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Squeezing More Data From A Drop Of Blood

Researchers at Royal Philips Electronics (PHG) are developing pinprick blood sensors that can detect certain diseases within minutes. Today's blood screens can't spot malaria at an early stage, when the infection is still treatable, because the tests don't pick up trace particles of the malaria parasite. But one of Philips' sensors can do so by analyzing how a laser is refracted by a drop of blood.

In the U.S. and Europe the biggest application might be in cardiac care. Today, when a patient shows up sweating and complaining of mild chest pain, physicians might conclude wrongly that it's the flu. Using tiny magnetic particles, one of the new sensors would detect elevated blood levels of troponin, a protein emitted when a heart is under stress, and guide doctors to diagnose a heart attack.

Working at the company's labs in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, Philips researchers are testing prototypes on synthetic solutions and blood. They're also working to shrink the portable analysis systems to the size of laptop computers, with the goal of bringing them to market as early as 2009.

People recharge their electric toothbrushes by standing them in a cradle that emits an electromagnetic field. So why not use a similar approach to recharge implanted medical devices?

One product that may soon benefit from this thinking is a tiny device that treats urinary incontinence. The size of an inch-long matchstick, it works by restoring signaling function to defective nerve tissue. The implant, made by Advanced Bionics, is already available in Europe and is undergoing clinical trials in the U.S. The company believes it also could help patients with Parkinson's, epilepsy, and spinal-cord injuries.

Now the goal is to incorporate minuscule batteries developed in a collaboration led by Robert West, head of the University of Wisconsin's Organosilicon Research Center. Since they're recharged simply by a magnetic pad placed on or near the body, the batteries could last 10 years or more before requiring surgical replacement. They might work for larger implanted defibrillators as well.

Ever find yourself paging through a book or magazine at a friend's house and wishing you could just scan it and save it for later? NEC has a way to soup up a cell phone to do this, using 3D imaging software integrated with a digital camera.

The phone works by taking dozens of tiny snapshots when you wave it across a page in a zigzag pattern. Within seconds, optical character-recognition software in the phone uses the edge of the page as a frame and knits together the overlapping snapshots into a seamless whole. It can even detect when the page isn't lying flat and straighten a distorted image.

NEC says it may also bundle some phones with Adobe Systems' popular Acrobat document software. And to ease publishers' fears that people will start scanning everything in sight, NEC could embed sound effects that can't be muted, which announce when scanning is in progress. Sales could begin within two years.

-- Most people equate solar flares with radio blackouts and adverse weather events. But it turns out they do good, too. Measurements taken on the International Space Station in September indicate that when flares erupt, they shoot out not only massive streams of hot gases but also magnetic fields. These deflect cosmic rays that would otherwise pose potential hazards for astronauts in orbit. A single eruption can lessen cosmic rays for weeks at a stretch, the scientists report.

-- Like settlers in the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, private and public entities have staked claim to 20% of the human genome, report two researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of the more than 4,000 genes protected by patents, nearly two-thirds are owned by corporations, and 28% belong to universities, the two say in a paper to be discussed on Nov. 1 at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Most of the patented genes are associated with cancer.

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