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A High-Voltage Fight Against Cancer

Researchers are trying to kill tumors by zapping them with high-voltage, nanosecond electric pulses

6 min read

10 June 2004--In the relentless battle against cancer, researchers are now experimenting with a shocking new treatment--literally. They discovered that by zapping cells with extremely brief, high-voltage electric pulses, they could trigger the self-destruct mechanism in the cells' biochemical machinery. This mechanism, called apoptosis or programmed cell death, occurs naturally in the body, as tissues continually eliminate cells that are old, damaged, or simply no longer necessary.

The researchers are trying to find types of electric pulses that can trigger the suicide mechanism in cancer cells without affecting healthy ones. They hope the method will one-day serve as a tumor treatment that is less invasive than surgical removal and has fewer harmful side effects than chemotherapy. But critics caution that the technology is clinically unproven and may not make it out of the lab.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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