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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.

Documenting the Smell of History

Posted April 21, 2017 11:00 AM by MaggieMc

It seems that nowadays, we document everything. We can archive our sense of sight in photographs, the things we hear in audio or video recordings, the things we touch in our collection of significant textiles; we even document our sense of taste in the recipes we pass from generation to generation.

What we don’t seem to document is smell, despite the fact that it is strongly connected to our memories and emotions. But now, that’s all going to change if two researchers from the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage have their way.

Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič recently conducted a two-part investigation into the viability of preserving culturally significant smells, and how they could be used as part of the museum experience to capture the emotions of the visitors.

The case study used in the research was the smell of old books—and yes, as a bookworm that was what caught my eye. According to the researchers, they chose the smell of paper because of “its well-recognized cultural significance and available research.”

In the first part of the study, the researchers conducted a survey of visitors to the Dean and Chapter Library at the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. All of the visitors described the smell as ‘woody,’ but other descriptions varied. 86% of those surveyed decided on a partially smoky smell, 71% considered it earthy, and 41% caught a hint of vanilla hiding in the library. These results can be seen in the figure to the left that tracks the respondents’ characterization of the smells.

In a different experiment, the researchers brought an unlabeled smell with them to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. In this case, respondents most frequently cited ‘chocolate’ as the smell. Other answers ranged from ‘coffee,’ ‘old,’ ‘wood,’ and ‘burnt,’ to ‘fish,’ ‘body odor,’ ‘rotten socks,’ and ‘mothballs.’

Personally, I find it interesting how the less appealing odors were identified once the smell, which was sampled from a book from 1928, was no longer associated with the space. There must be something about a library that can make mothballs and dust feel warm and cozy.

The second analysis was a chemical one. The researchers sampled volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in order to determine the source of the olfactory sensations. VOCs are “chemicals that evaporate at low temperatures, many of which can be perceived as scents or odors.”

After the chemical analysis, Bembibre and Strlič combined their findings into a “historic book odor wheel.” The wheel contains “general aroma categories, sensory descriptors, and chemical information on the smells sampled.” The likely chemical compound producing the smell was matched using established odor description databases, something I hadn’t even known existed.

Bembibre, the corresponding author of the study, adds that the historic book odor wheel has “the potential to be used as a diagnostic tool by conservators, informing on the condition of an object, for example, its state of decay, through its olfactory profile.”

So, the next time you catch a scent that sends you into the depths of your memory, remember it, because it may be the next new way to document your personal history.

Image credits: Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič via Heritage Science

34 comments; last comment on 05/01/2017
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New Tool to Diagnose Skin Cancer

Posted April 12, 2017 10:53 AM by Chelsey H

As summer approaches, it’s time to start stocking up on sunscreen. Skin cancer is the most common, but highly treatable, cancer, especially if detected early.

For everyone concerned with his or her own risk of skin cancer, there will soon be a quick, non-invasive test for diagnosis. Rather than taking a biopsy, which must be examined by a pathologist, the new system involves simply looking through a multiphoton microscope at the patient’s skin and determining whether it is cancerous or not.

An international group of scientists and engineers did the research and reported their findings in the November 2016 issue of Science Translational Medicine. The team found that mitochondria behave very differently in healthy versus cancerous tissue.

Mitochondria, small organelles that produce energy in cells, use a molecule called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) to produce energy for the cell. Because NADH naturally fluoresces without injecting any dye or contract, it can be observed using multiphoton microscopy to provide diagnostically useful information about the organization of the mitochondria in skin cells.

Dr. Irene Georgakoudi, senior author on the paper, noted that the multiphoton microscope uses lasers to obtain very high-resolution images of individual cells without having to slice the tissue physically. Normal cells in the mitochondria spread throughout the cell in a web-like pattern. Mitochondria in cancerous skin cells form clumps or clusters typically at the center of the cell along the border of the nucleus.

The small study tested 10 patients with skin cancer and four who did not have skin cancer. The imaging technique results were compared to the traditional biopsy results. The results demonstrated that the imaging technique correctly identified skin cancer in all 10 cancer patients, and made no false diagnoses in the four individuals without skin cancer.

Georgakoudi is hopeful that the test could be routinely used in doctor’s offices within five years as long as the price tag for the laser used in the microscope decreases. "Less-expensive lasers are on the horizon," concludes Georgakoudi. "However, this approach would enable a doctor to make a quick diagnosis and begin treatment immediately, which could ultimately lower health care costs associated with these very common cancers."

Materials provided by National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

20 comments; last comment on 04/18/2017
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Ten Apples a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Posted March 09, 2017 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

We all know it’s important to eat your fruits and veggies! A new study found that doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat every day significantly reduces your risk of disease.

The meta-analysis done by Imperial College London analyzed 95 studies on fruit and vegetable intake. The study included up to 2 million people and assessed tens of thousands of cases of heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and death.

