November 7, 2013
We’ve all been there. Someone, who senses that the room temperature is a bit too cold, decides to turn down the air conditioning. All of a sudden, another person in the building complains that it’s too hot. Uh-oh!
It was this all-too-common predicament playing out six months ago amongst students in an MIT engineering lab that was the genesis for the creation of a device called Wristify, a simple bracelet that’s designed to instantly allow the wearer to feel cooler or warmer by sending out alternating pulses of hot or cold to a small area of skin right beneath. As kooky as it sounds, the research team, along with other volunteers who have tried out the invention, have attested to the fact that the invention indeed works, continually creating a cooling or warming effect that lasts as long as eight hours. Judges from MIT’s annual materials-science design competition, who also tried on the device, recently awarded the team first place and a $10,000 prize.
“Buildings right now use an incredible amount of energy just in space heating and cooling. In fact, all together this makes up 16.5 percent of all U.S. primary energy consumption. We wanted to reduce that number, while maintaining individual thermal comfort,” co-inventor Sam Shames, says in press release. “We found the best way to do it was local heating and cooling of parts of the body.”
While the technology the team has developed appears quite novel, the principle behind it is fairly well documented. Physiologists have known for some time now that the body relies on surface skin on certain spots of the body to detect changes in external temperatures. These areas, called pulse points, are where blood vessels are closest to the skin and signal these sudden shifts to the brain. The neck, for instance, is a pulse point. So are your feet. And that’s why the very moment you dip into a swimming pool, it can feel freezing cold.
“Skin, especially certain parts, is extremely sensitive to changes in temperatures. Rather than being consistent, the reading can be overactive to even slight changes,” says co-inventor David Cohen-Tanugi. ”As an engineer, I’d say it’s a bad thermometer.”
So, in a sense, what the researchers came up with is a way to kind of hack the body. Instead of putting ice cubes or running cold water on your wrist, as is often suggested, the team put its inquisitive engineering minds together to develop a system that automates the cooling and warming effect through a pattern of pulses that would keep the bracelet wearer comfortable. Cohen-Tanugi compares the wave-like emanations of heat and cold pulses to walking on the beach on a hot summer day and catching a cool breeze and, right when the pleasurable sensation begins to subside, receiving another soothing puff of wind.
“What’s really great about it,” he says, “is that every time the device went off and on, people still felt surprised each time.”
It took fiddling with 15 different prototypes, comprised mostly of parts bought off Amazon, to eventually settle on a version that resembles and feels like a bulky-looking metal wristwatch. Inside, the device features a series of integrated thermometers, finely-tuned software controls and sensors to determine the optimal moments, when someone is feeling a bit too hot or cold, to send a pulse or to stop. For now, it relies on a lithium polymer battery, which lasts eight hours before needing a recharge, to power a copper alloy-based heat sink that’s capable of producing skin temperature changes of up to 0.4 degrees Celsius per second.
Having “pulses” shooting out of your wristwear might sound unnerving to some people, but Cohen-Tanugi points out that thermoelectric technology has been safely used by consumers for some time. Electric blankets, for example, produce and radiate heat using a similar process. The group at MIT isn’t the first to develop a sophisticated product that takes advantage of the “pulse points” principle. One sports apparel company, Mission Athletecare, sells towels, hoodies and other athletic gear designed with special fabric that can be dipped in water to create a “prolonged cooling effect.” And for those who are concerned that tricking the body in this manner may have some serious health consequences, Cohen-Tanugi says it works well, but not that well (nor does it have the potential to ever make heaters or air conditioners obsolete as some media outlets have reported).
“It works best in a moderate environment, like in buildings where for some people the temperature doesn’t feel quite right,” he says. “But it definitely won’t do anything for you when you’re in the Sahara desert and need water or when you’re in Alaska in the winter.”
Ultimately, the team hopes to use the prize money to put something on the market that can be worn all day and sense exactly when you need to be cooled or warmed, as well as make your wrist look good. They’re also open to the idea of integrating the technology into so-called smartwatches, which may make the most sense since this latest breed of mobile computers are being heralded as the next big thing. For now, though, Cohen-Tanugi is fine with having the nuts and bolts model to get him through the day.
“Everyone really likes the blast you get from the cooling effect, but personally I like it in warming mode,” he adds. “I’m one of those people whose hands get cold in the office.”
November 4, 2013
Science, in all its grand ambition and contemporary sophistication, doesn’t quite have what it takes yet to replicate anything like blood. It not only delivers oxygen and essential nutrients, but also serves a host of other functions crucial for our survival, such as fighting infections, healing injuries and regulating hormones. So far, researchers have concentrated the bulk of their efforts on the more modest goal of creating something that can at least effectively carry out the vital role of transporting oxygen throughout the body.
