Advances in medical design are paving the way for diagnostic and treatment options that previously were thought to be impossible. Today, surgeons, emergency medical personnel, and other healthcare professionals have a myriad of tools and techniques at their fingertips to help treat disease, create better orthopedic equipment and implants, and more accurately diagnose patients. Here is only a sampling of some of these new medical design breakthroughs.

Orthopedics and Implants

Yale researchers designed a blueprint for an artificial electrocyte that could one day power tiny medical implants. (Daniel Zukowski)
Researchers at Yale University have created artificial cells that are more powerful and efficient than the natural cells they mimic and could one day be used to power tiny medical implants. Scientists assessed whether an artificial version of the electrocyte – the energygenerating cells in electric eels – could be designed as a potential power source. The blueprint shows how the electrocyte’s different ion channels work together to produce the fish’s electricity.

Using the new blueprint as a guide, the scientists designed an artificial cell that could replicate the electrocyte’s energy production. The artificial cell is capable of producing 28% more electricity than the eel’s own electrocyte, with 31% more efficiency in converting the cell’s chemical energy – derived from the eel’s food – into electricity.

While eels use thousands of electrocytes to produce charges of up to 600 volts, the scientists show it would be possible to create a smaller “bio-battery” using several dozen artificial cells. The tiny bio-batteries would only need to be about 1⁄4 -inch thick to produce the small voltages needed to power tiny electrical devices such as retinal implants or other prostheses.

The cells still need a power source before they can start producing electricity. The cells could be powered in a way similar to their natural counterparts. It is possible that bacteria could be employed to recycle ATP – responsible for transferring energy within the cell – using glucose, a common source of chemical energy derived from food.

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A method of producing synthetic bone, developed at the University of Warwick, produces a 3D honeycomb texture with uniform pores throughout.
A method of producing synthetic bone, using techniques normally used to make catalytic converters for cars, is being developed by researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK, who believe it could offer substantial clinical benefits to patients undergoing bone implant surgery. The technique involves extrusion of the implant material through a mold to produce a 3D honeycomb texture with uniform pores throughout. The material can then be sculpted by the surgeon to precisely match the defect. After implantation, bone cells are transported into the implant and begin to form new bone.

The researchers worked with a Ja - panese company that manufactures catalytic converters to produce samples. They used calcium phosphates — bioceramics that are routinely used in bone implant operations. By using the new technique, they were able to improve both the strength and porosity of the implant. The increased strength of the material means it could be used in spinal surgery, or in revision hip and knee operations, where non-degradable materials such as titanium or steel may be used. The advantage of increased and interconnected porosity is that the implant can quickly be filled with blood vessels, resulting in a more rapid healing process.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2009 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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