As advances in cellular biology, gene mapping, and other areas of medicine continue, amazing technologies for diagnosing, treating, and even curing diseases are emerging. Specifically, new technologies are being developed to fight the war against cancer, including advances in imaging and other diagnostic techniques. Featured here are just a few of the medical breakthroughs that could have — or are already having — a major impact on our health.

Millions of Americans opt for laser-correction surgery to improve their vision. If only there was a way to reshape a person's cornea — thereby correcting vision — without invasive surgery. Well, now there is, through the use of special contact lenses that were developed through the company's experiments with NASA in the 1990s.

Paragon Vision Sciences (Mesa, AZ) participated in a research project with NASA's Langley Research Center (Hampton, VA) in the early 1990s to perfect a process for developing contact lenses. The experiments flew on three space shuttle missions from 1993 to 1996, and were designed to expose contact lens materials to microgravity, helping Paragon understand how polymers are formed. The eventual outcome of those experiments was Paragon's HDS — hyperpurified delivery system contact lenses — gas permeable lenses that are less likely than soft contacts to harbor bacteria.

Paragon took the space shuttle experiment results a step further and developed CRT — (Corneal Refractive Therapy) contact lenses, the first therapeutic lens design approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for overnight corneal refractive therapy, which reduces nearsightedness.

Users put the CRT lenses in before going to sleep, and when they awake, they simply remove the lenses and experience clear vision without the need for daytime contact lenses or glasses. There are no age restrictions, and the process is reversible — if the user discontinues wearing the lenses, the cornea will return to its original shape.

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Robotic Ankle Helps Stroke Patients Walk

Close to 700,000 Americans suffer strokes every year, and as a result, have some type of paralysis in their arms, hands, legs, or ankles. To that end, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have created Anklebot, a robotic device that helps stroke patients regain movement in paralyzed ankles.

MIT researcher Hermano Igo Krebs tests the Anklebot on a treadmill. (MIT)

About 16 years ago, MIT researchers Hermano Igo Krebs and Neville Hogan developed a robotic arm called MITManus that has proven successful in helping patients regain arm movement. In the MITManus therapy, a patient sits at a table and puts their lower arm and wrist into a brace attached to the arm of the robot. A video screen prompts the patient to perform an arm exercise such as connecting dots. If movement does not occur, the robot moves the person's arm. If the person does move their arm, the robot provides adjustable levels of guidance.

Since then, the researchers have created other machines that focus on different parts of the body, including one for movement of the shoulder and elbow, one for the wrist, and one for the hand. The Anklebot is their latest creation, and operates in much the same way as the MIT-Manus device. Anklebot fits around the leg in a brace and helps move the paralyzed ankle.

According to Hogan, the devices have answered a longstanding question about whether manual manipulation of a stroke victim's disabled limb does aid in recovery of the use of that limb. "There had been a great deal of intuitive belief that this works," Hogan said. "But our research provided conclusive objective evidence."

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Next-Generation CT Scanning

Medical imaging in the form of x-rays, CT (computed tomography) scanning, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology has enabled doctors to view the body with great detail. Toshiba America Medical Systems (Tustin, CA) has taken medical imaging a step further by enabling even faster, more accurate CT

The Aquilion 64 CT scanner enables advanced image clarity and resolution in multiphasic organ imaging. (Toshiba America Medical Systems)

scanning with the Aquilion 64, a volumetric CT scanner with 64 detector channels.

With this scanner, doctors can take 64 cross-sectional 'slices' of 0.5 mm every half-second — fast enough to freeze the motion of the human heart. Applications for 0.5-mm slice scanning include studies of cerebral circulation, lungs, spine, joints, and extremities.

The Aquilion 64 has been installed at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and has been used by the hospital's radiologist, Dr. Vassilios Raptopoulos, who pointed out that the faster speed of the system means that patients spend less time in the scanner. "The other advantage for them," he said, "is the diagnosis is much more accurate, so you get a better result."

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Chip Holds Entire DNA Lab

More than 100,000 Americans die each year as the result of adverse reactions to medications. A Santa Clara, CA-based company called Affymetrix has

The AmpliChip, contained in a plastic cartridge, holds tens of thousands of strands of DNA. (Roche Diagnostics)

developed a means to help doctors predict how a patient will respond to a drug. The company has put tens of thousands of strands of DNA — the human genome — on a glass chip the size of a thumbnail housed in a plastic cartridge. The chip, manufactured by Roche Diagnostics of Switzerland, is called the AmpliChip, and is being used for in vitro diagnostics in the U.S. and Europe.

The AmpliChip CYP450 Test is performed using a blood sample that is sent to a lab that uses the chip and a special chamber to analyze the genetic profile of the patient. The test detects up to 30 variations in two different genes that influence adverse drug reactions.

Roche is studying how the AmpliChip can be used for earlier and more specific detection of disease as well as the factors that influence the risk, progression, or treatment of diseases.

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Scope Lets Doctors See Inside Joints

A diagnostic scope system from Arthrotek (Warsaw, IN) is enabling doctors to immediately diagnose joint conditions thanks to technology developed in conjunction with NASA's John Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH).

The InnerVue™ Diagnostic Scope System enables physicians to immediately diagnose conditions within a knee or shoulder. (Arthrotek)

Micro Medical Devices (MMD) licensed NASA Glenn's image enhancement technology in 1997 to develop a microendoscope for physicians to use in viewing the inside of the body. MMD formed Clear Image Technology in Ohio to commercialize the miniature scope. They then partnered with Arthrotek to introduce the tool to the commercial market. The resulting tool is the InnerVue™ Diagnostic Scope System that can be used in a doctor's office or outpatient environment to evaluate conditions within a joint, including cartilage damage, arthritis, and other conditions in the knee and shoulder.

The system can be used alone or in conjunction with an MRI, and includes an endoscope, the system hardware and software, and the instrumentation. The scope's outside diameter is 1.2 mm, about the size of an 18-gauge needle. The micro-invasive scope requires only local anesthetic, so the patient is awake and alert during the procedure, and may walk out immediately after the procedure.

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Mayo Clinic and IBM Join To Speed Up Medical Advances

The Mayo Clinic and IBM have announced a collaboration to accelerate advances in patient care and research by taking advantage of new data to link research and medicine. The Mayo Clinic will be the first medical institution to use the power of IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer to access special algorithms and advance its work in molecular modeling for disease research.

A primary focus of the collaboration is to create a standard means of integrating patient records, mapping current and historical patient data and linking them to new types of medical information. The next step is to mine the patient data and compare that to the data of other patients with similar disease characteristics.

"Wouldn't it be marvelous if a doctor knew not just the exact location of the patient's cancer, but its gene characteristics and the outcomes of therapy in the last 500 patients with cancer in that exact location and with those identical genetic characteristics?" said Dr. Hugh Smith, vice president of Mayo Clinic. "To do this, there needs to be a consistent way to link these kinds of data, not just in a single hospital, but regionally, nationally, and globally."

Other aspects of the collaboration include Mayo using IBM's deep computing capability to advance its work in genomic and proteomic research and molecular modeling, providing a way to identify disease causes and prevention.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2005 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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