Four Patients Test Retinal Implant That Could Stop Age-Related Blindness

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Some parts of getting older are awesome. Retirement. Early bird specials. Free reign to whine about your various aches and pains.

Not so great? Your vision can start to go.

Luckily, a new retinal implant may soon help treat a common cause of age-related vision loss.

Non-neovascular age-related macular degeneration (NNAMD) (also known as “dry” AMD) causes a blurry area right in the middle of a person’s line of vision that can grow as the disease progresses. Sometimes, the previously blurry spot becomes simply blank.

In short, that can be debilitating, making it pretty impossible to live a normal life. After all, you need to be able to see what’s in front of you to do things like drive a car or cook a meal.

Currently, there’s no treatment for the advanced stages of NNAMD, but a research team led by Amir Kashani, an assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at University of Southern California (USC), is hoping to change that.

NNAMD likely begins with the breakdown of cells in a membrane in the eye called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). Kashani and his team designed an implant to mimic the function of this membrane. The implant fits on the retina and is made of human embryonic stem cells placed on a base material.

The team had already tested a version of the implant on rodents, so the next step was to make the leap to humans. So the researchers placed their implant into the eyes of four people with advanced NNAMD. Then, they monitored those people for between four and 12 months.

According to the researchers’ study, published today in Science Translational Medicine, none of the four participants had any negative or severe side effects from the retinal implant, and experienced no vision loss over the course of the trial. Once participant even “demonstrated an observable improvement” in their vision.

When the team took post-operative images of the patients’ eyes, they saw that the stem cells had blended with the existing retinal tissue. That is, the retinas looked like they were regaining their RPEs. A good sign.

Of course, this was an exceptionally small sample size that delivered promising (but not overwhelmingly positive) results. So the researchers’ next step is to test their implant on a larger group.

If it works the way researchers hope, it may someday be a game-changer for thousands of visually-challenged seniors. After all, what good’s a senior discount on movie tickets if you can’t see the screen.

The post Four Patients Test Retinal Implant That Could Stop Age-Related Blindness appeared first on Futurism.


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Brain-Zapping Pacemaker Implant Could Be a New Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Desperate Times

The opioid epidemic continues to sweep across the U.S. as manufacturers flood towns with millions of opioid pills. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that an average of 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

Researchers and medical professionals are scrambling to find treatment options for opioid addiction. In November 2017, the FDA approved a device that transmits electrical pulses to the cranial nerves associated with pain processing, to alleviate opioid withdrawal symptoms in patients. Now, another  treatment — set to begin clinical trials later this year — will take that approach even further, implanting electrodes directly onto the brain.

Image credit: Brandon Giesbrecht/Flickr
Image credit: Brandon Giesbrecht/Flickr.

The implant — controlled by a pacemaker-like device — will send electrical signals to target the reward center of the brain, hopefully minimizing the over-activity that is responsible for the addictive behavior. Known as deep brain stimulation (DBS), this type of therapy is currently used to treat tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease, and is undergoing testing for use in Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.

The one drawback? Inserting the implant requires major invasive surgery. Neurosurgeons must make an inch-long incision in the scalp, drill a dime-sized hole in the skull, and add the implant.

Call For Desperate Measures

There are some major risks associated with the therapy. According to a study conducted by addiction researchers Wayne Hall and Adrian Carter in 2011, “Insertion of stimulating electrodes can cause serious infections and produce cognitive, behavioral, and emotional disturbances.”

Even the neurosurgeon hired by West Virginia University to conduct the trial, Ali Rezai, makes sure to tell patients receiving the implants that there’s a one percent chance of severe complications. Due to these risks, the treatment may have to be a last resort effort for addicts who have exhausted all other options and still failed to kick the addiction.

Rezai has a steep uphill battle ahead of him, even in terms of patient recruitment. Past studies hoping to investigate the effectiveness of the therapy ran into snags at this first crucial stage. A 2010 study conducted at the University of Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Center by Judy Luigjes was only able to recruit two of eight participants. “We had a long screening procedure, hoping people weren’t deciding impulsively. Few wanted to go through with it. A lot of it has to do with fear of the procedure,” Luigjes told STAT.

