As we say goodbye to 2020, the year that will live in infamy, it is important to recognize the many positive developments that occurred in the year of the pandemic. COVID-19 may have shut down industries, but it challenged those working in medicine to invent, adapt, and overcome faster than ever before. We would like to acknowledge the relentless and heroic efforts of doctors, nurses, and others that have been working in hospitals around the world during this difficult time. We also commend the efforts of scientists, engineers, designers, and even lay people that have created rapid tests, personal protective equipment, and various other tools to help fight this virus.
And so we’ll start this year’s Medgadget’s Best Medical Technologies of 2020 with a focus on dealing with COVID-19.
When it became clear that SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly spreading through exhaled breath, personal protective equipment (PPE) had to be created to fulfill the needs of clinical staff, as well as the rest of society.
Teams at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a smart mask that is able to sense whether it is fit snugly on the User. It can also monitor the state of the air filters and know when they are saturated and in need of replacement. The mask is also designed to reveal the mouth, making it easier to communicate with others when wearing it. Seeing the mouth is particularly important for deaf people, so a student at Eastern Kentucky University who studies Education for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing created a face mask with a transparent window.
Since breathing through face masks requires the lungs to overcome the resistance of their filters, it can be tiring to wear them for long periods of time. Using ultraviolet light, ProtectivAir, a device from Medi-Immune, a UK firm, sterilizes inhaled air that passes through it on the way to the mask. It makes breathing easier and helps to deactivate pathogens rather than only getting them trapped in the mask’s filter.
An Indiana University team developed an anti-viral face mask that transmits electricity through wires embedded within. A mask from the City University of Hong Kong uses graphene to deactivate pathogens.
As soon as N95 masks that have electrostatic filters became a hot commodity disinfecting them so they can be used multiple times became a priority. Engineers at Rensselaer University created an ultraviolet system to sterilize thousands of masks per day.
Cleanbox Technology, a California firm, soon released its CleanDefense device that uses UV LEDs to process up to 100 masks per hour.
Trying to tackle the shortage of equipment suitable for treating infected patients a group of doctors in Croatia, including a former editor of this publication, created the CroResp, a makeshift respirator based on a snorkel mask. A Stanford team had a similar idea that they pursued.
Diagnosing someone infected with SARS-CoV-2 required the development of new tests. Few teams, including those at Tulane University and from UC Berkeley, developed CRISPR-based tests that take minutes to complete and use a smartphone to read out the results. At the University of Illinois scientists developed a paper-based test for the virus. Caltech researchers developed a multiplex electronic device that detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2, antibodies against the virus, and inflammatory markers. It would be difficult to mention the hundreds of other tests that private and public companies and institutions developed, and the exciting vaccines that are now being administered.
Early in the pandemic there was a growing fear that hospitals won’t have equipment to ventilate critically ill patients. All kinds of companies and universities worked to create ventilators from component parts.
Others made existing ventilators serve multiple people simultaneously. Engineers at Auburn University converted a CPAP machine into a ventilator, while at the University of Maryland’s TechPort a breast pump was turned into a rudimentary ventilator. Thankfully, the ventilator shortage didn’t come to pass in most places.
Though COVID-19 took up all the attention, there was a lot of progress made in dealing with other conditions and diseases. An opioid overdose detector from Altair Medical won FDA’s Breakthrough Device designation. It can spot signs of Opioid Indused Respiratory Depression (OIRD) in someone wearing it and notify first responders, allowing them to arrive and administer naloxone as soon as possible.
Masimo, a company best known for pulse oximeters, released Bridge, a device that helps people overcome withdrawal symptoms when kicking an opioid dependence. It delivers neuromodulation to a set of occipital and cranial nerves (V, VII, IX, and X) via electrodes attached near the ear and has shown in a study significant effectiveness at making withdrawals easier to manage.
Colonoscopies should be getting more effective thanks to a number of new technologies. A colon explorer from University of Colorado Boulder is a tank-like device that can traverse the colon, image it, and even perform a biopsy nearly autonomously. At the University of Leeds researchers created a robotic colonoscopy system that relies on magnets to safely move the probe inside the body.
Purdue University researchers, on the other hand, developed tiny robots that are actually able to move through the colon. The robots are controlled by an external magnetic field and are designed to deliver drugs within the GI system. They are so small that the researchers were able to squeeze them through the anuses of mice and explore the tiny colons beyond. To help detect polyps during a conventional colonoscopy, FUJIFILM’s artificial intelligence system called CAD EYE was cleared in the European Union. It is able to segment and analyze 2D and 3D images of the colon and to spot any suspect lesions within.
Diseased heart valves typically affect old people, but many children are born with congenital cardiac abnormalities that require prosthetic valves. As children grow, so do their hearts, and prosthetic valves have to be repeatedly replaced with larger versions to keep up. A team from Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital has developed an artificial valve that can be expanded, via a minimally invasive transcatheter procedure, to compensate for the growing heart. The required procedures are a lot less invasive than swapping out valves for larger models, making it easier on patients as well as much cheaper.
Speaking of children, there’s now a newly FDA approved way to treat ear infections. Because of the fear, discomfort, and pain involved, general anesthesia is commonly used on children when making incisions in the ear drum and placing tympanostomy tubes. The Tula System from Tusker Medical now allows local anesthesia to be administered directly toward the ear drum so that ear tubes can be placed without any pain. The system relies on an electrically charged anesthetic agent that is forced to move toward the ear thanks to an electric current generated within an ear plug specifically fitted to each patient.
