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10 High-Tech Healthcare Advances From Everyday Materials

by Asher B
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Getting better comes with a hefty price tag. With medical treatments getting more expensive and the uninsured growing in numbers, going to a hospital has become more financially painful than ever before. Thankfully, doctors and scientists are teaming up in an effort to bring medicine closer to the less fortunate. Using creativity and resourcefulness, medical practitioners are cleverly challenging the current state of medicine by developing new treatments and technologies that will be more accessible to the masses using everyday materials.

10 Bluetooth Hearing Aids

The ability to hear is a wonderful thing. Sadly, many people don’t have it. It is estimated that around 300 million people around the world suffer from some form of hearing impairment. In the United States alone, as much as 20 percent of the population report some degree of hearing loss. Although the condition is manageable through hearing aids, a lot of people simply can’t afford them. With the device costing up to US$4,000 a pair, spending money on hearing aids just wasn’t an option for many—until now.

Sound World Solutions, a Chicago based company, has created a prototype of hearing aids that use one of the most common technologies today—Bluetooth. It functions just as clearly as other hearing aids, but unlike conventional models, the Bluetooth hearing aids can be easily adjusted using your smartphone. The volume, treble, bass, and all the other sound options of the hearing aids can be attuned with a slide of a finger, eliminating the numerous visits needed to constantly readjust the device. The best part is that, at only US$300, more patients will now be able to afford the ability to hear.

9 Webcam Blood Flow Imaging

A noninvasive way to track blood flow is by the use of Laser Speckle Contrast Imaging (LCSI). This method is essential for treating and studying conditions like migraine and stroke by examining blood flow. To illuminate and capture images of blood flow, LCSI uses laser light and high-grade cameras. These parts are estimated at US$5,000, which is cheaper than most medical equipment but steep for hospitals in less-privileged areas.

To address this problem, researchers at the University of Texas improvised. Using a typical webcam and a laser pointer used in PowerPoint presentations, the researchers were able to create a blood flow imaging system that only costs US$90. When tested and compared with the more expensive device, the MacGyvered one performed just as accurately. The imaging device stands at 5.6 centimeters (2.2 in) and only weighs 25 grams (less than 1 oz), making it much more portable to areas with less medical access.

8 Kanzius RF Therapy

John Kanzius was not a doctor. He was a broadcast engineer from Erie, Pennsylvania who operated a series of FM radio stations across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas. In 2003, shortly after retirement, he was given some of the worst news anyone can hear—he had cancer. During chemo sessions, he noticed that children who also suffered from cancer lost their hair, their smiles, and their overall energy. This depressing sight gave Kanzius an idea.

Knowing little about medicine but much about physics and engineering, he studied the physical mechanics of chemotherapy. He suggested that treating cancer with radio waves—the same waves radio stations use to communicate—could have less harmful effects than radiation therapy. To prove this, he devised a treatment called Kanzius RF Therapy, which uses a device he made from spare parts from his old radio stations.

The device emits radio waves that remove cancer cells without killing the healthier cells in the body, which is a common problem associated with the standard chemo. During laboratory trials, Kanzius RF Therapy was 100 percent effective in removing cancer cells with no harmful side effects. While Kanzius has sadly succumbed to cancer, many doctors are still investigating the potential of the Kanzius RF Therapy and its place in the future of cancer treatment.

7 Acne Medicine For Schizophrenia

For teenagers, there is no greater enemy than the acne. At an age when you desperately want to look attractive, biology interferes and gives you nasty, red marks on your face. Thankfully, there is an array of medication that can be used to treat acne. One of them is minocycline, an antibiotic prescribed for many types of infections and also commonly used for moderate to severe acne problems. For less than US$1 per tablet, teens can easily get rid of their acne and spend more time on their poetry or goth music.

You might think that a medicine for acne wouldn’t go very far. That’s probably what doctors from Japan thought when they prescribed minocycline to schizophrenic patients who had minor infections and unexpectedly found that the drug also alleviated psychotic symptoms in the patients. The drug even showed to be more effective than haloperidol, a strong and expensive anti-psychotic drug. Today, psychiatrists around the world are testing the effectiveness of minocycline for treating schizophrenia across larger populations. The results are promising and have great potential for establishing a cheaper, easier, and better treatment for schizophrenia and other mental disorders.

6 Baby Incubators Made From Car Parts

The principle behind neonatal incubation is simple—newborns, specifically those who are born preterm or with special conditions, need to be kept warm to sustain their lives. However, many hospitals, especially in poor areas, fall short of this simple procedure because they don’t have enough incubators. This results in thousands of babies dying each year from incubator shortage. In Kenya, around 53,000 preterm babies die annually because of a limited number of incubators.

Seeing that number go down is the goal of Massachusetts-based firm Design That Matters. Noticing that cars are more common a technology than incubators, their team decided to create prototypes of fully-functional incubators using discarded car parts. Headlights to provide warmth, dashboard fans for air circulation, and signal lights for incubator alarms are just a few of the features of their cheap incubator design. Since car parts are very common even in developing areas, producing and maintaining these lifesaving devices would be easier and more affordable. Though still on its prototype stages, the car-parts incubator shows a promising future in neonatal care.

5 The Cancer Breathalyzer

Diagnosing cancer is a complicated matter. It is also quite expensive. The median cost of a biopsy is US$5,000 while PET scans range from $850–$4,000. As if having cancer weren’t devastating enough, it also takes a painful toll on the patient’s pockets.