Rezai predicts that his study could lead to DBS becoming a widespread option for opioid addiction treatment by 2025. But eight years is a long time to wait when the current epidemic is costing the U.S. nearly $ 80 billion annually in increased healthcare costs and addiction treatment.

In the meantime, its critical that researchers continue working towards discovering new addiction treatments, and lawmakers continue to hold drug manufacturers financially accountable for their role in the nation’s devastating opioid epidemic.

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A Robotic Implant Could Treat Congenital Disorders in Babies

Robotic Implant

When implanted, a new robot is able to promote tissue growth by pulling and tugging at organs. It may sound alarming, but this new device could revolutionize the way doctors treat esophageal atresia, a congenital defect in which part of the esophagus is missing at birth. With future developments, the robotic implant could also promote growth in other organs.

Developed by scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital, this robot has so far only been tested in pigs, but the researchers hope to one day use this in regular medical practice.

In the study, which was published in the journal Science Robotics, the robot was implanted in live pigs and then slowly and gradually stretched tubular organs like the esophagus while the animals remained active. The pigs showed no discomfort and were even able to continue eating as the robot lengthened the esophagus by around 77 percent.

Additionally, cell multiplication was shown as a result of this technique. “This shows we didn’t simply stretch the esophagus — it lengthened through cell growth,” Pierre Dupont, the study’s senior investigator, said in a press release.

Expanding Applications

The use of this robot would be in place of existing treatment methods which require the patient to be put into a medically-induced coma for four weeks during which the esophagus has to be surgically and manually manipulated.

But it will take some time for the current treatment to become obsolete. There is still much research to be done before this robot is used as a medical tool with humans. Additionally, it has only been studied with the esophagus. However, the team has started to test this robot in a large animal model of short bowel syndrome, a condition in which a piece of the bowel is missing.

Pill Robots: The Future of Non-Invasive Surgery [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

If this robot proves effective in more organs, its potential as a medical device will continue to rise. Hopefully, the implant will be shown to be safe for regular use in medical practices, allowing it to replace previous surgical methods that are costly, extremely painful, and — most detrimentally — fraught with risk. If this is the case, then this little robot is well positioned to improve and extend lives.

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Dark Future: Here’s When We’ll Have a Location-Tracking Implant from Black Mirror

This article is part of a series about season four of Black Mirror, in which Futurism considers the technology pivotal to each episode and evaluates how close we are to having it. Please note that this article contains mild spoilers. Season four of Black Mirror is now available on Netflix.

A Short Leash

Sarah is a reasonably happy four-year-old. She’s blond and gap-toothed with a cherubic smile. She can be a picky eater and is frightened by the neighbor’s dog that barks loudly as her mother takes her to the park. But she’s curious and trusting.

Then, every parent’s nightmare. Sarah wanders off from the playground, and her mother is gripped with panic. The neighbors find her a few hours later, but Sarah’s mother is shaken. She brings Sarah to Arkangel, a company that creates neural implants to set Sarah’s mom’s mind at ease. A technician places the implant into Sarah’s temple quickly and painlessly.

With this device, the mother can monitor her daughter’s location, track her vitals, and even see through her daughter’s eyes. Sarah’s mom tracks it all with the system’s “parental hub,” a tablet device that’s remarkably similar those we use today. She can limit what Sarah sees. Anything that causes stress — a growling dog, a violent movie scene — the device can “filter” from the child’s view.

Would you want the ability to always know your child’s location and what they were seeing? This is the question explored in this episode of Black Mirror. And because it’s Black Mirror, it’s safe to assume that not everything goes according to plan.

So, how far are we from being able to take helicopter parenting to this new, high-tech level?