Contact lenses are usually thought of as fairly simple devices that bend light to correct for common eye conditions such as myopia. This year saw some exciting developments to make contacts a lot more functional. A collaboration of European institutions created an artificial iris inside a contact lens that can be used to correct a number of vision disorders. The device can rapidly adjust the pupil size in order to achieve the proper visual focus and depth of field. It works by having a liquid crystal display (LCD) within the contact lens that’s composed of concentric circles, each of which can be made either transparent or opaque to achieve the desired pupil size.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel created color correcting contact lenses that help overcome color blindness. The curved lenses are coated with thin film metasurfaces that can manipulate light in unusual ways, including how color is perceived.
At the Pohang University of Science and Technology a smart contact lens was developed that can simultaneously measure glucose in tears and deliver drugs. The researchers believe that it is possible to create something resembling an artificial pancreas from such a contact lens that would deliver insulin when glucose levels reach a certain concentration. Attesting to the capabilities of today’s scientists, this new contact lens contains a glucose sensor, a drug-delivery reservoir, a wireless power receiver coil, an integrated circuit chip, and a radio-frequency communication system.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is used to study brain activity, but the electrodes that are typically used to record brainwaves on the scalp make it impractical to use EEG for extended periods of time. They are usually hard, require a gel, and are applied using a tightly worn head cap.
Researchers at Graz University of Technology in Austria have developed ultra-thin electrodes that can be manufactured using inject printers and worn unobtrusively on the head for long periods of time. They look like tattoos since they’re made by applying a conductive polymer onto tattoo paper. The new electrodes are just as effective at signal gathering as the unpleasant conventional ones.
Impacted earwax can be a major nuisance, causing loss of hearing, discomfort, and even dizziness. SafKan Health, an Arizona firm, was cleared by the FDA to introduce its OtoSet automatic ear cleaning device.
It looks like a pair of headphones, but with irrigation and suction tips on the inside. These spray water onto the walls of the ear canal, rather than directly toward the ear drum, and suck out the residue at the same time. The residue is collected into a built-in container that is disposable and is replaced, along with the spray tips, with a brand new one between each patient. Each treatment takes less than five minutes and in clinical studies, the OtoSet was able to deal with even severe earwax buildup.
A number of conditions cause a chronic inability to fully empty the bladder. Researchers at Penn State developed an implantable wrap that can detect whether the bladder is full and help empty it on-demand. A very similar device, which performs the same task, was also developed at the National University of Singapore. These new devices are able to gently squeeze the bladder to help clear it.
Another wrap, but for the arm and for a very different purpose, was created by researchers from Battelle and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. It allowed a man with clinically complete spinal cord injury, on whom we reported in the past, to move his paralyzed hand and also feel what he’s touching. The man had a brain-computer interface chip implanted into the motor cortex of his brain a few years ago and it was assumed that his injury was too severe to ever be able to tap the nerve signals related to touch. Turns out there was a very weak signal that was detected by the researchers, which does reach the brain via unexpected pathways, and which they can detect using the brain-computer interface. In turn, the signal is translated and directed to a haptic device that creates a vibration that produces a sense of touch.
Existing prosthetic hands have to rely on weak electrical nerve signals in order to know when to activate their motors. That’s because electrodes are typically placed on the skin over the area where the nerve ends and the skin doesn’t transmit electricity very well. Implantable electrodes that make contact with the nerves tend to form scar tissue that ends up ruining signal fidelity and brain-computer interfaces are simply too invasive for most applications. To overcome this, researchers at the University of Michigan were able to manipulate nerve endings, break apart bundles of nerves into smaller fibers, and then implant muscle grafts at the nerve tips to serve as signal amplifiers. When using conventional electrodes placed above these muscle grafts, the signal is so strong that it lets users intuitively control prosthetic arms from the first time and with impressive precision.
University of Pittsburgh scientists were able to convert spinal cord stimulators into gadgets that give people using prosthetic limbs a sense of touch. Typically used to treat chronic pain, the stimulators are able to generate tactile sensations in missing limbs of people outfitted with the devices. What’s particularly important is that the stimulators are implanted the same way they would be if they were used to treat pain, so surgeons are already prepared.
Finally, researchers at Stanford University developed a drug-carrying nanoparticle that can seek out atherosclerotic plaques and stimulate white blood cells to clear out the cellular debris within. The process can reduce plaques while lowering the chances that they will destabilize and pop-off, causing strokes and other damage downstream. The nanoparticle, which is in the shape of a tube, targets monocytes and macrophages, cells of the immune system, and uses a drug (inhibitor of the antiphagocytic CD47-SIRPα signalling axis) to motivate these cells to grab onto and digest dead and dying cells. Since the nanoparticles are attracted to atherosclerotic plaques, all this happens right where the activity is most beneficial.
In conclusion, 2020 will certainly be remembered for a world stopped by an pandemic. It will also stand out as a time when people came together to innovate, adapt, and improve the world around them. We wish you all a happy New Year and look forward to better times ahead, together.
Flashbacks: Medgadget’s Best Medical Technologies of 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016; 2015