Research consistently draws scientists one step closer to truly understanding the benefits of combining science and technology in various clinical situations. Below are just some examples of the latest medical bioengineering technologies being developed.

1. 3D printed ovaries to treat infertility

According to a recent study, mice have successfully been implanted with a 3D printed ovary and subsequently delivered healthy pups in what is believed to be the “holy grail of bioengineering for reproductive medicine”. This new invention could be the key to treating infertility in patients who have undergone life-preserving cancer treatments.

Teresa Woodruff, a reproductive scientist worked with other experts including Ramille Shah, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, to develop a 3D-printed structure that embodied the natural ovary and its abilities to facilitate ovulation. The structure is essentially a porous scaffold composed of gelatin ink in which follicles could be inserted.

“What that does is, it provides follicles with the space to grow but also it allows space for blood vessels to infiltrate the scaffold without degrading the material,” said Shah.

The researchers believe this bioprosthetic could be very significant to humans, but it needs to be tweaked accordingly.

“The ovary has a lot more sophisticated architecture when it comes to varying pore sizes and pore shapes,” explained Shah. She hopes to refine the structure, specifically the follicular sizes, to create an environment similar to that in a natural ovary.

2. Application to track bipolar episodes

BiAffect, developed by a team of researchers hailing from University of Illinois, University of Michigan and Sage Bionetworks, is an application that monitors mobile device usage in people with bipolar disorder.

“The vision for BiAffect is for it to serve as a kind of 'fitness tracker' for the brain,” Dr Alex Leow, a psychiatrist and the team leader for this research, said. “The finished app will be a first-of-its kind tool for researchers to study mood disorders and even cognitive disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.”

The application detects and analyses various keyboard dynamics such as the typing speed. According to Leow, “During a manic episode, people with bipolar disorder exhibit some common behaviors, such as talking really, really fast, with diminished self-control and flight of ideas.”

“It is thus natural that they also exhibit similar abnormalities in non-verbal communications that are typed on their phones,” he said.

The researchers are also building on the theory that spell-check compels the smartphone user to pause and decide whether to edit or accept the auto-correct suggestions as opposed to continue typing.

3. Reproduction via in-vitro gametogenesis

In-vitro gametogenesis (IVG) is the process of culturing an ovum and a sperm from skin cells to produce an embryo that is then implanted into the uterus for further development. Having been successfully trialed in mice, researchers believe this could be a future treatment option for infertility.

However, it draws attention to the ethical side of science and the impact it will have on humanity. “IVG may raise the specter of ‘embryo farming’ on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life,” said the researchers.

With the availability of IVG, reproduction could be a lot more accessible for same-sex couples and women with fertility problems who are not willing to go through the prolonged and costly process of in-vitro fertilisation.

4. Non-invasive test to detect skin cancers

A group of researchers funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) in the United States found that mitochondria in cells behaved atypically in cancerous tissues as opposed to normal tissue. Working on that theory, they have developed a non-invasive imaging technique to detect skin cancer.

The screening of a key molecule, NADH, in mitochondria via a multiphoton microscopy makes up the basis of this technology. The technique would then be able to identify cancerous skin cells as they show a very different pattern of mitochondria compared to healthy cells.

“The system allows us to obtain very high-resolution images of individual cells without having to slice the tissue physically,” said Irene Georgakoudi, co-senior author of the study.

Scientists believe this test enables rapid detection of cancer and is feasible at very early stages of cancer.

According to Dr Behrouz Shabestari, director of the NIBIB Program in optical imaging and spectroscopy, rather than the long process of biopsies, “this system involves simply looking through the microscope at the patient’s skin and determining whether it is cancerous or not, within minutes.” MIMS

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