Decellularization: Apples to Earlobes

Our bodies are not like LEGO blocks or computers because we cannot swap out our parts in the living room while watching television. Organ transplants and cosmetic surgery are currently our options for upgrades, repairs, and augments, but post-transplant therapy can be a lifelong commitment because of rejection. Elective surgery costs more than a NIB Millenium Falcon LEGO set. Laboratories have been improving the processes and associated treatments for decades but experimental labs and even home laboratories are getting in on the action as some creative minds take the stage. These folks aren’t performing surgeries, but they are expanding what is possible to for people to do and learn without a medical license.

One promising gateway to human building blocks is the decellularization and recellularization of organic material. Commercial scaffolds exist but they are expensive, so the average tinkerer isn’t going to be buying a few to play with over a holiday weekend.

Let’s explore what all this means. When something is decellularized, it means that the cells are removed, but the structure holding the cells in place remains. Recellularizing is the process where new cells are grown in that area. Decellularizing is like stripping a Hilton hotel down to the girders. The remaining structures are the ECM or the Extra Cellular Matrix, usually referred to as scaffolding. The structure has a shape but no functionality, like a stripped hotel. The scaffolding can be repopulated with new cells in the same way that our gutted hotel can be rebuilt as a factory, office building, or a hospital.

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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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Using Machine Learning To Cut Down Surgical Videos

Recording video of medical surgeries is a great way to both educate doctors in training and identify process improvements. However, surgeries can be very time consuming, and it can be a gargantuan task to sort through endless hours of video searching for relevant points where the action happens. To tackle this issue, researchers at MIT have used machine learning techniques to analyse videos of surgical procedures.

There’s some fairly serious mathematics behind this sort of videographic analysis.

The machine learning algorithm needed to be trained to identify the relevant parts of surgical videos. To do this, the laparoscopic surgeries being investigated were split up into distinct stages, each relating to a different part of the surgical process. Researchers would then watch recordings of prior surgeries and mark the start of each stage. This data was used to train the model which was then used to sift through other recordings to capture the key moments of each surgery.

The time-saving advantages of such technology could be applied to a great many fields – such an algorithm could be put to great use to sort through hours of uneventful security footage looking for anomalies, or rapidly cut together holiday footage so you only have to see the good parts. We’d love to see the researchers release footage showing the algorithm’s work – thus far, all we have to go off is the project paper.

If you’re thirsty for more machine learning knowledge, read up on the state of working with neural networks in 2017.

OpenSurgery Explores the Possibility of DIY Surgery Robots

As the many many warnings at the base of the Open Surgery website clearly state, doing your own surgery is a very bad idea. However, trying to build a surgery robot like Da Vinci to see if it can be done cheaply, is a great one.

For purely academic reasons, [Frank Kolkman] decided to see if one could build a surgery robot for less than an Arab prince spends on their daily commuter vehicle. The answer is, more-or-less, yes. Now, would anyone want to trust their precious insides to a 3D printed robot with dubious precision?  Definitely not.

The end effectors were easily purchased from a chinese seller. Forty bucks will get you a sterile robotic surgery gripper, scissor, or scalpel in neat sterile packaging. The brain of the robot is basically a 3D printer. An Arduino and a RAMPS board are the most economical way to drive a couple steppers.

The initial version of the robot proves that for around five grand it’s entirely possible to build a surgery robot. Whether or not it’s legal, safe, usable, etc. Those are all questions for another research project.

Arduino Meets da Vinci in a Gesture-controlled Surgical Robot

Lots of us get to take home a little e-waste from work once in a while to feed our hacking habits. But some guys have all the luck and score the really good stuff, which is how these robotic surgical tools came to be gesture controlled.

The lucky and resourceful hacker in this case is one [Julien Schuermans], who managed to take home pieces of a multi-million dollar da Vinci Si surgical robot. Before anyone cries “larcency”, [Julien] appears to have come by the hardware legitimately – the wrist units of these robots are consumable parts costing about $2500 each, and are disposed of after 10 procedures. The video below makes it clear how they interface with the robot arm, and how [Julien] brought them to life in his shop. A quartet of Arduino-controlled servos engages drive pins on the wrist and rotates pulleys that move the cables that drive the instruments. A neat trick by itself, but when coupled with the Leap Motion controller, the instruments become gesture controlled. We’re very sure we’d prefer the surgeon’s hands on a physical controller, but the virtual control is surprisingly responsive and looks like a lot of fun.