Scientists from Georgia Tech Research Institute have attempted to reduce the expense of diagnosis by developing a device that will detect cancer using a very simple technology—a breathalyzer. The device captures a breath sample from the patient in a container, which is then analyzed for breath volatile organic compounds that are associated with the presence of cancer. In a laboratory trial, the device detected cancer in affected patients 80 percent of the time, making it a potentially viable supplement to our current diagnostic techniques. At US$100 a piece, more indigent patients could have better access to proper diagnosis with the use of this technology.

4 Light For Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory disease that targets the central nervous system and includes such debilitating symptoms as paralysis and loss of vision. With 2.5 million sufferers worldwide and 200 new diagnoses every week, MS is becoming a bigger challenge to both specialists and patients. While there are a few expensive ways to manage the symptoms of MS, there is currently no cure for the condition. However, scientists believe they have harnessed a force in which a cure may lie—the power of light.

In an exciting discovery headed by Jeri-Anne Lyons and Janis Eells of the University of Wisconsin, early MS symptoms of lab rats were significantly reduced after a period of exposure to a particular wavelength of light called near-infrared. Because near-infrared light is already commonly used in hospitals for other purposes, the researchers are hopeful that further developments in this effective and inexpensive treatment to MS will be available in the future.

3 The Cardboard MRI

The fact that we can take “pictures” of the insides of our bodies is an astounding feat of medicine. Various medical imaging techniques have given us the ability to learn about our bodies with greater precision than ever before. The most popular one, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has been used over the years to diagnose cancer and many other types of illnesses. However, MRI scans don’t come cheap. The cost of an MRI scan can go up to USD $7,000 depending on which part of your body you need imaged. Additionally, the functions of a standard MRI scanner are limited—lung physiology, for instance, isn’t captured very accurately by the technology.

To address this problem, two Harvard physicists, Matthew Rosen and Ronald Walsworth, have built their own MRI imager that can clearly illuminate our lungs using typical items found in any hardware store. In their improvised imager, a magnetic field is generated by two coils mounted on two metal trellises while wire grids and rings redirect this magnetic field towards the patient. The patient is asked to inhale and suspend a lungful of polarized helium and air for 30 seconds while wearing an antenna made of a rubber-coated cardboard tube wrapped with a coil of wire. With the aid of the magnetic field, the antenna picks up the magnetic spin of the polarized helium, displaying an accurate picture of the gas flow and oxygen absorption of the lungs.

A standard MRI scanner displays protons in water molecules. The problem with this is that the protons inside the body need to be aligned by a very powerful magnet. In Rosen and Walsworth’s cardboard MRI, the helium inhaled by the patient is pre-aligned, allowing the scanner to use a magnet 150 times weaker than that of a conventional MRI. Because holding one’s breath may be difficult for people with lung disorders, the researchers are developing their system to capture the lungs in a shorter period of time. Though the machine has not yet been tested in clinical trials, the success of the prototype hints to a future of more accessible imaging technology.

2 Container Hospitals

With only two doctors per 1,000 people and more than 20 million people living with HIV, Africa is desperate for better access to healthcare, but hospitals don’t just sprout from the ground. A typical three-story hospital that would be considered rather small by American standards costs $17 million to build. Add medical supplies and staffing to the total and you have an insurmountable problem for these impoverished regions.

To solve this crisis, the Chinese government offers an amusing plan. China’s Ministry of Science and Technology developed a system of large containers that can be slotted together like toy blocks to form a fully functional hospital. Each container serves different functions found in a standard hospital, such as clinics and waiting areas for patients. The containers are portable and can easily be brought to areas that are short of medical facilities.

This ingenious idea is not without its challenges, such as the constant stream of electricity and water supply required to power the container hospitals, something that many African countries also lack. However, it is a first step to improving the quality of healthcare in Africa. The first container hospitals will be deployed to Cameroon and Namibia and the Chinese government hopes to give more to other African countries in the near future.

1 Slug Glue

We’ve been stitching wounds since the time of ancient Egypt, but little development has been made in sutures aside from proper sanitation and the materials used since then. While this age-old technique has proven itself useful over the centuries, it comes with plenty of hassles. Sutures are painful, time-consuming, and really expensive. Stitches can cost a patient up to US$500 for a single wound.

How can a primitive procedure be so pricey? Biologists from Ithaca College do not know. What they do know is that there is a potentially cheaper alternative that may be more effective than surgical sutures. In search for a naturally occurring substance that can bind wounds easily, they turned to a bizarre solution—slug slime.

Slugs, the bane of every gardener, produces gel that helps them move around with ease. Their slime sticks to wet surfaces and is also compliant to flexing and bending. These conditions make this unique substance a perfect alternative to medical stitches. While dermal adhesives already exist, this type of wound-binding procedure is barely used because they aren’t very resistant to bodily fluid. With slug slime’s ability to stick to wet surfaces, wounds can now be put back together with ease without the risk of leakage of bodily fluids that commonly results from both stitches and adhesives.

Unlike previous methods, slug glue can potentially be used in any kind of wound—straight or jagged, deep or shallow—without the risk of leakage. Because it can survive many harsh conditions, the researcher calls this glue an “ideal medical adhesive.” The best thing about slug glue is that slugs are hermaphrodites, with some laying up to 500 eggs per year. While an abundance of slugs and their goo might not cheer most people, it means this future advancement to wound treatment will be more available to people.

Asher B is currently in grad school to become a cognitive psychologist. In his spare time, he watches lots of sitcoms and eats lots of ramen. You can send him an email here or follow him on Twitter.

fact checked by Jamie Frater