Tiny parasite-like robots are the future of pain relief / Humans + Tech - #54

+ These families avoided screens. Then the pandemic hit. + Garmin adds pregnancy tracking to Connect app + Brilliant new test finds superbugs in a patient's blood in just one hour


I hope you had a fantastic week. Here are the articles I found interesting this week.

Tiny parasite-like robots are the future of pain relief

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, led by engineering professor David Gracias and gastroenterologist Florin M. Selaru have created tiny shapes shifting microdevices that they called “theragrippers” that can deliver drugs to the body by attaching themselves to a person's intestines [Paul Ratner, Big Think]. It’s inspired by the hookworm – a parasitic worm that digs its sharp teeth into the intestines of the host.

"Normal constriction and relaxation of GI tract muscles make it impossible for extended-release drugs to stay in the intestine long enough for the patient to receive the full dose," explained Selaru." We've been working to solve this problem by designing these small drug carriers that can autonomously latch onto the intestinal mucosa and keep the drug load inside the GI tract for a desired duration of time."

One of the areas of science that fascinates me the most is biomimicry. Biomimicry is the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modelled on biological entities and processes.

Most of our challenges have already been solved by nature in one way or another. Usually in a much more efficient way. Taking inspiration from and reverse engineering nature’s solutions often result in the best way to solve our problems.

The scientists say that thousands such devices can be let loose in a GI tract. As the wax coating on tiny robots matches the body's inside temperature, theraggrippers automatically close and latch on to the wall of the colon. As they do so and dig into the mucosa, they start slowly releasing the stored medicine. In time, the devices lose their grip on the intestine tissue and leave the organ through usual gastrointestinal function.

These families avoided screens. Then the pandemic hit.

The Pascal family in Pittsburgh seldom allowed their children to spend time in front of screens at home. Then the pandemic hit and school moved online [Alex Hazlett, NBC News].

It took two days for remote learning to make Molly Pascal's kids cry.

Their school's hourslong remote online program last spring prompted near-immediate complaints of headaches, irritability and fatigue from the siblings, then in the fourth and fifth grades. Pascal, who lives in Pittsburgh, said she was able to talk to her children's school and narrowed their days down to the four most critical classes, jettisoning the rest. The family is now reluctant to even put on a movie at night because of the increase in screen time.

Remote learning has been difficult for many children, but Pascal's were facing a particular challenge: At home, they almost never spent time in front of screens.

"I feel like it has just confirmed our values," Pascal said. "I can see how screen time hurts my children."

Some families have even taken the step of unenrolling their children from regular school and homeschooling them.

Meghan Owenz, an assistant teaching professor at Penn State Berks and co-founder of screenfreeparenting.com, said her children, ages 5 and 8, had a grueling remote schedule. Their school day ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with five hours of live instruction a day. She and her husband, who are both working from home, submitted alternative activities that corresponded to their kids' lessons for the day, and they told the school they wouldn't be present for live instruction.

Last week, they decided to formally unenroll their kids and home-school them, instead.

That was "essentially what we were doing anyways," Owenz wrote in an email. "Now, we just have less uploading to do."

The pandemic has highlighted the shortfalls of online learning. It’s stressful on the students, stressful for teachers, and especially stressful for parents with young children who have to both monitor their children as well as play the role of the teachers.

There is an aspect of social learning – group interactions that enhance learning, that children are missing out on. Teachers, trained to understand the different student personalities and cater to them in unique ways to enhance their learning, are unable to do so effectively through a screen. We are learning valuable lessons on what’s not working well right now.

While there may not be a choice at present, when the pandemic subsides, I hope we appreciate the value of in-person and group learning more and enhance education methods to focus more on these. And especially for younger children, I hope educators reduce the use of technology and encourage more analog and exploratory forms of learning.

Garmin adds pregnancy tracking to Connect app

Garmin has one-upped both Fitbit and Apple Watch by adding a pregnancy tracker to their smartwatches and Connect app [Nicole Wetsman, The Verge].

The feature will also let users adjust heart rate alerts (heart rate can increase during pregnancy) and change hydration goals. An additional app will let users monitor contractions during labor.

Pregnant users have criticized smartwatch and wearable companies in the past for not including pregnancy modes on the devices. Apple Watches would continue to nudge people to close their activity rings, for example, even if doctors told them to limit exercise. Swapna Krishna wrote about her frustrations with the alerts back in 2018 in Engadget. “I couldn’t tell the app, ‘Hey, this is actually what is healthy for me right now,’ and because of that it had become completely useless,” she said. “More than that, it’d become a constant source of anxiety, reminding me that I wanted to be more active than I was physically able to be.”

Fitbit users have been requesting this feature since 2013. Good on Garmin for bringing this to their users. Pregnancy significantly changes the vitals of women, and the Garmin watch now even lets users track pregnancy-related fatigue and monitor their approach towards their due-date.

🎩 Hat-tip to Shraddha for sending this in.

Brilliant new test finds superbugs in a patient’s blood in just one hour

Superbugs are increasingly immune to the best drugs we have to combat them. They are a growing concern for scientists. It’s a constant race between the superbugs evolving their immunity to new treatments and scientists coming up with newer treatments to eliminate them.

The current diagnosis time for superbugs is 24 hours. But researchers at Brigham Young University in the UK have devised a test that produces results in just one hour [David Nield, Science Alert].

"That was always our goal, to do it in an hour," says electrical and computer engineer Aaron Hawkins from Brigham Young University in the UK.

"It's quite exciting that we've been able to combine all of our efforts and hit that benchmark."

Researchers from across the fields of molecular biology, chemistry, integrated optics and chemical processing put their heads together to come up with the new process, which can look out for three different superbugs in one go.

That’s 23 additional hours that doctors have to treat their patients and less time wasted on medicines that doctors know will not work.

"Every hour the disease is untreated, survivability drops by about 7 percent. You want to know what you're fighting immediately so you can apply the right treatments."

Quote of the week

"I feel like it has just confirmed our values, I can see how screen time hurts my children."

—Molly Pascal, from the article “These families avoided screens. Then the pandemic hit.” [NBC News]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)