When we talk about da Vinci around here, it’s usually in reference to 3D printers or a Renaissance-style cryptex build. Unsurprisingly, we haven’t featured many surgical robot hacks – maybe it’s time we started.

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Baby Saved by Doctors Using Google Cardboard after 3D Printer Fails

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. Doctors tell you that your baby is sick and there’s nothing they can do. Luckily though, a combination of hacks led to a happy ending for [Teegan Lexcen] and her family.

When [Cassidy and Chad Lexcen]’s twin daughters were born in August, smaller twin [Teegan] was clearly in trouble. Diagnostics at the Minnesota hospital confirmed that she had been born with only one lung and half a heart. [Teegan]’s parents went home and prepared for the inevitable, but after two months, she was still alive. [Cassidy and Chad] started looking for second opinions, and after a few false starts, [Teegan]’s scans ended up at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, where the cardiac team looked them over. They ordered a 3D print of the scans to help visualize possible surgical fixes, but the 3D printer broke.

Not giving up, they threw [Teegan]’s scans into Sketchfab, slapped an iPhone into a Google Cardboard that one of the docs had been playing with in his office, and were able to see a surgical solution to [Teegan]’s problem. Not only was Cardboard able to make up for the wonky 3D printer, it was able to surpass it – the 3D print would only have been the of the heart, while the VR images showed the heart in the context of the rest of the thoracic cavity.[Dr. Redmond Burke] and his team were able to fix [Teegan]’s heart in early December, and she should be able to go home in a few weeks to join her sister [Riley] and make a complete recovery.

We love the effect that creative use of technology can have on our lives. We’ve already seen a husband using the same Sketchfab tool to find a neurologist that remove his wife’s brain tumor. Now this is a great example of doctors doing what it takes to better leverage the data at their disposal to make important decisions.

Hacking when it Counts: Surviving the Burma Death Railway

In the early days of World War II, the Japanese army invaded Burma (now Myanmar) and forced an end to British colonial rule there. Occupying Burma required troops and massive amounts of materiel, though, and the Japanese navy was taking a beating on the 2,000 mile sea route around the Malay Peninsula. And so it was decided that a railway connecting Thailand and Burma would be constructed through dense tropical jungle over hilly terrain with hundreds of rivers, including the Kwae Noi River, made famous by the Hollywood treatment of the story in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real story of what came to be known as the Burma Death Railway is far grislier than any movie could make it, and the ways that the prisoners who built it managed to stay alive is a fascinating case study in making do with what you’ve got and finding solutions that save lives.

Nutrition from Next-to Nothing

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POWs in camp. [Source: The Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass]
Labor for the massive project was to come from the ultimate spoil of war – slaves. About 250,000 to 300,000 slaves were used to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Among them were about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, primarily Australian, Dutch, British and American. POWs were singled out for especially brutal treatment by the Japanese and Korean guards, with punishment meted out with rifle butt and bamboo pole.

With the POWs was Doctor Henri Hekking, who had been born and raised in the former Dutch East Indies colony of Java (now Indonesia). He had spent his early years with his grandmother, a master herbalist who served as “doctor” for the native villagers. Inspired by his oma’s skill and convinced that the cure for any endemic disease can be found in the plants in the area, Dr. Hekking returned to Java as an officer in the Dutch army after completing medical school in the Netherlands.

After his capture by the Japanese, Dr. Hekking did everything he could to help his fellow POWs despite the complete lack of medical supplies, all the while suffering from the same miserable treatment. Hekking realized early on that the starvation rations the POWs endured were the main cause of disease in the camps; a cup of boiled white rice doesn’t provide much energy for men building a railway by hand in jungle heat, and provides none of the B vitamins needed by the body.

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