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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.

Testing Biologics

Posted March 17, 2015 3:24 PM by Chelsey H

A new type of test could help researchers give a more accurate prediction of how patients might respond to biologics, such as the cancer drugs Herceptin and Avastin.

Biologics are manufactured in a living system such as a microorganism, plant, or animal cell. They are very large, complex molecules and many are produced using recombinant DNA technology. According to, "Drugs generally have well-defined chemical structures... By contrast it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to characterize a complex biologic by testing methods available in the laboratory, and some of the components of a finished biologic may be unknown." This makes biologics unpredictable not only in humans, but in various parts of a patient's body.

Biologics affect cell interactions deep in the body, making testing in petri dishes inadequate for observing all the side effects. Because these medicines are specific to humans, they can cause severe reactions that don't materialize in animal studies.

FASEB Journal recently published a new, more reliable test which only requires blood from one donor. Researchers from Imperial College in London isolated stem cells from a donor's blood and then grew endothelial cells in a petri dish to recreate the conditions in the blood vessels. Once the endothelial cells were established, the researchers took white blood cells from the same donor and combined them to recreate the unique donor's blood vessel conditions. Image Credit

The new method of combining cells from a single donor's blood can better predict whether a new drug will cause a severe immune reaction in humans.

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Winter Blues

Posted March 06, 2015 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

It's no secret that this was a rough winter for the Northeast and I am very tired of talking about the weather. With March approaching there is hope for warm weather (and mud!) but not before we all still face the winter blues.

This winter has affected my mood more than previous winters. A condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD is a type of depression which manifests as sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings, feelings of hopelessness, guilt, restlessness, and irritability. It can also lead to loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, fatigue or decreased energy, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, and changes in weight.

The specific causes of SAD are unknown but researchers have been able to link several factors to the disorder. One reason is the lack of sunlight. Winter sunrise is later and winter nights are longer. This can cause melatonin, the hormone regulating sleep and wake cycles, to overshoot into the day leading to grogginess for several hours. Serotonin is one of the many brain chemicals that affect mood and also varies seasonally. Lower levels are common in the winter.

So how can you beat winter blues?

Light therapy is a common and inexpensive treatment. You sit a few feet from a specially designed bright light, which mimics outdoor light. It's not a proven form of therapy but it does appear to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. It also has been shown to result in headaches, mild nausea, and trouble sleeping.

Antidepressants are recommended for severe symptoms and may take a few weeks to fully kick in.

Psychotherapy is a more natural route. It can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse, learn healthy ways to cope with SAD, and how to better manage stress.

Prevention is the best medicine.

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. Going for a walk, even in the cold, can help to get enough light exposure - especially if it's within the first few hours of waking up. Of course, working out can help decrease stress and anxiety, which can increase symptoms of SAD.

Socializing is also a huge benefit to lifting the winter blues. It's easy to want to hibernate when it's cold and dark outside but it's important to connect with those around you!

Hopefully spring is right around the corner - I've seen enough robins to think that we'll see the sun again soon!

18 comments; last comment on 03/10/2015
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‘Smart’ Test for HIV

Posted February 22, 2015 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

A paper published in the journal Science Translational Medicine describes how a $34 smartphone attachment rapidly and accurately detected the presence of HIV and syphilis antibodies in drops of blood taken from pregnant women. Ninety-six people took part in the study done in Rwanda and demonstrated that laboratory-quality diagnostics can be run on a pocket-sized device that works well in field conditions.

The attachment is approximately the size of the phone itself, is made of plastic, and uses disposable cartridges costing just pennies. A worker loads a blood sample which mixes with reagents in microscale channels with the cartridge. Gold nanoparticles then bind to antibodies and silver nanoparticles form a film around the gold particles.

The silver film blocks light transmitted through the finished sample, indicating the test results within 15 minutes. The results are automatically loaded into the phone's storage. Image Credit

Over the past few years the research group has miniaturized the technology, reduced its power requirements, and integrated it with everyday mobile devices. The tiny amount of current in a smartphone's audio jack is all that's needed to power the sensing and data management. A specially created software records the results of tests and uploads those results to a server.

"This work is a proof of how technology can improve diagnosis and care, making it faster and simpler and cheaper without compromising the existing quality," says Sabin Nsanzimana, the manager of the sexually transmitted disease division at Rwanda's Ministry of Health.

The group is planning a larger-scale field trial and sees far broader implications for smartphone-based diagnostics. The technology can be used for a variety of different applications and provides easy, inexpensive, and accurate ways to test for diseases in developing countries.

1 comments; last comment on 02/22/2015
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Another Win for 3D Printing

Posted February 15, 2015 3:14 PM by Chelsey H

A little girl named Violet was born with a rare defect called a Tessier facial cleft. The defect left a fissure in her skull, but doctors have found a way to use 3-D printing to help during the complicated surgeries.

A Tessier facial cleft caused a large growth over Violet's left eye, setting her eyes very far apart. She also had no cartilage in her nose. The bones that normally join to form the fetal face had not fused properly.

