Cool devices and diagnostics: Advances in the field

The writers of the original Star Trek television show imagined a medical device that generates a diagnosis just by waving it over a patient. Eyeglasses that help a blind person see, and tiny robots that can deliver drugs or perform a medical procedure are also among the many concepts once limited to the realm of science fiction.

But academic researchers and industry alike are pushing the boundaries of what a medical device or tool can accomplish, and making once unworkable ideas into tangible and marketable items. Those special glasses mentioned above, for example, are on the verge of FDA approval. Researchers made major strides in recent months toward the development of a futuristic diagnostic tool. Scientists reported a breakthrough not that long ago in the development of tiny robots that could someday carry drugs to their targets, or serve as a treatment themselves.

Medical device researchers and companies are advancing what was once science fiction in the device and medical equipment realm ever closer to market reality. Even major companies such as Abbott ($ABT) and Boston Scientific ($BSX) are becoming futuristic. Both this year have achieved major milestones with medical devices as ubiquitous as stents and ICDs, updating both products with innovative, life-saving twists.

All of these achievements will change the face of healthcare, and they're also incredibly cool to contemplate. Co-editor Damian Garde and I recently did just that, and compiled a roundup of some of the more innovative device and diagnostic advances we've seen so far in 2012. Industry generated some of the advances and others are purely academic breakthroughs at this point. A few are poised to hit the commercial market, now bringing what was once in the realm of science fiction to patients. Enjoy. -- Mark Hollmer (email | Twitter)

Second Sight Medical Products
Developer of: The Argus II retinal prosthesis
Cool factor: These are truly visionary glasses designed to help patients felled by the neurodegenerative disease retinitis pigmentosa to regain at least some of their vision. To an outsider, the whole thing looks like nothing more than a souped up pair of sunglasses. But there are actually three complex parts: A retinal implant, glasses with an attached video camera and a wireless processing unit that attaches to a belt. To create "sight," the camera turns video images into small electrical pulses and then transmits them wirelessly to the retina implant, stimulating remaining cells, which enables the brain to perceive light patterns. Patients learn, over time to interpret the patterns and regain some sight in the process. Argus II is also close to gaining regulatory approval, thanks to the unanimous backing of an FDA advisory panel of experts in late September.

Pennsylvania State University
Developer of: An acoustic cell-sorting chip
Cool factor: This new piece of tech is the first step toward developing a cell phone-sized medical lab. Think Star Trek's tricorder used by Dr. McCoy--a tool that provided a diagnosis after briefly hovering over a person--and that is essentially what they are aiming for. The dime-sized chip uses two sound beams that serve as "acoustic tweezers" to sort a continuous flow of cells, the researchers explain. The sound waves are intended to allow for cell sorting less likely to damage cells than current, bulkier analytical devices. So far, they've used the tiny device to sort leukemia-affected human white blood cells. Moving ahead, the researchers believe they can use the chip in a tiny analytical device that will be easy to carry around and be powered by batteries.

Ekso Bionics
Developer of: Self-contained robotic walking suit
Cool factor: This battery-powered suit is already in use in 15 rehab clinics around the country. Weighing around 50 pounds, it consists of mechanical braces that strap onto and around a patients's legs, enabling the individual to lift and move legs forward. Electronic crutches and a back-mounted computer control the whole thing. Armed with a CE marking since May, the company is now pursuing overseas sales, The New York Times reported in a profile of the company. Plans call for seeking FDA approval at some point, in order to expand the amount of patients with spinal cord injuries and lower-limb paralysis to walk on their own.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Developer of: A tiny fuel cell powered by glucose
Cool factor: First reported in June 2012, this discovery adds nearly infinite possibilities to what neural implants can ultimately be by giving them a long-term power source that draws from the body itself. The silicon-based chip pulls electrons from glucose molecules in cerebrospinal fluid. It has a platinum catalyst that subsequently creates a small electric current that generates hundreds of microwatts of energy--enough, the researchers say, to power a neural implant.

Abbott Laboratories ($ABT)
Maker of: the Absorb drug-eluting bioresorbable vascular scaffold
Cool factor:  Stents are ubiquitous of course, but ones that dissolve after they've done their job unclogging arteries are anything but. Abbott is the first to get its bioresorbable version to market, with the product now shipping in Europe, parts of the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. The first-of-its-kind technology is pretty neat. After initially functioning like a normal vascular stent, restoring blood flow and releasing the anticlotting drug everolimus, Absorb is designed to dissolve over time. Made of polylactide--the same crucial ingredient in dissolvable sutures--it eventually goes away. While some critics worry that drug-eluting stents could boost stroke risks, having them dissolve when their job is done potentially eliminates the problem entirely.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Developer of: A next-generation, needle-free drug device
Cool factor: Scientists at MIT have come up with a jet-injection device that blasts a drug through the skin without any needles. Other devices in the space are already in the marketplace, but MIT took its updated approach to a whole new level, making it sensitive enough to deliver doses at different depths, so young children and adults can use the device in equal measure. The device contains a powerful magnet surrounded by a wire coil that is attached to a piston. Add a current to the metal and a magnetic field erupts, firing the piston. The device then shoots the drug through its tiny nozzle and into the skin, almost at the speed of sound.

Boston Scientific ($BSX)
Maker of: S-ICD, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator that uses no wires
Cool factor: This device truly brings something new to ICDs. It is the first device of its kind approved in the U.S. and is the only ICD that does its job without using electrical wires in the heart. Implanted just under the skin, it behaves like an external defibrillator when it detects cardiac arrest with an electrode that shocks the heart just like external defibrillator panels. Boston Scientific didn't create the technology but the company was smart enough to buy its creator, Cameron Health, for $150 million in a deal that closed in June. Some members of an FDA panel of experts that in April recommended the product's approval called the technology "elegant and simple" and a "breakthrough." Its inventive design also avoids the risk of complication that ICD leads in the heart and blood vessels can cause.

Korea's Hanyang University, Chonnam National University
Developer of: Microrobots
Cool factor: This technology is a long, long way from use in humans, but the researchers get serious credit for dreaming big. Their idea: microrobots smaller than one millimeter that could serve as tiny devices that carry drugs to specific targets. Or they'd serve as a microscopic device with serious muscle, seeking out and destroying tumors directly or smashing through blood clots. Last winter they made a first step toward that goal, testing an external magnetic field to move the microrobots backward and forward or side-to-side while making corkscrew-like motions. They succeeded, steering a microrobot through a mock blood vessel filled with water. The Journal of Applied Physics highlighted their findings.