This kind of “artificial blood” would be a useful substitute for critical circumstances such as medical emergencies, when the body can’t do this on its own. It could also be designed to be sterile, unlike real blood, which can be infected and infect others during a transfusion. And while donated blood requires refrigeration, a synthetic version could be made to last longer and be readily available for various life-or-death situations, even on the battlefield.
The latest bearer of hope for such a potential breakthrough comes from a research facility located in the Transylvanian city of Cluj-Napoca, of all places. (Yes, Translyvania is a real place in Romania.) Researcher Radu Silaghi-Dumitrescu, a professor at Babes-Bolyai University, has been working on a unique concoction and his work has progressed to the point where he and his team successfully transfused a blood substitute into mice—without them experiencing any ill effects, according to a report by the Romanian news outlet Descopera. He intends for the lab-engineered blood to work inside the body for several hours or even up to an entire day as the body replenishes itself.
The creation of true artificial blood has become a medical “holy grail” of sorts. So much so in fact that some of the brightest minds in medical science, hailing from ambitious startups to multi-billion dollar health care companies, have exposed an unknowing public to risky experiments that have thus far only yielded disheartening, and at times, disastrous consequences. Industry giant Baxter Healthcare Corporation was the first to attempt clinical trials on human test subjects in the 1990s with a substitute called HemAssist; the study was quickly canceled as it became apparent that patients receiving the manufactured substance died at a noticeably higher rate than those those who got donated blood. And in the mid-2000s, a now-defunct company named Northfield Laboratories was engulfed in controversy when researchers carried out emergency transfusions using a similar substance called PolyHeme on unconscious trauma patients without their consent. At the time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave regulatory approval to perform the research as a “no-consent study.”
The principal challenge in safely mimicking the oxygen-carrying properties of human blood is that hemoglobin, the molecule responsible for transporting oxygen, is prone to breaking down easily and quickly without the blood cell’s membrane to protect it from outside stresses. While modified versions of other sources such as a cow’s blood are more sturdy, they also have a tendency to attach to nitric oxide, which can lead to high blood pressure. For now, the FDA does not approve the sale or use of hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers (HBOCs) due to well-established findings that show these variations have dangerous side effects, such as high blood pressure, and can also “escape the blood vessels and damage the kidneys and other organs,” according to a statement from the government agency.
Silaghi-Dumitrescu’s product, however, isn’t hemoglobin-based but instead uses hemerythrin, a protein equivalent found in invertebrates, such as sea worms, that isn’t nearly as vulnerable to the rigors of outside stressful environments. The substitute is a mix of hemerythrin, salt and albumin—a plasma cocktail that he believes can be refined and mixed with water to someday make “instant blood.”
Although there’s the obvious irony that the research is being done in Romania, where the legend of Dracula originated, Silaghi-Dumitrescu’s work looks to be legitimate and reputable considering that a peer-reviewed paper trail has shown that he’s been developing the artificial blood for some time. He plans to continue with animal studies for a couple more years in preparation for human trials.
“Tests on humans are an extra gentle subject,” Silaghi-Dumitrescu told Medical Daily. “Authorization…represents a huge risk.”
October 24, 2013
We have a drug problem.
Only this time we need drugs, specifically antibiotics. The problem is that more germs are becoming resistant to the antibiotics doctors have been using for a long time, resulting in “superbugs” from which even the National Institutes of Health couldn’t protect itself.
One reason, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned yet again in a report last month, is that doctors continue to be overzealous in prescribing antibiotics. Case in point: A new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of the cases where people came in complaining of sore throats—this despite the fact that only 10 percent of those patients had strep throat, the only sore throat antibiotics can cure.
On top of that, Big Agriculture aggressively uses antibiotics both to keep healthy animals from getting sick and to help them grow faster. And while all this excessive use of antibiotics is making them less and less effective, the pharmaceutical industry has dramatically scaled back research into new infection-fighting drugs because it’s not a very profitable line of business.
Some public health experts fear that unless scientists are able to develop new antibiotics soon, we could regress into pre-penicillin days, when everyday infections killed people. Even the CDC, which points out that more than 23,000 people in America die from infections caused by resistant bacteria every year, says we could be facing “potentially catastrophic consequences.”
Turning drugs off
There’s the conventional strategy to dealing with the threat—earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services committed to pay the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline as much as $200 million over the next five years to try to develop new antibiotics.
