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Medicine's Next Big Mission: Understanding Wellness

The bioengineering pioneer Leroy Hood has seen vast changes in medicine over his decades in the biz, in part thanks to his own work on automated DNA sequencing. But he's not much for looking back — he's too busy envisioning a future model of medicine. "Contemporary medicine is all about disease, and not about wellness," he says. Hood says the medical profession must learn to measure and maximize wellness, and he's happy to show the way. 

At the annual meeting of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, Hood presented his vision for "P4 medicine," which is predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory. In a keynote speech, he described the 100K Wellness Project he launched this year as president of the Institute for Systems Biology. The ambitious study aims to enroll 100,000 participants and track their biometrics over 20 years (funding permitting). Hood wants to quantify wellness, and also to provide "actionable information" to the participants.

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10 Finalist Teams Announced for Tricorder XPrize

In the Star Trek reality of the 23rd century, a doctor like Leonard "Bones" McCoy can wave his trusty tricorder over a patient's body and get an immediate diagnosis from the device. Now, ten teams of engineers are vying to make such a device available to the consumers of our humble 21st century.

The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize announced its ten finalist teams yesterday at the annual conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS). Each team must now get to work on building a consumer-friendly device that can diagnose 15 diseases and measure 5 vital signs. At the EMBS meeting there's been a lot of talk about distributing healthcare technologies, shifting power from doctors to patients, and letting people manage their own care with sensors and data analytics. The Tricorder XPrize expresses this theme neatly with its tagline: "Healthcare in the palm of your hand." 

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Quantum Entanglement Camera Images Object With Photons That Never Come Near It

Conventional imaging devices like cameras and x-ray machines create pictures by detecting photons that interact with the things being imaged. Now researchers have developed a new quantum imaging technique that shines a beam of photons on an object but then, instead of using these photons to form a picture, uses instead a completely different beam that has never come near the object. If this sounds a bit spooky, it is: what connects the two sets of photons and allows this technique to work is the bizarre quantum physics phenomenon known as entanglement.

The advantage of a quantum entanglement camera like this is that you can illuminate an object using photons with a certain wavelength and then use entangled photons with a different wavelength to form the image. The scientists have already begun investigating possible biotechnological applications such as capturing images of sensitive samples that would be destroyed by conventional imaging techniques.

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Lasers Switch Bad Memories to Good in Mice

Researchers have discovered a way to use a laser to manipulate memories in mice. In experiments reported today in Nature, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that they could change the emotions associated with a memory from negative to positive and vice versa. The researchers relied on optogenetics, a sophisticated genetic tool that uses a laser to control neurons that have been sensitized to light. 

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Spherical Display Lets You See 3-D Animations from Any Angle

Researchers from the University of São Paulo, in Brazil, and University of British Columbia, in Canada, have developed a spherical display that lets users see and interact with three-dimensional objects. In one demonstration, viewers have the sensation of staring into a snow globe that they can control with simple gestures from any angle.

The device, called Spheree, represents the first display capable of projecting uniform, high resolution pixels on a spherical surface—a technology that also allows users to interact with the 3-D display objects by using gestures.

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New Eye Sensor Could Be Boon for Glaucoma Patients

A new lens-mounted microfluidic sensor can measure fluid pressure inside the eye and provide a readout with a smartphone camera. The simple, low-cost device could make it much easier for doctors to diagnose blindness-causing glaucoma. It could also give glaucoma patients a 24-hour home-based monitoring test similar to the glucose monitors available for diabetics.

Glaucoma affects 65 million people and is the second-most common cause of blindness in the world. One of its main risk factors is an increase in the eyeball fluid pressure, which can build up enough to damage the optic nerve. Eye doctors today measure this intraocular pressure using a tonometer, but the test is not always accurate.

The new sensor consists of an airtight 50 µm-channel that runs around most of the periphery of a lens that is used for cataract surgery. On one side it ends in a tiny gas reservoir, while on the other it connects to the aqueous eyeball fluid. A doctor would surgically implant the lens into a patient’s eye.

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Drone Fleets Could Monitor Bridge Safety

Checking for cracks, rust, and other wear and tear on bridges and other infrastructure can be a pretty old-fashioned endeavor. Teams of civil engineers maneuver beneath bridges manually inspecting joints and beams for damage that could cause them to collapse under pressure. Now, a pair of professors at Tufts University are building a system that combines vibration sensors and quadcopter drones to keep an eye on bridges in real time and alert engineers when something is amiss.

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GPS Network Weighs Drought in the U.S. West

A record-breaking drought has left California and most of the western United States parched, threatening crops and even some of the region's hydroelectric power . Now a network of global positioning system stations scattered across the west is providing a new way to show just how dry it's become.

"The beauty of this is that, at a regional scale, you're able to put a number on how much water we've lost," says Daniel Cayan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Compared to the nine years before the drought, the new data show that the western United States has lost 240 gigatons of water, which is enough to flood the entire region in 10 centimeters of water.

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Camouflage Technology Copies Cuttlefish Trick

Octupodes and cuttlefish have a remarkable ability to change their appearance, producing colors and patterns in their skin that allow them to disappear into the background. Now a team of scientists says they’ve engineered an approach to camouflage that’s inspired by the way these sea creatures work.

“I think we’ve put together the key elements that are needed,” says John Rogers, head of materials research the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The adaptive optoelectronic camouflage system, which Rogers developed with scientists from Illinois, Texas, and China, consists of several components piled on top of one another in very thin layers and divided up into pixels. The top layer contains a kind of dye that is normally black but becomes transparent with a small increase in temperature. Beneath that is a layer of white reflective silver. Next down is an array of silicon diodes that heat up when current runs through them. Separated from that layer by a sheet of silicone lies an array of ultrathin silicon photodetectors on a transparent polymer substrate.

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When light strikes a photodetector, it sends a signal that drives current into the diode above it; the diode heats up, causing the black dye to turn transparent. This lets the white layer of silver show through. As the pattern of ambient light changes, the array of pixels match the pattern of light striking the structure.

The system, which works in a manner similar to the skin of cephalopods like the cuttlefish, grew out of the research of Roger Hanlon, a biologist at Brown University and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. Hanlon, Rogers, and their colleagues describe the work in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The work was sponsored by the U.S. Navy, which has an obvious interest in camouflage, but Rogers says there could be a range of industrial and consumer applications, including mood lighting and sensors that change color based on exposure to ultraviolet light. Though the team worked with black and white to demonstrate the concept, Rogers says the technique could also be used to display colors—and might incorporate actuators or even a camera. “We view it as sort of a general set of engineering approaches,” Rogers says.

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Samsung + SmartThings: Will the Internet of Things Stay Open?

This week the smart home and “Internet of Things” company SmartThings announced it had been acquired by Samsung. Since its 2012 founding, SmartThings has been one of the more aggressively inclusive companies in the emerging smart home marketplace, selling a US $99 smart home hub and hosting an open community of developers to connect as many third-party household gadgets as possible—water heaters,sprinklers, garage door openers, TVs, and more.

And since announcing the buyout, SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson has been a conspicuous presence on the SmartThings blog, responding to critical comments from SmartThings fans that the acquisition has generated.

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