A World-beating TB Detector

To quickly and cheaply diagnose the world's worst infectious disease, engineers have shrunk an NMR machine down to size

3 min read

17 March—To fight tuberculosis, which infects a third of the world’s population and kills 2 million people every year, you’ve got to find and cure the disease before it can spread to new hosts. However, current diagnostic tests require time, money, and full working laboratories, all of which are lacking precisely where the disease is most prevalent.

A faster, cheaper, more sensitive, and more portable TB detector is just what the doctor ordered, and researchers at the Center for Systems Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School already have a prototype of one. It’s the size of a cellphone and should cost just a few hundred dollars to make and another few dollars each time you use it, researchers say. Crucially, it’s a thousand times as sensitive and a dozen times as fast as the tests doctors now use.

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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
Blue

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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