Before the operation, Dr. Meara at Boston Children's Hospital wanted a more precise understanding of Violet's skull so he had a colleague print him a 3-D model of Violet's skull, based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) pictures.

Image Credit

The model helped the doctor decide the surgical options and discuss his treatment plan with Violet's family. Additional printouts allowed Dr. Meara to rotate the model skull in directions he could not manage with a picture and would not attempt with a patient on the operating table. It also allowed him to cut and manipulate the plastic model to determine the best way to push her eye sockets more than an inch closer together.

Experiments with the models showed the doctor where bones would touch and where problems may occur throughout the surgery, even allowing him to consult the model during the surgery, which went as planned.

The surgical simulation program has been shown to improve team communication and trust, lift confidence before extremely complex operations, and shorten a patient's time under anesthesia.

Models such as the ones used by Dr. Meara are transforming medical care by giving surgeons new perspective and opportunities to practice complex procedures. Hospitals are also printing training tools and personalized surgical equipment.

Watch the amazing story in the video here.

2 comments; last comment on 02/18/2015
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Dirt to the Rescue

Posted January 27, 2015 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

I'm a firm believer in the old adage "God made dirt, dirt don't hurt," and it turns out that dirt might soon be saving lives.

Image Credit

A novel microfluidic device is used to grow soil bacteria by researchers in Boston and Bonn, Germany. The researchers say they have identified a new type of antibiotic that kills the bacteria that cause pneumonia, staph, and blood infections. Backyard dirt might have yielded the most powerful antibiotic discovered in decades.

This is a timely discovery. Last year the World Health Organization predicted that a "discovery void" for new antibiotics could lead to an era in which minor injuries and common infections become deadly again.

The antibiotic, named teixobactin, has yet to be tested in people, but it cured mice of pneumonia, staph, and blood infections. It was discovered using a new technology for soil prospecting that was developed by a biologist at Northeastern University in Boston, which used a two-inch-long microfluidic chip that acts as a portable diffusion chamber.

The research team diluted dirt made mud to capture a single soil microbe in each of 306 tiny holes on the chip's surface. The bacteria was put in a tub of dirt and therefore "tricked" into growing colonies robust enough to be transferred to a petri dish. From there they were tested to see if they produced antibiotics.

10 comments; last comment on 03/10/2015
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Medieval Hygiene

Posted January 27, 2015 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

It's romantic to think about being a prince or princess in medieval times. The pageantry and chivalry seem almost idealistic…but once I start to really think about what it was like to live back then I realize that I'm much happier in a world with plumbing and deodorant. In case you were wondering, here are some down-right medieval hygiene practices.

Privies and garderobe - Tudor houses had toilets made from a bowl with a slab of wood and a hole carved at the top. Builders set the toilet into a recess of a cupboard-like area called a garderobe. In castles, the wood covers a hole in the floor that took the waste straight into the moat. Poor people relieved themselves wherever they could and just buried the waste in cesspits in their cellars or outside.

Image Credit

Bathing in the same water - Public baths were popular in the 13th century. Since firewood (and therefore hot water) was a "hot commodity," bathing became expensive so whole families and friends would share a bath or just remain dirty.

Laundry - Since few were bathing they had to at least wash their clothes. Laundry detergent at the time consisted of a mixture of lye made of ashes and urine in order to remove stains and clean their clothes. Oh, and some people never bothered to change or clean their clothes anyway.

Make up - Ceruse was used as foundation for men and women because it gave them a smooth, pale look. It also contained a heavy amount of lead that seeped into the body and poisoned them. Also, even the wealthy had brown teeth. Many would chew herbs, rinse, and rub their teeth with cloth to try to clean and freshen their breath.

Lice - Nits and lice were so common that many wealthy people would shave their hair and wore periwigs instead. Unfortunately, even the wigs would be infested with nits, especially during plagues.

No forks - Some members of the church condemned using forks citing that God gave people fingers for a reason. Bread was used to wipe faces and fingers.

Nose-gays - A small bouquet of flowers or sachet of herbs was used to keep the smells (often from cesspits) at bay while walking through a crowd. It was usually held in the hand or pins on the wrist. This is also the inspiration for "pocket full of posies" in the loving (but pretty morbid) child's rhyme "Ring around the Rosie."

Infection from rushes - Rushes or straws were often used to cover up the natural dirt floor of a building. This was one of the biggest sources of infection since many people only changed the top layer of rushes.

Bird droppings on the bed - Without proper protective roofing it was common for bugs, pests, and even bird droppings to fall on to the clean bedding. The canopy bed was invented to keep everything from falling from the room on to the bed.

Chamber pots - Containers used to collect urine during the night. To top off the bathroom routine was the fact that toilet paper didn't exist yet. Poor people used leaves or moss, while the rich used lamb's wool.

So there you go - from morning to night, the life of a medieval person was tough and smelly. But they did develop some ingenious solutions to ease their troubles!

7 comments; last comment on 01/31/2015
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