Every week brings new innovations in medical technology that could save lives and improve patient care. 

The latest are a table-top device that acts like a human spleen, filtering bacteria and viruses out of the blood, and two health tracking smartphone apps for people with type 1 diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

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Take That, Sepsis: Meet the New 'Biospleen'

In a paper published September 14 in Nature Medicine, scientists from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering discuss their newest medical device: an artificial spleen, or “biospleen,” that filters bacteria and other pathogens from the bloodstream.

The device could be particularly useful for patients with sepsis, which occurs when an infection spreads in the bloodstream and triggers a powerful immune system response. More than 18 million people a year experience sepsis, and even in state-of-the-art medical facilities, 30 to 50 percent of them die, 6 million of them children in the developing world, the researchers said.

Read More: What Is Sepsis? »

Doctors currently treat sepsis with antibiotics, which don't work well if doctors don’t know the exact type of pathogen the patient is infected with.

“When sepsis occurs, things can go downhill fast. In the later stages of sepsis every hour delay in giving the correct antibiotic therapy increases the mortality by 5 to 9 percent,” said Michael Super, senior staff scientist at the Wyss Institute and co-investigator on the study, in an interview with Healthline. “Because the biospleen works on such a wide spectrum of pathogens, you do not need to know what organism is causing sepsis.”

Photo courtesy of Harvard's Wyss Institute.

Even if antibiotics do kill a large percentage of the bacteria, the patient’s blood becomes filled with dead bacteria, which fuels the immune system response. The biospleen has an answer for that, too.

Super’s team genetically engineered a protein called mannose binding lectin (MBL), which sticks to sugars found on the surface of bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens (but not on human cells). They attached MBL to magnetic nanobeads small enough to circulate in a patient’s bloodstream.

Using a technique similar to dialysis, the biospleen removes the patient’s blood, mixes it with the modified MBL beads, and runs the blood past a magnet. The beads stick to the live and dead pathogens and are collected by the magnet, cleansing the patient’s blood before it is returned to their body.

“We are not injecting the MBL protein into the patient. Instead we are taking the blood out of the patient and removing pathogens in real-time and returning the cleansed blood to the patient," said Super. "Unlike the other (failed) sepsis therapies, we are focusing on removing the live and dead pathogens and pathogen-associated toxins from the bloodstream.”

New Tools for Monitoring Health

Two new wearable technologies are also giving people with diabetes and Parkinson’s disease new options to save time and money.

The first will be demonstrated in a pair of clinical trials at Stanford University Hospital and Duke University. It uses Apple’s new HealthKit, an app that gathers and tracks medical information for use by other apps. In this case, HealthKit will be paired with a technology by Dexcom, a continuous blood glucose monitor that is implanted just under the skin.

From there, apps like the Epic App can transmit the patient’s blood sugar data to their electronic medical record, where the patient’s doctor can view the information and make recommendations. Dexcom’s technology also gives warnings when the patient’s blood sugar levels are too low or too high.

Photo of HealthKit (center left) courtesy of Apple.

At Stanford, patients with type 1 diabetes will test out this HealthKit and Dexcom pairing, using an iPod Touch to track their glucose levels between doctor’s visits. The technology should provide a clearer picture of the patient’s habits and health than just a few recordings of blood sugar levels taken manually each day.

“This will accelerate development of apps that help patients, reduce the burden of chronic diseases, and reduce costs,” said Jorge Valdes, chief technical officer at Dexcom, in an interview with Healthline.

However, Apple announced this week that a bug has temporarily kept HealthKit from integrating with third-party apps. Apple hopes to have the bug fixed and the app relaunched by the end of this month.

Learn More: Causes of Parkinson's Disease? »

The other tool is the Personal KinetiGraph, developed by Global Kinetics Corporation and recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s a watch-like tool worn around the wrist for six or more days at a time to record a patient’s movements. For people with Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder, this tool could be invaluable in helping track their condition.

“The development is actually in the algorithms, rather than in the device itself,” said Malcolm Horne, a professor of neuroscience and founder of Global Kinetics Corporation, in an interview with Healthline. The algorithms use pattern-recognition similar to speech- or writing-recognition programs, and can detect the two key elements of Parkinsonian movement: slowness (hypokinesia) and abnormalities (dyskinesia).

The device also tells patients when it’s time to take their medicine, and lets them log when they actually take it.

“Up until now, neurologists have only been able to see the patient at a point in time, even though patients’ [symptoms] will vary from day to day,” said Horne. “Because patients have a great difficulty recording what their movements are like, it’s very hard to report this information.”

The Personal KinetiGraph could change that. “It allows us to make an assessment of what the patient’s like when we’re not there, when they’re home doing what they normally do,” Horne said. 

Photo courtesy of Global Kinetics Corporation.