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Biomedical Engineering

The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

Should You Hack Your EpiPen?

Posted September 27, 2016 9:41 AM by Jonathan Fuller

About a month ago while mowing my lawn I whacked into a wild border consisting mostly of goldenrod, dislodging dozens of wasps. Shortly after realizing my bright orange Husqvarna mower was impenetrable, they turned on me and I received maybe the tenth sting of my life. This one was a little different than the previous nine, though: my entire body immediately itched and was covered with hives, my face turned red as a beet, and I experienced a strange throbbing pain in my head and ears. I returned home from my subsequent ER stay the owner of a shiny new EpiPen.

Coincidentally, my surprise allergic reaction popped up on the heels of public outrage over the price of EpiPens, which has increased about 500% since 2009. It’s clear that drug manufacturer Mylan has effected the steep increase on this life-saving drug solely to increase their bottom line. EpiPens, which contain about $1 worth of epinephrine, now make up about 40% of Mylan’s profit. In light of this corporate greed, a maker group targeting healthcare has developed a DIY workaround: the EpiPencil.

On September 18, Dr. Michael Laufer, founder of Four Thieves Vinegar Collective, posted a YouTube video explaining how to make a DIY EpiPen using epinephrine, a 22-gauge dispensing needle, a slip syringe, and an OTC autoinjector device designed for squeamish diabetics. Laufer, whose doctorate is in math, not medicine, claims the EpiPencil’s materials cost around $30, significantly less than the $300+ wholesale price of a Mylan device. The EpiPencil seems to represent everything the maker movement stands for: in the face of corporate control and greed, do it yourself.

(The image on this page shows a deconstructed EpiPen for comparison with Laufer's EpiPencil. The parts are labeled as follows: 1. Latch mechanism 2. Loaded spring 3. Plunger 4. Epinephrine solution. The black section is the outer body through which the needle exits.)

The DIY pharma approach tends to horrify those in the medical field, though. Scientific debunker Yvette d’Entremont pointed out in a Daily Beast article that even those who rigorously follow Laufer’s video put themselves at risk, as Laufer failed to wear gloves while handling a supposedly sterile needle. So while the EpiPencil may save a life for significantly less than an EpiPen, using the hacked product carries a much greater risk for infection. Epinephrine is also not a substance to mess around with, according to d’Entremont: a small overdose is capable of inducing cardiac arrest. Similarly, in an IEEE Spectrum article, medical ethics professor Jennifer Miller posits that trying to spur the return to a deregulated medical system that caused numerous unnecessary deaths is probably not the brightest idea.

Medicine and pharmaceuticals are two of the more controversial areas for hackers and makers, as most medical professionals believe putting your health in your own hands is risky at best. While some DIY medical devices are pretty benign, like homemade prosthetics, IV alarms and hacked pediatric nebulizers, others seem just plain stupid. Prior to developing the EpiPencil, Laufer and Four Thieves Vinegar released plans for a so-called “Apothecary Microlab” at a hacker conference in July of this year. The microlab consists of a Mason jar used as a pharmaceutical reactor and supposedly allows DIYers to make their own drugs. Laufer claims to have whipped up pyrimethamine, the drug behind the Pharma Bro controversy that broke late last year, and is working on ways to manufacture HIV and hepatitis C drugs. Another popular medical hack is the transcranial direction current stimulation (tDCS) machine, which involves delivering tiny doses of electric current into one’s brain (via a 9V battery, a bunch of wires, and electrodes) to supposedly improve concentration and relieve depression. tDCS has thousands of enthusiasts, but formal research has found little benefit in a clinical setting, and the risk of misplacing electrodes probably outweighs even placebo benefits.

The maker movement is showing no signs of slowing, and has certainly had a number of positive benefits on our culture. But maybe even DIYers should consider favoring a sterile device over their own handiwork, even at ten times the cost.

Image credit: Chemistryroxpharmacysux (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

55 comments; last comment on 10/01/2016
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Motion Sick - A Mystery Solved

Posted September 05, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Recently I went on a dinner cruise for my papa’s birthday. It was a huge boat on Lake George and before we had even left the dock before I had even a sip of my first drink - I felt dizzy.

I am a victim of motion sickness.

I have been my whole life. Every car ride, every cruise, every ride at the amusement park puts me into a dizzy spell that leaves me nauseous and feeling terrible.

