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Posts tagged ‘Health Journalism 2011’

I grew up watching Lee Majors in the 1970’s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man”, about an injured former astronaut whose bionic implants allowed him to do superhuman feats.

That was fiction, but it is becoming closer to reality as a result of new research into how artificial limbs can integrate with human tissues. This work on neural-electrical interfaces may ultimately allow someone to control a prosthesis as you would a normal limb, i.e. by nerve impulses that travel from the brain.

The promise of “functional integration” between the human nervous system and an electro-mechanical device is the greater control this would give amputees and potential for sensory feedback.

The laboratory of D. Kacy Cullen, Ph.D, assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery, Center for Brain Injury & Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine is actively working in this area. I had the pleasure to hear Dr Cullen talk about his research at Health Journalism 2011 earlier this year. I previously wrote on this blog about his research on nanomaterials that change color with blast impact.

Source: D Kacy Cullen PhD, University of Pennsylvania

In his presentation to the Association of Health Care Journalists he described some of the neural tissue engineering work in his laboratory. This research has shown the ability to integrate axons in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) with an array of electrodes embedded in a living collagen matrix.

In essence this is the development of a nerve tissue/electrical interface that potentially allows the integration of man and machine.

Nervous System Integration

Key to success has been the development of a living, 3-D scaffold where this integration between nerve and electrodes can take place. Nerve axons in the peripheral nervous system require a living target for innervation. This has involved designing and engineering a 3-D living cellular matrix/scaffold that will work within a living body (to date the research has been on animal models).

Not only is Cullen and his laboratory looking at machine/nerve interfaces, but they have also developed techniques that may allow nerves to be repaired.  They have shown that nerves can be elongated or stretched using novel tissue engineering techniques.

The resulting axonal constructs via stretch-growth have been transplanted into rats and used to bridge an excised segment of sciatic nerve.  What was subsequently seen was an interwining plexus of host and graft axons, suggesting axonal regeneration across the lesion.

While still early stage, and not yet tested in humans, this research has tremendous potential for those paralysed due to traumatic nerve damage in the future.

Moving forward, the Penn researchers aim to develop an application for CNS tissue repair that can be delivered to the brain or spinal cord via stereotactic microinjection. This is minimally invasive surgery that allows delivery of cells to a precise location using 3D co-ordinates.

According to research published in Critical Reviews™ in Biomedical Engineering they plan to use micro-engineered hydrogel conduits, several centimeters long and the width of three hairs. These hydrogels will contain living axonal tracts that will then hopefully reconnect damaged nerves, and provide a platform or path for regeneration.

Many challenges still remain to be worked out for the tissue engineered neural constructs such as issues relating to inflammation and immune tolerance.

The research also needs to move from animals to humans, and be shown to be safe. The long-term functional outcome is also unknown.  It is far too early to think of this as a treatment option.

However, advances in neural tissue engineering, neuroregeneration and neuro-prosthetics do offer a lot of promise and hope to the many patients who suffer from spinal cord injuries or loss of a limb.

In a short blog post, I have not been able to do full justice to the innovative research or fully describe the techniques and methodology.  More information on the fascinating work being done at Penn, along with details of the associated scientific publications, can be found on the web page of the Cullen Laboratory: Neural Engineering in Neurotrauma.

ResearchBlogging.orgD. Kacy Cullen, John A. Wolf, Douglas H. Smith, & Bryan J. Pfister (2011). Neural Tissue Engineering for Neuroregeneration and Biohybridized Interface Microsystems In vivo (Part 2) Crit Rev Biomed Eng., 39 (3), 243-262

The highlight of the recent Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) annual meeting in Philadelphia (Health Journalism 2011) for me was the presentation by Kacy Cullen from the Center for Brain Injury and Repair in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania.

© Kacy Cullen, University of Pennsylvania

Dr Cullen presented his research on blast-induced traumatic brain injury (bTBI) and the development of a nanomaterial containing photonic crystals that change color upon exposure to blast pressure.

In the same way that a radiation dosimeter badge records exposure to cumulative radiation for a hospital worker, so a helmet-mounted color badge would change color based on a soldier’s exposure to blast pressure; a common occurrence with improvised explosive devices (IED).

In a paper published in NeuroImage, Cullen and colleagues describe in detail a blast-injury dosimeter (BID) made from photosensitive polymers that is like a colored sticker.  This nanomaterial contains microscopic, diamond-like photonic crystals, whose ability to refract light is damaged in a precise way by the pressure from explosive blasts.

The result is a change in color that is related to the degree of pressure and blast intensity. What’s more because the photonic crystals are structurally damaged by the blast, further exposure leads to more widespread microstructural alterations and a further change in color.  In essence, the crystals have a memory for cumulative blast exposure.

Why is this important?

Many soldiers are exposed to blasts, but show no overt symptoms of traumatic brain injury.  Research has shown that repeated hits to the helmet of a football player can lead to brain injury without the obvious signs of a concussion.  Traumatic brain injury as a result of repeated exposure to blasts may also lead to mild cognitive impairment and the possibility of increased risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s disease later in life.  This has been seen in NFL players.

The research by Cullen and colleagues is still in the early stages of development.  In their paper they acknowledge some of the next steps such as calibrating the color changes to levels of blast exposure, and correlating these with traumatic brain injury.  Any blast injury dosimeter will also need to be field tested.

However, this work is promising and an example of how nanotechnology may impact the detection and diagnosis of those soldiers at risk of traumatic brain injury.

War related scientific research often leads to civilian applications. In the future, I could see nanotechnology stickers that change color with cumulative impact on the helmets of NFL, college or high school football players.

You can read more about this innovative research on how color changing photonic crystals detect blast exposure in the journal NeuroImage.

Update June 30, 2011

If you are interested in the exciting and innovative research being undertaken by Kacy Cullen and his team, there is now a website for The Cullen Laboratory and their work on Neural Engineering in Neurotrauma.

ResearchBlogging.orgCullen, D., Xu, Y., Reneer, D., Browne, K., Geddes, J., Yang, S., & Smith, D. (2011). Color changing photonic crystals detect blast exposure NeuroImage, 54 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.10.076

As readers may know, I recently attended the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) in Philadelphia. I’m working my way through some posts from Health Journalism 2011 , and at the same taking the opportunity to experiment with new social media tools such as Storify.

So far I have written posts from AHCJ on Massachusetts health care reform and the drug development pipeline.  Tomorrow, I will be posting on nanotechnology and a presentation by Kacy Cullen, Ph.D from the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania – my highlight of the meeting!

On the last day of Health Journalism 2011 there was an engaging panel on social media and blogging moderated by Scott Hensley of National Public Radio (NPR).

I’m always looking for tips on what I could be doing better, so it was interesting to hear from experienced journalists on their approach to blogging and social media. I decided to use Storify to aggregate many of the live tweets, and in the process shares the tips from the session.

Storify is an interesting new tool in beta stage of development that allows you to capture social media and incorporate into a story and then embed it in a blog post.  Given that Twitter posts are not kept after several days, it’s a useful way to capture Tweets that may otherwise be lost. It also allows you to bring social media together from a number of sources e.g. Facebook, YouTube.

However, there’s room for improvement given the lack of a search feature on the Storify site and to me it seems hard to find stories that others have done, unless you have a link to them. Improved search will be key to success.

I’m also not sure to what extent any content posted on Storify makes it into search engines, or is crawled by bots.  Again, if your content cannot be found, then it’s social media utility is lowered.  However, it’s always good to try new tools and you can read what I put together on Storify from the Health Journalism 2011 session on blogging and social media below:


I recently attended the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) annual meeting in Philadelphia. “Health Journalism 2011” offered the opportunity to hear speakers on a wide range of topics.

One presentation that by chance I attended was on what we can learn from Massachusetts, where a law was passed two years ago requiring individual healthcare insurance. Many of the features of the MA law were incorporated into the Affordable Care Act that will impact everyone in the United States.

I have used Storify to aggregate some of the live Tweets from the session, and I hope this captures the essence of what the panel presented.

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As those of you who have been following my conference schedule already know, I will be at Health Journalism 2011 in Philadelphia later this week.  The annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) runs from April 14-17.

It’s my first time at an AHCJ conference, and in my first video blog post I have shared why I am going and what I hope to obtain from the meeting.

Some of the expert sessions that I am particularly looking forward to are on:

Spotting fraud in scientific research (moderated by Ivan Oransky, M.D. executive editor, Reuters Health; blogger, Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch)

Efforts to revive the drug delivery pipeline (moderated by Ed Silverman, editor-at-large, Med Ad News and R&D Directions)

Understanding nanotechnology’s role in fighting cancer (moderated by Eric Rosenthal, special correspondent, Oncology Times)

Best practices in blogging and social media (moderated by Scott Hensley, health blog writer and editor, National Public Radio)

As William Heisel states in an excellent blog post on Reporting on Health, the journalism stars have come out for ACHJ Health Journalism conference in Philadelphia. I am looking forward to an exciting and informative meeting. Hope to see you there.

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