Cancer

June 2012 —Researchers have developed a robotic system to remove tumors quickly and without scarring. Rather than cut through the abdomen, it uses a camera mounted on a flexible tube to guide instruments through the mouth and to the surgical site. The robot’s “crab legs” have a pincer to grab cancerous tissue and a hook to slice it off. The idea was born during a seafood dinner, when a surgeon pointed out that crabs, with strong yet efficient pincers, would make excellent stand-ins for surgeons. In operations on five test patients, surgeries that typically took up to eight hours were performed in an average of just 18 minutes.

Source: Prof. Lawrence Ho, National
University Health System, Singapore

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Canada: Germ-and-Bedbug Room Bomb

June 2012 —Researchers on the Queen’s
University campus hope to prevent hospital infections with a “room bomb” spray that combines ozone and hydrogen peroxide vapor to kill bacteria, sterilizing a room in about an hour. Researchers are confident the spray also destroys
viruses, mold, and even bedbugs.
A filtering process removes the chemicals from the air, leaving it safe to breathe. The spray could
be used on cruise ships and in
bedbug-infested hotels.

Source: Dr. Michael Shannon, Medizone; Dr. Dick Zoutman, Queen’s Un

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United States: A Blood Sugar Tattoo

May 2012 — Diabetics, put away the bandages: A new technique for checking blood sugar could make finger pricks a thing of the past. Chemists from Northeastern University have developed a method for injecting tiny fluorescent sensors under the skin that detect glucose in the blood. Take a picture of the freckle-size temporary tattoo with a special attachment that fits over your smart phone’s camera lens, and a computer program then analyzes the photo and
reports your blood sugar number. The tattoo method is still under­going tests; it could be available
in three years.

Source: Heather A. Clark, PhD, Northeastern University

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United Kingdom: Smart Pills

May 2012 — By the end of the year, a British pharmacy will begin embedding tiny sensors into some drug tablets to help doctors keep tabs on patients’ medication habits. The “smart pills,” developed by U.S. company Proteus Biomedical, send the name of the drug and the time you took it to a patch worn on the body that relays that data, along with information like pulse and sleep patterns, to a smart phone.

Source: Proteus Biomedical

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Denmark: Sponges for Soldiers

May 2012 — A specially coated flexible sponge could solve a deadly problem for soldiers wounded on the battlefield: uncontrolled bleeding. Researchers at MIT sprayed a type of sponge commonly used in hospitals with a combination of chemicals and clotting proteins naturally found in blood. In tests conducted by Ferrosan Medical Devices in Denmark, the small sponges completely stopped bleeding in animals within 60 seconds. Researchers hope to have the devices approved for use within a few years.

Source: Paula T. Hammond, PhD, MIT

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest