The Most Fascinating Tech Breakthroughs from December

9 | By Michael A. Robinson

There’s good news for Alzheimer’s patients after all…

This news comes at an opportune time. Just last summer, the whole effort suffered a major setback.

That’s when three Big Pharma firms said they were halting development of Alzheimer’s compounds because the medicines simply didn’t work. No doubt, that was a blow for both patients and investors in Eli Lilly & Co. (NYSE:LLY), Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE), and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ).

But this month we learned that a research team at Johns Hopkins has for the first time implanted a promising device into the brain of a U.S. Alzheimer’s patient. It seems to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s by providing deep-brain stimulation. It works very much like the pacemaker that’s normally used in the heart.

Over the next year or so, a total of 40 patients will receive the implants under a federally funded trial.

This is a big move with very promising potential. You see, doctors have used a similar device to control Parkinson’s disease for about the past 15 years, with some 80,000 patients receiving the implants. They report having fewer seizures and needing less medication.

I believe this very well could be the bridge technology we need until a true “cure” for Alzheimer’s is found. Right now, the chances look good that this interim step will succeed.

“This is a very different approach, whereby we are trying to enhance the function of the brain mechanically,” says Dr. Paul B. Rosenberg. “It’s a whole new avenue for potential treatment for a disease becoming all the more common with the aging of the population.”

As high-tech investors, we need to keep an eye on this research and be ready to pounce when a medical-device maker gets it to market.

I don’t know just when that will happen. But when it does, you can bet that I’ll drop you a line.

Meantime, I have four more fascinating developments to share with you this month.

Take a look…

Invasion of the Mini Transformers

It’s almost like a scene out of Hollywood. A group of robots can change their shape – on demand – to take on any task asked of them.

But this isn’t part of the “Transformers” movie franchise, where a car might change into a killer “bot.” Instead, this is the real-life work of a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) working with funds provide by the U.S. Pentagon.

Using the way proteins fold as their model, team members created a series of mini-robots that can change their shape on demand. To make the world’s smallest chain robot, the team had to invent a new kind of motor. It’s small, strong, and can hold its position firmly – even with power switched off.

The result is “effectively a one-dimensional robot that can be made in a continuous strip, without conventionally moving parts, and then folded into arbitrary shapes,” says team leader Neil Gershenfeld. He likens it to having a wrench in your tool bag that can become a pair of pliers.

MIT didn’t list a practical market application for the invention. However, funding came from a research arm of the Pentagon that wants to build a series of small bots that can move autonomously to get intel on the enemy, especially in urban terrains.

“Fountain of Youth” Rejuvenates Aging Stem Cells

Back in early October, I predicted the field of adult stem cells would have a huge impact on medicine – really the whole human race, for that matter.

Turns out a team from the University of Toronto has already scored another major breakthrough. They created a “fountain of youth” that can make adult stems cells young again. Team members believe the first practical will be to grow replacement heart tissue that an older patient’s body won’t reject.

This is key, because a major way doctors avoid tis sue rejection is to use cells derived from the patient’s own body. Sounds good on paper, unless you’re dealing with the Graying of America.

See, aged cells tend not to function as well as those from young patients, so even testing this on the elderly wasn’t feasible in the past. The answer: Take the cultures of aging cells and infuse them with a cocktail of growth factors and grow healthy new tissue.

“We saw certain aging factors turned off,” says team leader Ren-Ke Li. “We can create much better tissues which can then be used to repair defects, such as aneurysms.”

Invisibility Cloak and See-Through Fish

One key element of global fantasy franchise Harry Potter may not be as farfetched as you might have thought.

Scientists recently showed off a real-world “invisibility cloak.”

Known as “Quantum Stealth” camouflage, the material makes its wearers seem to disappear by bending light waves around them. It can even foil military-grade night vision goggles, its makers say.

Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp. has released photos of the material in action, but has refused to show it in actual operation to the media. However, the firm says its process can be used as a coating for NextGen submarines, tanks, and aircraft – which the enemy won’t be able to see.

Meantime, a German team just tweaked the gene code of zebrafish so scientists could literally see through the test subject. They call it the Mitofish.

Turns out zebrafish are popular to study for a wide range of diseases and possible treatment. Making them transparent allows researchers to track their research subjects in a non-invasive way.

Now You Can Have Eyes in the Back of Your Head

For untold millennia, people have been limited to their natural ability to see 180 degrees horizontally. Until now.

A French team has created a new helmet with onboard optics and electronics that gives wearers a 360-degree view of the world around them.

The investors of the FlyVIZ say the device could work well for virtual reality games and entertainment. But the big market may be in surveillance.

“In safety and security applications, soldiers, policemen or firemen could benefit from omnidirectional vision to avoid potential dangers or locate targets more rapidly,” they say. “In less critical situations, some surveillance applications with a high visual workload, in all directions of space for instance, could also be concerned, such as for traffic regulation.”

And, in another advance for visual electronics, a Belgium team has invented a pair of contact lenses that can display text messages, road maps, and more.

The team at Ghent University says the device is the first full-spherical LCD screen that fits inside a contact lens. They believe these could be on the market in as little as five years, and noted that the lenses will eventually be able to display movies and shows with the same clarity as a TV.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s fascinations. And remember to share what’s fascinating you by leaving a comment below or writing to me at


9 Responses to The Most Fascinating Tech Breakthroughs from December

  1. Tom Murphy says:

    I am fascinated by all the new tech STUFF. Two years ago I had what I believe my eye doctor described as a central vein or artery occlusion in my left eye. It left me with a partial loss of vision in the form of a THIN FOG obstruction.
    Are you aware of any new technology in the visual world that my offer some hope to restore the loss of vision in my left eye?

    • Victor Carulei says:

      Check out Biotime. They seem to have most of all IP patents on rejuvenating adult cells into stem cells

  2. William I. Fox says:

    Very, enlightening, where can I get further info. on this and will they have volunteers or what to test this on?

  3. Sal says:

    Sorry this response is so late, but the Uni. of Toronto work with stem cells is something that Dr Michael West of Biotime has already done and has further spent the last year defining the tiggers that direct the rejuvenated stem cells down the individual progenitor cell lines that make up our bodies.

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