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Saturday, 22 November 2008

Technologies of the future-robo-snakes, nano-grenades and 3D for blind

In today's edition:

  1. Pinching display lets you feel the data
  2. Safety fears over nanocosmetics
  3. Plasma Turns Garbage into Gas
  4. High-tech robodocs are surgeons of the future
  5. Drug grenades explode right on target
  6. Nanotubes worm their way into harmful places
I have some very nice stuff, packed and ready for you. I recommend you all of them, but at least 4 and 5 if you're interested in medicine. They discuss some novel technologies that certainly offer new opportunities. Also check number 2-it's about nanoparticles loaded in cosmetics without our knowledge. Enjoy!

Pinching display lets you feel the data

A DEVICE that pinches and stretches the skin on the fingertips, rather than prodding and poking it, could revolutionise the way blind people access graphs and maps.

Current electronic Braille displays work by raising and lowering an array of pins to form individual characters. But the actuators needed to move the pins up and down are bulky because they need to be powerful enough to resist the pressure exerted by the finger. The size of the these actuators means that only 16 pins can fit into a square centimetre, severely limiting a display's ability to represent images.

Now a team from Canada has improved this resolution, allowing tactile chips to display detailed maps, graphs and diagrams. It has designed an array of pins that move horizontally rather than vertically, when a voltage is applied. This movement stretches or pinches the skin.

Fingertips are highly sensitive to this sensation. These pins are not pushing against the finger, so the actuators can be made smaller. It fools the brain into thinking you're touching a raised surface.

The device, called the Tactograph, consists of a chip roughly 1 centimetre square with an 8-by-8 array of pins on top, mounted on a larger platform. First, a teacher digitally scans a picture, removes any text and highlights important boundaries using the Tactograph's software. Then, as the user slides the chip across the platform with their fingertip, the pins move to produce the texture corresponding to the different parts of the image.

For example, when representing a map, the device would produce a vibrating sensation to mark out the borders of countries, and it would "colour" the interior of each region with a different static texture. The team demonstrated how the device has been used to display graphs, maps and diagrams at the ASSETS 2008 conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, last week. source

My comment: Nice! True, it's far from producing a 3D surface corresponding to the picture, but it's close. And that would be good for all the people who cannot see. Though I think it's much more important to work on how to give them new eyes.

Safety fears over nanocosmetics

Cosmetics containing tiny "nano" particles are being used widely despite unresolved issues surrounding their safety, a consumer watchdog warns.

Many skin care products, including sunscreens and wrinkle creams, contain this technology to make them easier to apply and invisible on the skin. But experts are concerned about their possible long-term effects on the body, Which? reports.

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating atoms and molecules on the nanoscale - 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The cosmetics industry is using it to create new materials with novel properties, but this could create unexpected risks.

Which? wrote to 67 cosmetics companies, including all of the main brands as well as smaller ones, asking them about their use of nanotechnology, what benefits they thought it brought and how they ensured product safety.

Seventeen firms responded, and of these, eight were willing to provide information about how they used nanotechnology. Most of the eight, which included The Body Shop, Boots, Nivea, Avon, L'Oréal, Unilever, Korres and The Green People, used nanotechnology for the UV filters in their sunscreens.

These products included nano emulsions - preparations containing oil and water droplets reduced to nano size - used to preserve active ingredients, such as vitamins and anti-oxidants, and for their lightness and transparency.

Another example was a type of nanomaterial called "fullerenes" used in anti-aging cream products.

Scientists have raised particular concerns about potential toxicity of fullerenes if they were able to penetrate the skin.

There is also a concern that the nanomaterials in sunscreens might be able to breach sunburned skin.

The precautionary principle should be applied to products where there are potential risks but where it is not currently possible to assess their safety so that consumers are not put at risk, it says.

In September 2006, the government launched a voluntary reporting scheme for all engineered nanomaterials to find out what was, or could be, on the market, to guide the development of regulations. This has had a limited response - 12 responses in two years - and is now under review.

A spokeswoman for the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association said: "The industry is working with government to provide more information on the safety of these products.

A European Commission spokeswoman said: "We are working towards improving our ability to assess the safety of all consumer products using nanomaterials including cosmetics.