According to L. Syd M. Johnson, a neuroethicist/bioethicist at Michigan Technological University, we’re not far from digitally-enhanced parenting at all. As Johnson told Futurism, we already have the technology for the basis for such a system. Today’s smartphones track our whereabouts and can make them visible to others if we so choose; tech such as Google Glass lets others see what we are seeing.

The bionic eyes and retinal implants currently in development could take the system to the next level. Once perfected, the data and images from those implants could plausibly be transmitted to another device, such as the parental hub used in the Black Mirror episode. Researchers are already working to develop brain implants that detect stress, and future iterations could integrate features that block whatever sounds and sights might be causing the stress.

Manufacturers behind the most cutting-edge implants in use today, such as pacemakers and electrode systems for deep brain stimulation, are wirelessly integrating those devices with user-friendly portals that patients can access via an app on a smartphone or tablet, Johnson noted. In some cases, patients can even control the functionality of their devices through those apps. The same sort of mobile control for an Arkangel-like system wouldn’t be much different.

Arkangel. Image credit: Netflix

Peace of Mind, At a Cost

So, an implant like Arkangel’s is plausible, possibly even in the next few decades. The question then becomes not could parents give their children the implant, but should they?

First, the case in favor of the implant. Perhaps most obviously, it could reduce the number of cases of missing children — as of December 2016, there were 33,706 active reports of missing persons under the age of 18 in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database (almost all children reported missing in the U.S. make it home alive). And it could decrease the number of cases filed as the result of simple miscommunications or misunderstandings, of which tens of thousands are filed each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That would free up investigators to look into the real cases, and it would save parents and children alike undue emotional trauma.

An implant like this one could also help keep children healthy. In the Black Mirror episode, an alert on the parental hub let the mother know her picky daughter wasn’t getting enough iron. Such a system could also tell a parent immediately if a child was falling ill or needed more serious medical attention, or notify authorities if a child is being neglected.

Arkangel. Image credit: Netflix

But the problems an Arkangel-type implant causes may outweigh its benefits.

The simplicity of the Arkangel system invites abuse and excessive control, Johnson said. Instead of tracking kids’ locations only when they’re missing, parents could use it to keep track of their children at all times. This constant surveillance could stunt those children, preventing them from developing into self-sufficient adults capable of navigating the world without a parent’s interjection. “While parents are expected to protect and help shape and guide their children as they grow up, everyone at some point wants and needs their parents to loosen the reins,” Johnson said.

Over-involved parents aren’t the only ones who could be listening in to an Arkangel-type implant — governments could eventually take advantage of the devices to maintain control over citizens. That is extremely problematic, as many dictators around the world already keep a tight leash on their populations.

Hackers, too, could gain access to the devices, granting them control over a person’s emotions or actions, Johnson said. Today, the digital security of implantable medical devices leaves much to be desired — just this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled half a million pacemakers because they were vulnerable to hacking. Other implantable medical devices, such as insulin pumps, have also demonstrated such vulnerabilities. Manipulating a person via their brain implant would be difficult and crude at first, but it would likely become more sophisticated over time. Another person taking control over your feeling or actions, no matter how imprecise, would feel distressing, to say the least.

Americans are already worried about their cybersecurity, and rightly so. Internet browsers track our viewing habits and smartphones track our location. Hacking systems small and large is easier than ever. As we become more connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), we know intuitively that our privacy will continue to erode. But so far, most people seem comfortable with the trade off of privacy for convenience.

“Is there a threshold beyond which we’ll stop being so comfortable [with the diminishment of our privacy]? Possibly,” Johnson said. “Possibly that threshold will be in the vicinity of our skulls.”

If (or when) parents do have the option to implant their children with an Arkangel-type device, they’ll need to weigh these pros and cons very carefully. The peace of mind that comes with always knowing your child’s location could come at a cost far beyond the monthly subscription fee.

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A New Implant Heals Broken Legs by Transforming into Real Bone

New Bones

When a bone breaks, medical devices and objects like screws and pins are often used to hold the pieces together while the bone heals. But this process can be extremely painful, long, and difficult. One new technological marvel might make these methods obsolete. This potentially game-changing new tool is a 3D printed ceramic implant that holds fractured bones together while turning into actual, natural bone.