But more innovative approaches are also taking shape. Consider the research of a team of scientists in the Netherlands. They’re focusing on a way to deactivate antibiotics after they’ve been used, so that they no longer accumulate in the environment, which is what spurs the development of resistant superbugs. They’ve determined that if the molecules in antibiotics can be made to change their shape, they become ineffective. And the researchers have found they can use heat or light to do just that. In short, they’re developing ways to turn off antibiotics before they break bad.
Or take the researchers at McMaster University in Ontario who argue that the typical practice of growing bacteria in a nutrient-rich lab environment doesn’t really reflect what happens when we get an infection. Our bodies can be far less hospitable than that, forcing bacteria to grow their own nutrients. The researchers did an exhaustive search of 30,000 chemical compounds, with the goal of identifying some that block the ability of bacteria to create nutrients. They honed in on three. But they feel pretty good about those three. Now the trick is to see if they can be turned into effective antibiotics.
As one scientist put it, the McMaster researchers went “fishing in a new pond.” With luck, that might be what it takes.
Here’s more recent research on the battle against bacteria:
- That inner glow: It’s not unusual for bacteria to attach themselves to medical implants, such as bone screws, and develop into serious infections before anyone notices. A team of researchers in the Netherlands, however, may have developed an early warning system. By injecting fluorescent dye into an antibiotic, they were able to see where bacteria was growing. The process could lead to a far less invasive way to check for infections with surgery involving implants.
- Thinking small: Scientists at Oregon State are taking yet another approach to attacking bacteria—they’ve narrowed their targeting down to the gene level. That’s seen as a much more precise way to battle infections, one that’s less likely to cause collateral damage. Said lead researcher Bruce Geller: “Molecular medicine is the way of the future.”
- Say no to drugs: At Duke University, scientists say they’ve developed a blood test that can identify viral infections in people with serious respiratory problems. The test, they say, could significantly reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Since it can be hard to distinguish between viral sore throats, such as those that come with a cold, and bacterial infections, such as strep throat, a lot of doctors still prescribe antibiotics that end up not doing any good. The blood test could take the guessing—and pointless antibiotics—out of the treatment.
- Now will you eat your yogurt?: It figures that one way to fight the bad side effects of some antibiotics would be by loading up on probiotics. Research published earlier this year found that probiotic supplements reduced the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea by 64 percent.
- All this and super lice, too?: Public health officials in the U.S. have told doctors to be on the lookout for a new strain of “super lice” that have become immune to shampoos and medications containing antibiotics.
- Then again, they are termites: According to scientists at the University of Florida, the reason termites are so disease-resistant is that they use their own feces in building their nests. That promotes the growth of bacteria, which stifles pathogens. The researchers said that their findings could eventually result in new antibiotics for humans, but it might be better if they spare us the details.
Video bonus: Here’s another take on the superbug threat.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 17, 2013
If there were ever a Michael Jordan of the inventor’s world, it would be Sir James Dyson. The billionaire founder of Dyson Industries, best known as the father of the Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner, has also over the years introduced a 10-second instant hand dryer and a bladeless fan. In many ways, he brings a sleek and innovative Steve Jobs-esque design sensibility to common appliances.
Not too long ago, Sir James started the annual Dyson awards, an international competition that “celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers.” Along with a smaller competition on the national level in Britain, aspiring inventors can also submit entries for a chance to win nearly $48,000. The winner will be announced on November 7, 2013.
Here are a few notable ideas that have been shortlisted as finalists for this year’s honors:
Titan Arm (USA)
This entry from the United States will appeal to fans of Iron Man. The Titan Arm is the end result of impressive efforts by students at the University of Pennsylvania to piece together an inter-working system of motors, cables, sensors and other inexpensive parts to produce an upper-body exoskeleton that enables the wearer to lift an extra 40 pounds beyond what natural strength can achieve. The team hopes the device can be used to prevent injuries to workers required to do heavy lifting as well as assist those undergoing physical therapy. Titan Arm has already claimed top prize in the Cornell Cup USA engineering competition, sponsored by Intel.
OLTU Fruit Ripening Unit (Spain)
Sure you have your banana hangers, but the art of ripening fruit will take a lot more ingenuity in order to be perfected. That’s where the OLTU comes in. The ripening storage unit siphons power from your refrigerator to help create the ideal atmospheric conditions for various fruits and vegetables to uniformly reach this peak state. The container features four sections, each with different settings, such as cold dry, cold wet, fresh wet and dry warm, tailored to specific varieties.
