New technologies have the potential to transform healthcare. From making it easier to monitor the heart to improving mental health, new advances may help us live longer, healthier lives.
We often hear about new medicines, and how they could help treat various diseases. But there are many other technological advances that could help improve our health. Here, we’ll talk about four very different advances that could improve how we treat heart disease, deliver drugs through the skin, make limb prosthetics more comfortable, and even help young women to better appreciate their bodies.
1. An ultrathin patch that could monitor your heart health
Doctors can learn a lot about how healthy your heart is by measuring its electrical activity (called an electrocardiogram), or the movement of your chest when your heart beats (seismocardiography). Usually, you would need to go into a doctor’s office to have these tests.
Researchers in the United States have recently developed a thin, stretchable patch that can perform both of these tests. The patch can be placed on the chest and worn for several days, constantly monitoring the heart. This would give doctors additional information about heart disease patients, potentially allowing them to better understand their condition and guide their treatment.
The patch is so thin that it has been dubbed an “e-tattoo”. The creators have already developed a smartphone app to store the data from their prototype e-tattoo. It can even show the user how their heart is beating at that very moment.
2. Making drugs that can be absorbed through the skin
One of the most difficult aspects of drug design is ensuring that the medicine will be properly absorbed by the body. One approach is to dissolve tiny particles of the drug in a liquid. These “nanoemulsions” are already being used for some types of drugs.
Chemical engineers at MIT have been working at developing new nanoemulsions that are easier to make and more useful for administering drugs to patients.
Nanoemulsions are typically made by rapidly stirring the drug together with the fluid they will be dissolved with. This takes a lot of energy, increasing the expense of the procedure. The researchers found that certain additives helped to dissolve the drugs much faster, with much less effort. These additives are already used in foods and cosmetics, meaning that they are safe for human consumption.
They also found ways to change the solution into a gel. Even better, by tweaking the recipe, they were able to adjust the temperature at which it turned into a gel. They found a formula that formed a gel at human body temperature. This means that they could potentially deliver drugs by rubbing the nanoemulsion on the skin.
3. Computer-aided design to make better-fitting prosthetic limbs
When thinking about a prosthetic limb, many people can immediately see the challenge of creating a usable artificial hand or foot. But one of the most challenging elements of prosthetic limb design is making the prosthetic fit comfortably over the limb stump. Making it even more difficult, the stump tends to change shape as it heals. A poorly-fitting prosthesis can rub, potentially tearing the skin. Unfortunately, fitting and manufacturing a new prosthetic is an expensive and time-consuming process.
To solve this problem, a group of researchers in the UK have combined 3D scanning with new manufacturing techniques to rapidly make well-fitting prosthetics.
First, a 3D model of the stump is created by a hand-held scanner. This scanner uses low-power laser beams to map out the shape of the stump. This 3D-model is used to design a prosthetic liner that will fit the stump perfectly.
The liner is made out of a soft, elastic material. Instead of making a mold and then using it to produce the liner, the researchers used a new machining process that was much quicker. This method used extreme cold temperatures to rapidly form the liner in the exact shape that was needed. The entire process takes less than one day and results in a more comfortable prosthesis.
4. Can 3D scanning lead to a better body image?
Young women often suffer from poor body image. This can lead to depression and anxiety. Researchers in the United States have been studying if 3D modelling can help improve body image in young women.
In this study, a number of young women volunteered to be scanned by a 3D scanner. The researchers used the scans to create 3D digital models of the volunteers’ bodies. The volunteers then used special software to virtually “paint” parts of these digital models, while thinking about how these parts of the body helped them get through life. For example, they might consider how their legs help them to run.
This procedure encouraged them to think about their body from a functional, utilitarian aspect rather than from the viewpoint of appearance or attractiveness. After painting their 3D avatars, the volunteers filled out surveys to determine how much they appreciated their body, and how they felt. The volunteers reported feeling better about their body and less depressed and anxious. More impressively, this effect lasted for at least three months after the digital painting.
Better health through technology
As we’ve seen, bringing new technologies together in new ways has the potential to dramatically improve healthcare. From state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques to 3D-modelling, researchers are working hard to bring these ideas from the drawing board to the patient. With more hard work, these technologies will go on to improve the lives of many people.
Written by Bryan Hughes, PhD
New E-Tattoo Enables Accurate, Uninterrupted Heart Monitoring for Days. UT News. June 20, 2019. https://news.utexas.edu/2019/06/20/new-e-tattoo-enables-accurate-uninterrupted-heart-monitoring-for-days/
Trafton, A. “Nanoemulsion” gels offer new way to deliver drugs through the skin. MIT News Office. 21 June, 2019. http://news.mit.edu/2019/nanoemulsion-gels-skin-drugs-0621
Tailor-made prosthetic liners could help more amputees walk again. University of Bath Communications. 21 June, 2019. https://www.bath.ac.uk/announcements/tailor-made-prosthetic-liners-could-help-more-amputees-walk-again/
3D technology might improve body appreciation for young women. University of Missouri News Bureau. June 18, 2019. https://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2019/0618-3d-technology-might-improve-body-appreciation-for-young-women/