The research team estimates that approximately 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide could be potentially prevented every year if people ate 10 portions, or 800 grams, of fruits and vegetables a day. Image credit

Eating up to 800 grams of fruits and vegetables a day was associated with a 24 percent reduced risk of heart disease; a 13 percent reduced risk of total cancer, and a 31 percent reduction in dying prematurely. This risk was calculated in comparison to not eating fruits and vegetables.

To put 800 grams in perspective, an 80-gram portion of fruits and vegetables equals approximately one small banana, apple, or pear, or three tablespoons of cooked vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, or cauliflower.

Fruits and vegetables are known to reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and to boost the health of the immune system. This may be due to the complex network of nutrients they hold, which is not easy to recreate in a pill and is why it’s so important to eat whole foods to get the nutritional benefit, instead of taking antioxidant or vitamin supplements.

If you’re just getting started on eating healthy, don’t fret— the researchers found that there was still a significant benefit in disease prevention in eating the currently prescribed five portions of fruits and veggies a day. The results revealed that even a daily intake of 200g was associated with a 16 percent reduced risk of heart disease, an 18 percent reduced risk of stroke, and a 13 percent reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease.

10 comments; last comment on 03/13/2017
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New Model Kidney

Posted February 28, 2017 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Researchers at SUNY Binghamton University have developed a model kidney that will serve as a drug screening tool. Assistant Professor Gretchen Mahler and Biomedical engineering alumna Courtney Sakolish Ph.D. ’16 created the reusable, multi-layered, and microfluidic device that recreates the major function of the kidney. The devices incorporate a porous growth substrate with the physiological fluid flow and the passive filtration of the capillaries around the end of a kidney. Image credit

The hope is that these platforms will be used as an animal alternative during pre-clinical testing. Since finding new drugs is a time consuming and expensive process, the advantage of such a device is that it can determine with new drug candidates will fail faster so resources can be directed toward options that are more promising.

The model kidney uses human cells in a dynamic, more physiologic environment to better predict the body’s response to drugs than the current testing models of animals or static cell cultures. This is because cells were grown in this device exhibit more natural behaviors than when grown in traditional culturing methods.

2 comments; last comment on 03/02/2017
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Resistant Superbugs

Posted February 24, 2017 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

I remember when I first watched War of the Worlds. I was in high school and already nervous about seeing what I deemed a “scary” movie. The movie was almost over when a huge thunderstorm hit the area and the theater lost power. My friend turned to me and said, “Isn’t this how the movie started?”

I vowed never to see a movie with them again!

Besides the situationally scary ending, I liked the movie, and the idea that our Earth bacteria could kill aliens was something I had not considered before.

Now, where is this story going?

Today, in a much scarier reality, doctors have identified bacteria that could not only kill aliens, but is killing thousands of people due to its resistance to antibiotics.

In January 2017, the CDC announced that a woman in Nevada had died from an infection resistant to every available antibiotic. Image credit

The woman picked up a germ from a group of microbes called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriacase (CRE) after breaking her leg and spending time in a hospital in India. Tests showed that none of the 26 antibiotics typically used to treat this type of infection would have cured her.

Pan-resistant bacteria have infected people in the United before. “It’s not the first time that there has been an untreatable bacterial infection in the US,” says James Hughes, co-director of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center in Atlanta. “This particular case… is an extreme example of how bad it can get.”

Germs can mutate to become resistant to a given antibiotic or pick up resistance-granting genes from other species. There is an increase in the number of bacteria resistant to top-shelf antibiotics like the colistin and carbapenem class. These last line of dense drugs cause other problems, like kidney damage, in patients.

While bacteria resistant to colistin was identified in 2015 and carbapenem-resistant bacteria was discovered just last December, not all developing bacteria are necessarily resistant to all types of antibiotics. The fear is that superbugs develop that can combine everything doctors are able to treat it with, as was the case for the women in Nevada.

Deadly cases of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are still rare. At least 2 million people came down with an antibiotic resistant infection in America last year and of those cases, 23,000 died. These cases are expensive and time-consuming. Doctors may not know the bacteria is resistant until an antibiotic is prescribed and it doesn’t work. This gives the infection more time to progress.

Superbugs tend to only affect already sick or weakened people. There have been several rare cases of otherwise healthy people becoming infected and we do not know how many people are serving as “hosts” and will spread the infection to others.

According to scientists, it’s hard to predict how much worse antibiotic-resistant bacteria could get. They do know that if something isn’t done soon, minor injuries and common medical procedures like C-sections and hip replacements will become much more dangerous and tuberculosis and gonorrhea could become untreatable.

Right now, scientists are tracking which bacteria are developing resistance to antibiotics, which will help epidemiologists respond to outbreaks.

In the meantime, everyone needs to be conscious of prevention efforts such as basic hygiene, as well as using antibiotics more responsibly and curtailing their use in farm animals. In addition, there needs to be incentives for drug companies to develop new antibiotics, alternative treatments, and methods to diagnose infections more quickly.

“We’ll never totally eliminate the problem of antibiotic resistance,” Hughes says. “But we can do a heck of a lot better in terms of being prepared to detect it, respond to it, treat it effectively and prevent much of the… potential future increases in the problem.”

13 comments; last comment on 02/27/2017
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