"The Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identifed Health Risks (SCENIHR) is currently preparing an update of its 2006 opinion on the risk assessment of products of nanotechnologies. This update will be available in January 2009." source

My comment: This is an issue I often comment on My European Dream and I find it very funny to mention the EC when the latest risk assessment commission found that regulations on nanoparticles are relevant and enough. If nano-solutions of water are not very likely to be dangerous, oils are other thing and fullerenes-completely other beer. There simply isn't enough data about the action of nano-elements on biological tissues. Even if we don't go for the full precautionary principle, but at least a decent trial lasting 2-5 years should be enough. Additional information you can find on this Yahoo news, which claims that some of the nano-structure can accumulate fat and lead to lung cancer.

Plasma Turns Garbage into Gas

By Melinda Wenner

Every year 130 million tons of America’s trash ends up in landfills. Together the dumps emit more of the greenhouse gas methane than any other human-related source. But thanks to plasma technology, one city’s rotting rubbish will soon release far less methane—and provide power for 50,000 homes—because of an innovation in plasma technology backed by Atlanta-based Geoplasma.

Engineers have developed an efficient torch for blasting garbage with a stream of
superheated gas, known as plasma. When trash is dropped into a chamber and heated to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, its organic components—food, fluids, paper—vaporize into a hot, pressurized gas, which turns a turbine to generate electricity. Steam, a by-product, can generate more. Inorganic refuse such as metals condense at the bottom and can be used in roadbeds and heavy construction.

Several small plasma plants exist around the world for industrial processes, but Geoplasma is constructing the first U.S. plasma refuse plant in St. Lucie County, Florida. The plant is scheduled to go online by 2011; it will process 1,500 tons of garbage a day, sending 60 megawatts of electricity to the power grid (after using some to power itself).

Emissions are far lower than in standard incineration, and the process reduces landfill volume and methane release. Power prices are projected to be on par with electricity from natural gas. source

My comment: Nice. I'm naturally suspicious to incineration, because it usually release lots of nasty gases into the atmosphere. But if this method is more efficient and less damaging to the environment, then it's great. In any case, I didn't see numbers of the new emissions compared to the old ones, and that is what ultimately counts. Not the electricity input.

High-tech robodocs are surgeons of the future

Nov. 3, 2008

LONDON - A mechanical snake that can enter the body through natural orifices -- not an incision -- to perform operations is just one futuristic device researchers believe will transform traditional surgical techniques.

The average selling price of the market-leading da Vinci system from California's Intuitive Surgical Inc is $1.35 million. Some critics, including British fertility expert Robert Winston, have questioned the cost-effectiveness of robots when other treatments, such as cancer drugs, are being rationed.

But proponents note prices will inevitably fall as usage and competition increase, as happened with once-costly computers.

Tens of thousands of prostate, heart and other procedures are already being performed by robots (but directed by humans!), and experts predict machines will be used to penetrate deeper into ailing bodies in the years ahead.

In a university laboratory behind London's Science Museum, researchers are working on a new generation of high-tech gadgets to take minimally invasive robotic surgery to the next level.

The prospect of robot arms probing into the abdomen may be alarming but their precision can mean less trauma, quicker recovery, a shorter stay in hospital and reduced tissue damage.

One idea that could soon become a reality is a device that uses the surgeon's gaze to direct tools by tracking the light reflected from the user's eyes, making operations simpler and less invasive.

Positive results with the eye-tracking system were presented at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Nice, France in September.

The natural orifice "I-snake" camera and surgery system, which would do away with the need for incisions altogether, is further down the track. The team at Imperial hope to have their oral or rectal access system ready for tests within 3-1/2 years.

Work is also under way on "augmented reality" software. This could use data from past patient scans to help surgeons visualize tumors or other structures underneath living tissue.

Another possibility is artificially stabilizing the image of moving organs, such as a beating heart, by creating robotic instruments that move in tandem with the patient's body.

In May this year, doctors at the University of Calgary in Canada used a robot called neuroArm to remove a tumor from a 21-year-old woman's brain in the first operation of its kind.

Privately held U.S. firm Satiety Inc, meanwhile, is testing a stomach stapler for obese patients that slides down the throat rather than requiring abdominal surgery.

