Infection? Your Smartphone Will See You Now

When Mr. Spock beams down to a planet, he’s carrying a tricorder, a communicator, and a phaser. We just have our cell phones. The University of California Santa Barbara published a paper showing how an inexpensive kit can allow your cell phone to identify pathogens in about an hour. That’s quite a feat compared to the 18-28 hours required by traditional methods. The kit can be produced for under $100, according to the University.

Identifying bacteria type is crucial to prescribing the right antibiotic, although your family doctor probably just guesses because of the amount of time it takes to get an identification through a culture. The system works by taking some — ahem — body fluid and breaking it down using some simple chemicals. Another batch of chemicals known as a LAMP reaction mixture multiplies DNA and will cause fluorescence in the case of a positive result.

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Help With Stuttering Could Come From Electricity

At the University of Oxford, [Jen Chesters] conducts therapy sessions with thirty men in a randomized clinical trial to test the effects of tDCS on subjects who stutter. Men are approximately four times as likely to stutter and the sex variability of the phenomenon is not being tested. In the randomized sessions, the men and [Jen] are unaware if any current is being applied, or a decoy buzzer is used.

Transcranial Direct Current, tDCS, applies a small current to the brain with the intent of exciting or biasing the region below the electrode. A credit-card sized card is used to apply the current. Typically, tDCS ranges from nine to eighteen volts at two milliamps or less. The power passing through a person’s brain is roughly on par with the kind of laser pointer you should not point straight into your eyeball and is considered “safe,” with quotation marks.

A week after the therapy, conversational fluency and the ability to recite written passages shows improvement over the placebo group which does not show improvement. Six weeks after the therapy, there is still measurable improvement in the ability to read written passages, but sadly, conversational gains are lost.

Many people are on the fence about tDCS and we urge our citizen scientists to exercise all the caution you would expect when sending current through the brain. Or, just don’t do that.

The Magic that Goes into Magnets

Every person who reads these pages is likely to have encountered a neodymium magnet. Most of us interact with them on a daily basis, so it is easy to assume that the process for their manufacture must be simple since they are everywhere. That is not the case, and there is value in knowing how the magnets are manufactured so that the next time you pick one up or put a reminder on the fridge you can appreciate the labor that goes into one.

[Michael Brand] writes the Super Magnet Man blog and he walks us through the high-level steps of neodymium magnet production. It would be a flat-out lie to say it was easy, but you’ll learn what goes into them and why you don’t want to lick a broken hard-drive magnet and why it will turn to powder in your mouth. Neodymium magnets are probably unlikely to be produced at this level in a garage lab, but we would love to be proved wrong.

We see these magnets everywhere, from homemade encoder disks, cartesian coordinate tables, to a super low-power motor.

3D Printed Tourniquets are Not a Cinch

Saying that something is a cinch is a way of saying that it is easy. Modeling a thin handle with a hole through the middle seems like it would be a simple task accomplishable in a single afternoon and that includes the time to print a copy or two. We are here to tell you that is only the first task when making tourniquets for gunshot victims. Content warning: there are real pictures of severe trauma. Below, is a video of a training session with the tourniquets in Hayat Center in Gaza and has a simulated wound on a mannequin.

On the first pass, many things are done correctly: the handle is the correct length and diameter, the strap hole fit the strap, and the part is well oriented on the platen. As with many first iterations, it looks good on a screen, but in the real world, we all live under Murphy’s law. In practice, some of the strap holes had sharp edges that cut into the strap, and one of the printed buckles broke unexpectedly.

On the whole, the low cost and availability of the open-source tourniquets outweigh the danger of operating without them. Open-source medical devices are not just for use in the field, they can help with training too. This tourniquet is saving people and proving that modeling skills can be a big help in the real world.
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Modular Blocks Help Fight Disease

When engineering a solution to a problem, an often-successful approach is to keep the design as simple as possible. Simple things are easier to produce, maintain, and use. Whether you’re building a robot, operating system, or automobile, this type of design can help in many different ways. Now, researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab have taken this philosophy to testing for various medical conditions, using a set of modular blocks.

Each block is designed for a specific purpose, and can be linked together with other blocks. For example, one block may be able to identify Zika virus, and another block could help determine blood sugar levels. By linking the blocks together, a healthcare worker can build a diagnosis system catered specifically for their needs. The price tag for these small, simple blocks is modest as well: about $0.015, or one and a half cents per block. They also don’t need to be refrigerated or handled specially, and some can be reused.

This is an impressive breakthrough that is poised to help not only low-income people around the world, but anyone with a need for quick, accurate medical diagnoses at a marginal cost. Keeping things simple and modular allows for all kinds of possibilities, as we recently covered in the world of robotics.

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Jerri Nielsen: Surviving the Last Place on Earth

There may be no place on Earth less visited by humans than the South Pole. Despite a permanent research base with buildings clustered about the pole and active scientific programs, comparatively few people have made the arduous journey there. From October to February, up to 200 people may be stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for the Antarctic summer, and tourists checking an item off their bucket lists come and go. But by March, when the sun dips below the horizon for the next six months, almost everyone has cleared out, except for a couple of dozen “winter-overs” who settle in to maintain the station, carry on research, and survive the worst weather Mother Nature brews up anywhere on the planet.

To be a winter-over means accepting the fact that whatever happens, once that last plane leaves, you’re on your own for eight months. Such isolation and self-reliance require special people, and Dr. Jerri Nielsen was one who took the challenge. But as she and the other winter-overs watched the last plane leave the Pole in 1998 and prepared for the ritual first-night screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, she had no way of knowing what she would have to do to survive the cancer that was even then growing inside her.

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The Physics of Healing: Radiation Therapy

Few days are worse than a day when you hear the words, “I’m sorry, you have cancer.” Fear of the unknown, fear of pain, and fear of death all attend the moment when you learn the news, and nothing can prepare you for the shock of learning that your body has betrayed you. It can be difficult to know there’s something growing inside you that shouldn’t be there, and the urge to get it out can be overwhelming.

Sometimes there are surgical options, other times not. But eradicating the tumor is not always the job of a surgeon. Up to 60% of cancer patients will be candidates for some sort of radiation therapy, often in concert with surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation therapy can be confusing to some people — after all, doesn’t radiation cause cancer? But modern radiation therapy is a remarkably precise process that can selectively kill tumor cells while leaving normal tissue unharmed, and the machines we’ve built to accomplish the job are fascinating tools that combine biology and engineering to help people deal with a dreaded diagnosis.

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