Researchers don’t know what makes one person more susceptible to motion sickness than another. It’s most common in children 5 – 12, older adults, and can affect people at varying levels of severity.

According to Dr. Dean Burnett, author of Idiot Brain, one common theory is that motion sickness occurs because the brain is confused that you are sitting down, but it’s receiving signals that you’re in motion. Image Credit

Common forms of human travel – walking and running – come with a specific set of neurological processes. Humans have adapted to the steady “thud” and pressure on their feet and lower legs as well as signals from muscles and movement in the body. The vestibular system, which includes balance sensors in the form of tiny fluid-filled tubes in our ears, controls balance and the relationship of our body in space. The fluid moves in response to acceleration and gravity. Vision is also an important process for motion- as we are walking or running, the world travels past our retinas at a steady state.

However, when you’re traveling by car, none of the usual signals of movement are present. Muscles are still, you’re sitting down, and the enclosed space limits your view. This results in sensory information that says “we are stationary”. But the fluid in your ears is travelling at high speeds and sloshes around more than usual telling the brain “we are really moving”.

For example, if you’re in the cabin of a moving ship, your inner ear may sense the motion of the waves, but your eyes don’t see the movement. The conflict between the senses causes motion sickness.

From an evolutionary point, sensory mismatch must be caused by a neurotoxin or poison. What’s the first thing the body/brain does when it thinks it’s being poisoned? Get rid of the poison, aka throw up.

This isn’t the only theory on how or why motion sickness occurs. But it makes sense to me because I know what motions exacerbate the feeling for me.

So how do you avoid feeling motion sick? One suggestion is to move your head as little as possible and avoid alcohol or heavy meals before travel. I like to make sure I’m getting fresh air and focus on my breathing (most helpful during flights). I rarely take medication for motion sickness but I have tried acupressure wristbands. It could have been a placebo but it worked for 10 days’ worth of driving on the roads of Ireland.

Anyone else have tips or tricks to relieve or prevent motion sickness?

10 comments; last comment on 09/08/2016
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Adding Color to a Color Blind World

Posted August 29, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Are you color blind? Color blindness affects 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women. A new pair of glasses is able to correct color blindness for millions of people.

Color blindness is a condition where a person’s eyes are unable to see colors under normal light. It’s hard for them to tell colors apart.

In the human eye, the retina is covered by millions of light sensitive cells, some shaped like rods and some shaped like cones. These receptors process the light into nerve impulses and pass them along to the cortex of the brain via the optic nerve. Rods transmit mostly black and white information, while cones transmit a higher level of light intensity to create the sensation of color and visual sharpness. Image Credit

There are several different versions of color blindness and it is commonly inherited genetically. Most people are not blind to color, but they have a reduced ability to see them. It’s caused by a damaged or abnormal ‘photopigment’ gene. The gene is carried on the X chromosome and it is responsible for controlling colors inside the eyes.

A person with red-green color blindness has more overlap between their red and green photopigments. The new glasses, created by the company EnChroma, found a way to alleviate this using a lens that can filter out specific colors. Image Credit

The lens was created by utilizing the latest research on the genetics of color blindness to make sophisticated computer models that simulated colors and the extent of color vision deficiency. The group was then able to design an optimal filter, targeting specific photopigments. The filtering cut out sharp wavelengths of light to enhance specific colors. EnChroma lenses separate the overlapping red and green cones, helping improve vision for people who have difficulty seeing reds and greens.

The lenses are available on the market and, if this video gives any indication, they can change a color blind person’s world.

8 comments; last comment on 08/30/2016
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Visible Vein Technology

Posted August 22, 2016 3:51 PM by Chelsey H

We’ve all heard the horror stories from friends and family who were poked dozens of times while trying to get blood drawn. Nurses and phlebotomists blame small veins, or they just keep missing.

Vein viewing technology will solve this prickly problem!

The first handheld, non-contact vein illumination solution was created by AccuVein. Deoxygenated hemoglobin in our blood absorbs infrared light. The portable near-infrared light beam can be held over a part of your body and will create an image of exactly where your veins are under your skin. Click here to see it in action.

This technology will make getting blood drawn or an IV placed more comfortable for people with veins that are hard to access such as elderly patients, agitated or restless patients, and patients with scars or burns. Another benefit to this technology is that it makes donating blood less intimidating since donors will know it will be less painful if they aren’t going to be poked while looking for a vein. Image Credit

This technology is not new but it has become less expensive and more portable, making it more commonly used in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and during blood drives.

