In a subterranean lab at the far corner of Columbia University’s main New York City campus, a couple of men in lab coats and safety glasses discuss a problem in their research. Across the hall, a woman attired similarly is at work in the machine shop. Glassware, chemicals in jugs, tubing and various equipment cover what seems like every corner of bench space.
These people are part of Samuel Sia’s 30-member crack team of chemists, biologists and engineers. Sia, a biomedical engineer, has gathered them together to help foment a medical revolution.
Their idea: to outsource to individuals and family doctors the tests that are now the exclusive domain of centralized labs and hospitals. Their weapons are a new crop of coming diagnostic technologies that are smaller, cheaper and smarter than anything on the market today. Inherent to this change in the business model is the jailbreak of patients’ medical data from healthcare facilities and insurance companies back to the patient and doctor from where it came.
“Whenever we want to know about our own body, we have to go through the healthcare system,” Sia tells Txchnologist. “You shouldn’t have to do that. Are you vitamin deficient? Do you have the flu? Are you trying to get pregnant? What is that new Mediterranean diet doing to your body? You should be able to monitor your own body, but right now it’s out of your hands.”
Many patients regard the dental office as a house of pain – a place to be endured, with literally a stiff upper lip, when they can’t avoid it. But a few dentists have started to soften that image by using a laser rather than the fearsome drill for such procedures as removing tooth decay and filling cavities.
Cleared for dentistry use last year by the Food and Drug Administration and reaching the market in December, the carbon dioxide laser produces rapid pulses of infrared light at a wavelength that the teeth absorb particularly well.
Early adopters have applauded it. “It’s quite remarkable,” said Boston-based dentist Mark Mizner, who has used it to treat 100 to 150 patients by his estimate. “It cuts cleanly, and it cuts decay as easily as it cuts through the healthy tooth. It also cuts soft tissue like nothing I’ve ever used before.”
Added University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry dean John Featherstone, whose research laid the foundations of the laser’s dental capabilities: “It’s a quantum leap forward in terms of dentistry.”
Future surgeries requiring a doctor to dive deep into the body might be made considerably less invasive thanks to an unlikely inspiration: a parasitic fig wasp.
Mechanical engineers at the Indian Institute of Science have been investigating the reproductive process of Apocryta westwoodi grandi, a wasp that deposits its eggs inside a developing fig fruit next to those of another species of wasp. When the eggs hatch, they feed on the larvae of the non-parasitizing wasp before growing and emerging into the world.
While the interactions of the two wasp species and the plant are biologically interesting in their own right, the part that caught the eyes of researchers in Namrata Gundiah’s biomechanics laboratory was how the parasitic wasp deposited its eggs deep within the fruit.
Like many insects and some other animals, the parasitic wasp deposits its eggs through a long tubular organ called an ovipositor. But this particular wasp must pierce the skin and bore through the tough tissue of an unripened fig.
“From a mechanical perspective, it’s really interesting how this insect can penetrate a needle that is really quite flexible into hard material,” doctoral student Lakshminath Kundanati tells Txchnologist. “So we looked at the structure of the needle and whether any parts on it are specifically adapted to help.”