Go Small, Get Big: The Hack that Revolutionized Bioscience

Few people outside the field know just how big bioscience can get. The public tends to think of fields like physics and astronomy, with their huge particle accelerators and massive telescopes, as the natural expressions of big science. But for decades, biology has been getting bigger, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Specialized labs built around the automation equipment that enables modern pharmaceutical research would dazzle even the most jaded CERN physicist, with fleets of robot arms moving labware around in an attempt to find the Next Big Drug.

I’ve written before on big biology and how to get more visibility for the field into STEM programs. But how exactly did biology get big? What enabled biology to grow beyond a rack of test tubes to the point where experiments with millions of test occasions are not only possible but practically required? Was it advances in robots, or better detection methodologies? Perhaps it was a breakthrough in genetic engineering?

Nope. Believe it or not, it was a small block of plastic with some holes drilled in it. This is the story of how the microtiter plate allowed bioscience experiments to be miniaturized to the point where hundreds or thousands of tests can be done at a time.

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MRIs: Why Are They So Loud?

My dad was scheduled for his first MRI scan the other day, and as the designated family technical expert, Pop had plenty of questions for me about what to expect. I told him everything I knew about the process, having had a few myself, but after the exam he asked the first question that everyone seems to ask: “Why is that thing so damn loud?”

Sadly, I didn’t have an answer for him. I’ve asked the same question myself after my MRIs, hoping for a tech with a little more time and lot more interest in the technology he or she uses to answer me with more than the “it’s the machine that makes the noise” brush-off. Well, duh.

MRI is one of those technologies that I don’t feel I have a firm enough grasp on, and it seems like something I should really be better versed in. So I decided to delve into the innards of these modern medical marvels to see if I can answer this basic question, plus see if I can address a few more complicated questions.

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Being a Friend to Man’s Best Friend

When [Jason Dorie] tipped us off on this, he said, “This barely qualifies as a hack.” We disagree, as would any other dog lover who sees how it improved the life of his dog with a simple mood-altering doggie-bed carousel.

[Jason]’s hack lies not so much in the rotating dog bed – it’s just a plywood platform on a bearing powered by a couple of Arlo robot wheels. The hack is more in figuring out what the dog needs. You see, [Thurber] is an old dog, and like many best friends who live a long life, he started showing behavioral changes, including endlessly pacing out the same circular path to the point of exhaustion. Circling in old dogs is often a symptom of canine cognitive dysfunction, which is basically the dog version of Alzheimer’s. Reasoning that the spinning itself was soothing, [Jason] manually turned [Thurber]’s dog bed on the floor. [Thurber] calmed down immediately, so the bittersweetly named “Dementia-Go-Round” was built.

Sadly, [Thurber] was actually suffering from a brain tumor, but he still really enjoyed the spinning and it gave him some peace during his last few days. Looking for hacks to help with human dementia? We’ve had plenty of those before too.

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Radio Controlled Pacemakers Are Easily Hacked

Doctors use RF signals to adjust pacemakers so that instead of slicing a patient open, they can change the pacemakers parameters which in turn avoids unnecessary surgery. A study on security weaknesses of pacemakers (highlights) or full Report (PDF) has found that pacemakers from the main manufacturers contain security vulnerabilities that make it possible for the devices to be adjusted by anyone with a programmer and proximity. Of course, it shouldn’t be possible for anyone other than medical professionals to acquire a pacemaker programmer. The authors bought their examples on eBay.

They discovered over 8,000 known vulnerabilities in third-party libraries across four different pacemaker programmers from four manufacturers.  This highlights an industry-wide problem when it comes to security. None of the pacemaker programmers required passwords, and none of the pacemakers authenticated with the programmers. Some home pacemaker monitoring systems even included USB connections in which opens up the possibilities of introducing malware through an infected pendrive.

The programmers’ firmware update procedures were also flawed, with hard-coded credentials being very common. This allows an attacker to setup their own authentication server and upload their own firmware to the home monitoring kit. Due to the nature of the hack, the researchers are not disclosing to the public which manufacturers or devices are at fault and have redacted some information until these medical device companies can get their house in order and fix these problems.