Created by Hala Zreiqat at the University of Sydney in Australia and her colleagues, this implant has successfully repaired broken arm bones in rabbits in testing. Additionally, in a soon-to-be-published study, the team tested this ability with large leg fractures in sheep. Despite the small sample, the researchers were encouraged by the fact that the experiment was equally successful in all the eight animals involved in the study.

According to the scientists, the sheep were able to walk immediately after surgery where the implant was placed. However, for four weeks after surgery, the sheep did walk with plaster casts to improve stabilization throughout the healing process. Three months post-op, the researchers observed complete healing in 25 percent of the fractures, and this rose to 88 percent at the one-year mark. Additionally, as these bones grew back, the scaffolds of the initial implant dissolved gradually. So, not only does the implant allow the bone to heal while quite literally creating natural bone in places where it’s missing, but it also dissolves when it is no longer needed.

Speaking with the New Scientist, Zreiqat remarked on the success of this study that “They got their old bones back,” referring to the sheep.

Painful, less effective measure for treating broken bones could soon be in the past. Image Credit: Taokinesis / Pixabay
Painful, less effective measure for treating broken bones could soon be in the past. Image Credit: Taokinesis / Pixabay

Game Changing Grafts

The implant has a similar composition to natural bone, so the researchers concluded that it was able to dissolve seamlessly without any toxic side effects and meld into the bone because, “the body can’t tell the difference,” Zreiqat said. The implant is porous and acts as a scaffold that natural bone and blood vessels can grow through, which makes it a seemingly perfect tool in bone restoration.

This, if it continues to prove successful in testing, would be a drastic improvement to treatment for broken bones. The sheep in the study were observed to be extremely tolerant of the implants. Additionally, methods that use bone grafts can be rejected by a patient’s immune system, whereas the ceramic implant tested here was not.

Specifically, the implant is made up of calcium silicate, the mineral gahnite, and small amounts of strontium and zinc which are trace elements in natural bone.

One downside to the new implants seems to be their rigidity, but for many people the use of these grafts could significantly reduce pain and allow them to heal faster.

The future of medicine will benefit from unique applications of advancing technologies. 3D printing isn’t just for plastics and digital devices. Biological elements can be used within the medical sector to improve the lives of patients, physicians, and the continually developing field.

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For the First Time Ever, Scientists Boosted Human Memory With a Brain Implant

A Bionic Memory Boost

With everyone from Elon Musk to MIT to the U.S. Department of Defense researching brain implants, it seems only a matter of time before such devices are ready to help humans extend their natural capabilities. Now, a professor from the University of Southern California (USC) has demonstrated the use of a brain implant to improve the human memory, and the device could have major implications for the treatment of one of the U.S.’s deadliest diseases.

Dong Song is a research associate professor of biomedical engineering at USC, and he recently presented his findings on a “memory prosthesis” during a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington D.C. According to a New Scientist report, the device is the first to effectively improve the human memory.

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

To test his device, Song’s team enlisted the help of 20 volunteers who were having brain electrodes implanted for the treatment of epilepsy.

Once implanted in the volunteers, Song’s device could collect data on their brain activity during tests designed to stimulate either short-term memory or working memory. The researchers then determined the pattern associated with optimal memory performance and used the device’s electrodes to stimulate the brain following that pattern during later tests.

Based on their research, such stimulation improved short-term memory by roughly 15 percent and working memory by about 25 percent. When the researchers stimulated the brain randomly, performance worsened.

As Song told New Scientist, “We are writing the neural code to enhance memory function. This has never been done before.”

A Growing Problem

While a better memory could be useful for students cramming for tests or those of us with trouble remembering names, it could be absolutely life-changing for people affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s.

As Bill Gates noted when announcing plans to invest $ 100 million of his own money into dementia and Alzheimer’s research, the disease is a multi-level problem that’s positioned to get even worse.

Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, with the vast majority of sufferers over the age of 65. With advances in medicine and healthcare continuously increasing how long we live, that segment of the population is growing dramatically, and by 2030, 20 percent of U.S. citizens are expected to be older than 65.

This increase in the number of potential dementia sufferers can be costly in both a financial and emotional sense. In 2016, the total cost of healthcare and long-term care for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease was an estimated $ 236 billion, and according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the more severe a person’s cognitive impairment, the higher the rates of depression in their familial caregivers.

Of course, further testing is required before Song’s device could be approved as a treatment for dementia or Alzheimer’s, but if it is able to help those patients regain even part of their lost memory function, the impact would be felt not only by the patients themselves, but their families and even the economy at large.

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Apple and Cochlear partner on new hearing implant technology

Article Image

Australia-based company Cochlear on Wednesday debuted its latest hearing implant sound processor, the Nucleus 7, which was developed in cooperation with Apple to connect with and integrate sound from iPhone, iPad and iPod touch devices.
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Scientists Move One Step Closer To “Curing” Diabetes Using First-Ever Stem Cell Implant

No More Injections

The World Health Organization reports that more than 422 million people worldwide are living with diabetes, a condition that can take two forms. In the first, the body’s immune system attacks cells in the pancreas, preventing the organ from producing enough insulin [type 1 diabetes (T1D)]. In the second, the body doesn’t know how to use the insulin that is produced [type 2 diabetes (TD2)].

T1D accounts for roughly 10 percent of diabetes cases, and unlike T2D, which can often be reversed through lifestyle changes such as weight loss or increased exercise, scientists have yet to figure out how to prevent or cure T1D.

Right now, insulin injections are the best way to manage T1D, but this method can be problematic in high-risk cases — patients with hypoglycemia (low glucose) unawareness, for example, may not notice they need an injection right away. Thankfully, researchers all over the world are hard at work looking for a cure that will free T1D patients from their dependence on insulin injections, and now, one group may have found it.

Just last week, California-based company ViaCyte began trials involving two T1D patients who were implanted with the company’s PEC-Direct device.

Each of these credit card-sized implants carries cells built from stem cells. These cells are designed to mature inside the human body into the specialized pancreas cells the immune system destroys in those with T1D. The implant is placed just below the skin and releases insulin whenever necessary.

“Patients with high-risk type 1 diabetes complications, such as hypoglycemia unawareness, are at constant risk of life-threatening low blood glucose,” clinical trial investigator Jeremy Pettus from University of California, San Diego, said in a ViaCyte press release. “The PEC-Direct islet cell replacement therapy is designed to help patients with the most urgent medical need.”

“There are limited treatment options for patients with high-risk type 1 diabetes to manage life-threatening hypoglycemic episodes,” added ViaCyte president and CEO Paul Laikind. “We believe that the PEC-Direct product candidate has the potential to transform the lives of these patients.”

Insulin Independence

Truly, freeing T1D patients from the need for constant insulin shots hasn’t been an easy task. Researchers in Finland have been looking into it for 25 years and only recently did they manage to develop a vaccine for type 1 diabetes — that breakthrough will go to clinical trials by 2018. ViaCyte’s device is another promising discovery.

Prior to last week’s clinical trial, PEC-Direct implants using smaller amounts of stem cells were tested in 19 diabetes patients. Although these did mature into the desired islet cells, the limited number wasn’t designed to treat the condition. The PEC-Direct implants received by the two patients last week contain more cells. The hope is that three months from now, when the cells have matured, they’ll be able to take the place of injections by releasing insulin automatically when needed.

If it does work, the only thing T1D patients will have to do is take immunosuppressant drugs to make sure their bodies don’t reject the new cells. That’s a small price to pay to be freed of daily injections. As James Shapiro at the University of Alberta, Canada, told New Scientist, “A limitless source of human insulin-producing cells would be a major step forward on the journey to a potential cure for diabetes.”

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