So you can’t stand waking up to the roar of your neighbor’s lawnmower but would still appreciate hearing the song of a chirping bird during the early mornings? The Sono is a simple device that attaches to windows and works as a lounge bouncer of sorts for sounds that pass through from outside. The ring design enables the system to detect the tone of various kinds of sounds, and using Wi-Fi, lets users set the SONO to block certain frequencies while allowing others.
Stack Printer (Switzerland)
With productivity devices these days, portable and mobile has become the way to go. Meanwhile, printers seem to be stuck at the office. Mugi Yamamoto doesn’t think this necessarily needs to be the case and has taken the minimalist approach as far as he it can go in developing the Stack printer. The industrial designer’s version of a slimmed-down inkjet removes the standard plastic paper tray and keeps the product to its bare essentials like the ink cartridge, the print head and frame for alignment. It works simply by placing it on top of a stack of papers and letting it run its course. Judging by the latest prototype, the Stack still wouldn’t fit into a briefcase. A backpack though? Now we’re talking.
The Xarius can aptly be described as wind power that fits in your pocket. And just as fitting, it’s designed to re-charge and power portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. The internal power generator relies on a cleverly designed three-winged mini wind turbine that efficiently captures energy in remote places off the grid, such as camping grounds; it is also perfect for getaways off the coast. The generator is even efficient enough to capture energy at low wind speeds.
Check out the complete list of finalists!
October 16, 2013
There’s now a watch that reminds us of the one appointment that we won’t be able to cancel. It’s called the Tikker. And it counts down the minutes, and even seconds, we have before we will likely meet our demise.
Currently being sold on the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, the concept for a so-called “death watch” isn’t as morbidly depressing as it may appear on the surface. In fact, the watch’s creator, Fredrik Colting, believes his invention does exactly the opposite by inspiring and motivating people to “live better.”
For Colting, the cold finality of death had only fully set in when his grandfather passed away several years ago. Tikker was born out of his desire to figure out a way to use this acceptance to spur positive changes in one’s life. “It’s my belief that if we are aware of death, and our own expiration,” says Colting, “that we will have a greater appreciation for life.”
To arrive at an estimation of how much longer someone has to live, users fill out a questionnaire that’s designed to add or subtract years based on current age, exercise habits and other health related factors. That exact time can then be programmed into the watch, at which point the final countdown begins.
However, the method in which Tikker calculates each person’s individualized expiration date is superficially scientific at best. Though the use of so-called longevity calculators have gained some credibility among researchers, some experts, such as actuary Steve Vernon of the Stanford Center on Longevity, have warned that people shouldn’t rely too much on these kind of approximations since there’s a “50 percent chance you’ll live beyond this estimate.” As an example of how inexact these kind of formulas are, Vernon tested popular online calculators from the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, livingto100.com and bluezones.com. His results were 95, 101 and 95.6 years, respectively. In any case, it’s probably best not to view this generated date as a hard deadline.
Instead, Colting says, the notion of a “use by” time stamp is supposed to have more of a symbolic meaning and can serve as a practical reminder to pay heed to some of the often-echoed existential epiphanies such as”Carpe Diem!” and “You only live once!”
“Everyone can relate to this, it’s universal,” says Colting. “We also live in more stressful times, with constant connection to our office emails, and Tikker can be a reminder for us to stay grounded and remember what is important in our lives.”
At the same time, the idea can also be seen as nothing more than a clever gimmick to sell a fairly basic digital wristwatch for $39 (it also displays local time). Reactions from the perusing media have ranged from slightly patronizing to wholehearted ridicule. TechCrunch blogger Jordan Crook comments that Tikker’s appeal is derived from being simply “a constant reminder to go out and live life well and happily” and in doing so “automatically tugs on the heart strings of consumers.” And Time magazine’s tech reporter Doug Aamoth may have encapsulated the collective chuckle of those who’d rather not feel like a walking time bomb when he mockingly declared he’ll set his timer “for every Tuesday and then cackle manically as I repeatedly cheat death.”
Some of you may recall the late Steve Jobs’ famous, widely-circulated 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, where he mentioned how every morning he would look into the mirror and ask himself what he would do if that day was his last. He certainly didn’t need some gadget to constantly remind him that precious seconds of his life were ticking away in order to make the most of it or to keep things in perspective.
But then again, some of us do.
“It’s part of our lives, no matter if we like it or not, and if we can just learn to use Tikker, and the fact of death to our advantage while we are alive, to become happier, more loving, and better people,” Colting says. “I can’t see how that can be a bad thing to anyone.”