This article only scratches the surface for an in-depth look read the full report. Let’s just hope that these medical companies take action as soon as possible and resolve these issue’s as soon as possible. This is not the first time pacemakers have been shown to be flawed.

Hackaday Prize Entry: HeartyPatch

[Ashwin K Whitchurch] and [Venkatesh Bhat] Have not missed a beat entering this year’s Hackaday Prize with their possibly lifesaving gadget HeartyPatch. The project is a portable single wire ECG machine in a small footprint sporting Bluetooth Low Energy so you can use your phone or another device as an output display.

Projects like this are what the Hackaday Prize is all about, Changing the world for the better. Medical devices cost an arm and a leg so it’s always great to see medical hardware brought to the Open Source and Open Hardware scene. We can already see many uses for this project hopefully if it does what’s claimed we will be seeing these in hospitals around the world sometime soon. The project is designed around the MAX30003 single-lead ECG monitoring chip along with an ESP32 WiFi/BLE SoC to handle the wireless data transmission side of things.

We really look forward to seeing how this one turns out. Even if this doesn’t win a prize, It’s still a winner in our books even if it only goes on to help one person.

Exoskeleton Aims to Prevent Falls for Seniors

When we think of exoskeletons, we tend to think along comic book lines: mechanical suits bestowing superhero strength upon the villain. But perhaps more practical uses for exoskeletons exists: restoring the ability to walk, for instance, or as in the case of these exoskeleton shorts, preventing hip fractures by detecting and correcting falls before they happen.

Falls and the debilitating injuries that can result are a cruel fact of life for the elderly, and anything that can potentially mitigate them could be a huge boon to public health. Falls often boil down to loss of balance from slipping, whether it be a loose rug, a patch of ice, or even the proverbial banana peel. The “Active Pelvic Orthosis” developed by [Vito Monaco] and colleagues seeks to sense slips and correct them by applying the correct torque to the hip joints. Looking a little bulky in their prototype form and still tethered to an external computer, the shorts have motors with harmonic drives and angle sensors for each hip, plus accelerometers to detect the kinematic signature of a slip. The researchers discovered that forcing the leg that slipped forward while driving the stable leg back helped reduce the possibility of a fall. The video below shows the shorts in action preventing falls on a slip-inducing treadmill.

At the Hackaday Unconference in Pasadena, we heard from [Raul Ocampo] on his idea for autonomous robots to catch falling seniors. Perhaps wearing the robot will end up being a better idea.

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Measuring Walking Speed Wirelessly

There are a lot of ways to try to mathematically quantify how healthy a person is. Things like resting pulse rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygenation are all quite simple to measure and can be used to predict various clinical outcomes. However, one you may not have considered is gait velocity, or the speed at which a person walks. It turns out gait velocity is a viable way to predict the onset of a wide variety of conditions, such as congestive heart failure or chronic obtrusive pulmonary disease. It turns out, as people become sick, elderly or infirm, they tend to walk slower – just like the little riflemen in your favourite RTS when their healthbar’s way in the red. But how does one measure this? MIT’s CSAIL has stepped up, with a way to measure walking speed completely wirelessly.

You can read the paper here (PDF). The WiGate device sends out a low-power radio signal, and then measures the reflections to determine a person’s location over time. Alone, however, this is not enough – it’s important to measure the walking speed specifically, to avoid false positives being triggered by a person simply not moving while watching television, for example. Algorithms are used to separate walking activity from the data set, allowing the device to sit in the background, recording walking speed data with no user interaction required whatsoever.

This form of passive monitoring could have great applications in nursing homes, where staff often have a huge number of patients to monitor. It would allow the collection of clinically relevant data without the need for any human intervention; the device could simply alert staff when a patient’s walking pattern is indicative of a bigger problem.

We see some great health research here at Hackaday – like this open source ECG. Video after the break.

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