4 comments; last comment on 08/25/2016
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Silk’s Not Just for Neckties

Posted June 13, 2016 1:34 PM by BestInShow

With so many novel advanced materials making news these days – like graphene in all its permutations – I was pleased to discover that silk, a material that dates back to ancient times, has many 21st-century uses. Researchers at Tufts University’s Silk Lab, at MIT, North Dakota State University, and elsewhere are contributing novel applications for silk proteins.

Where does silk come from?

Silk comes from silkworm spit. Doesn’t that just make you want to run out and buy a set of silk PJs? Seriously, if you ask most people where they think silk comes from, they’d answer it comes from the cocoons of mulberry silkworms (Bombyx mori) cultivated expressly for textiles. (And their cocoons are made of spit.) These cocoons produce the gold standard of textile silk because each one unreels into a single strand of silk. Longer fibers make superior fabric. Most silk comes from the larvae of cocoon-forming insects. However, other insects and, most notably, arachnids also produce silk fiber.

It’s more accurate to define silk as fibers composed predominately of fibroin, an insoluble protein, with sericin, a water-soluble, glue-like protein, coating the filaments. This definition includes all types of naturally-produced and manmade silk. Researchers typically separate the fibroin from the sericin and use the fibroin in their experiments.

Biomedical applications of silk

I got the idea for this blog when I read about Tufts University’s silk portfolio . Two researchers, biomedical engineer David Kaplan and physicist Fiorenzo Omenetto, have developed products ranging from edible optical sensors to multiple biomedical devices. Several qualities of silk – biocompatibility, manipulability, biodegradability, and sustainability – make it highly attractive to biomedical researchers. Silk is also “tunable;” researchers can fashion it into different forms for different purposes. Following are some products, from Tufts, MIT, and elsewhere, that showcase both silk’s qualities and the researchers’ out-of-the-box thinking.

The first silk-based biomedical product from Tufts is a long-term bioresorbable surgical mesh designed for the support and repair of weakened or damaged connective tissue. Pharmaceutical company Allergan bought Serica, the Tufts spinoff that developed this product, in 2010; Allergan continues to develop its potential.

Kaplan and the Tufts team combined fibroin with glycerol to create a self-curing 2D and 3D printer “ink” that can print body tissues and body parts. Previous attempts used thermoplastics and other materials that require heat curing, a process that damages some components. Fabricators can include antibiotics or other compounds with the silk-based ink.

Amanda Brooks, a North Dakota State University researcher, is developing spider silk hydrogels to deliver antibiotics directly to an infection. She tunes the tiny silk bubbles to recognize infection and act only on the infection, not on healthy tissues.

Omenetto’s lab – the Silk Lab at Tufts – and John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign are exploiting silk’s compatibility with electronics to develop a wireless, remote-controlled, silk-based device referred to as a “magnesium heater,” and designed to kill a localized bacterial infection. When the heater has finished its work, it dissolves harmlessly in the patient.

Image from Tufts University

A brand-new non-medical oddball use for silk

Tufts silk specialists just published news of a method for keeping fruit fresh for at least a week without refrigeration, a technique that could significantly reduce waste incurred when transporting food to market. Fruit coated in a tasteless, odorless, nearly invisible coating of silk exploits silk’s biocompatibility and dissolvability in the human body.

… and an off-the-wall, way out-of-the-box use

MIT researchers led by Markus Buehler have discovered that the different levels of silk’s structure, specifically spider silk, correspond with “the hierarchical elements that make up a musical composition—individual notes assembled into measures, which in turn form a melody, and so on.”

Working with composer John McDonald, a professor of music at Tufts, and MIT postdoc David Spivak, a mathematician who specializes in category theory, Buehler discovered that “strong but useless” protein molecules produced aggressive music, and useful fibers produced softer music. “This taught us that it’s not sufficient to consider the properties of the protein molecules [when designing a molecule] alone,” Buehler says. It’s also necessary to “think about how they can combine to form a well-connected network at a larger scale.”

A wonder material?

Tufts’ Omenetto believes that, while silk might be a wonder material, science should take a broader view. One of the reasons he and others like working with silk is the low impact silk processing and use has on biological systems and the environment. He’d like to see science seek other substances that share this combination of function and low impact. In the meantime, he and other researchers continue to exploit silk’s advantages.


Image credit:


3 comments; last comment on 06/14/2016
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