Researchers at Germany's DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics are working on a lightweight system called MIRO using the same robotic arm technology as is used in space.

And business is booming at Intuitive Surgical, whose installed base of more than 1,030 da Vinci robots at hospitals throughout the world is due to perform at least 130,000 prostatectomies, hysterectomies, heart valve operations and other procedures this year. source

My comment: This article was a little overview of the sate of the robotics in medicine. I was most impressed by the frequency of use of simple robots in surgeries-not a surprise, since where I am, they are making surgery like 20 years ago. Are you scared of robotics cutting trough your body? I'm not-in the end they are just a extension of the surgeon hand. Now, the robo-snake that is supposed to enter trough natural orifices is completely horrifying- i have had a endoscopic examination of my stomach and I would never ever like anything thick that goes trough my throat into my stomach, thank you very much.

Drug grenades explode right on target

Detonating explosives near sick people is not generally a good idea, but microscopic grenades that go off painlessly inside the body could accelerate the delivery of drugs to diseased tissue, say researchers.

Carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials are touted as being perfect "mules" to deliver drugs because they can pass freely into cells and even cell nuclei. But the tiny structures diffuse very slowly through biological tissue, which could limit their therapeutic benefit.

Typically, 200-nanometre particles take nearly 9 hours to diffuse just 400 micrometers in water, says Bruno De Geest, a chemical engineer at Ghent University in Belgium.

But De Geest and colleagues can propel nanoparticles the same distance 800 times faster by hurling them from an exploding microscopic grenade.

Their tiny grenades are made from a rigid but porous polymer membrane that contains a gel based on the sugar dextran. As water seeps through the membrane it degrades the chemical cross-links holding the gel together. The gel swells and eventually bursts the capsule open, spewing its contents outwards.

De Geest's team loaded the gel with green fluorescent nanoparticles to make it possible to see the explosive ejection.

"To obtain exploding microcapsules that exhibit that behaviour, we need them to be between 100 and 400 micrometers [in diameter]," says De Geest.

Smaller microgrenades can't be loaded with enough gel to cause a powerful detonation, he says. Although 400-micrometer-wide particles are too large to pass through the bloodstream - and so couldn't be injected into a vein - they could be implanted just below the skin in the area where the medicine is needed, says De Geest.

"For the purpose of vaccination, the subcutaneous region is an ideal place for antigen delivery," he says. He adds that the microcapsules are too small to cause any pain when they explode.

By altering the properties of membrane and payload it is possible to make the grenades in smaller sizes. The gel responds to temperature and pH too, so it would also be possible to build smart grenades targeted to a particular tissue environment.

Journal reference: Journal of the American Chemical Society (DOI: 10.1021/ja806574h) source

My comment: Nice, nice, nice. Especially the last part. If you think about it, if you know a specific characteristics of for example cancer cells and want to target them with this grenades, you simply make the gel sensitive to that specific trait and load the body with the little guys. Then you wait. Eventually, the drug will get when it's supposed to be. Sure, there are some difficulties to overcome, like finding a unique trait to target in a cell-not simple, considering our somewhat limited knowledge of the detailed picture in our bodies, but eventually, it could work very well. This is a certainly interesting technology.

Nanotubes worm their way into harmful places

  • 15 October 2008
  • Magazine issue 2678.

THE early bird won't get the worm if the environment has been tainted with carbon nanotubes. Eating them could stop earthworms reproducing and so threaten vital food chains.

Nanotube materials have enormous potential in electronics and construction, but it is suspected that exposure to nanotubes could cause asbestosis-like lung disease in people. Now Janeck Scott-Fordsmand and his team at the National Environmental Research Institute in Roskilde, Denmark, have tested their effect on earthworms. They found that earthworms given food laced with double-walled nanotubes produced far fewer cocoons than normal: the higher the dose, the fewer the cocoons (Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, vol 71, p 616).

Earthworms are vital to ecosystems because they aerate the soil. Nanotube pollution could make soils unable to support crops and sustain biodiversity, says Scott-Fordsmand. source

My comment: Yes, back to the article of the safety of nano-cosmetics. We see that thinks are nowhere near as pink as some companies are trying to present them. What more do national safety agencies need to take some kind of action toward the random use of nano-particles?

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