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Texas Innovator Summer 2008

TexasMEDICAL SCIENCE

Hope for your aching back

Denton’s Texas Back Institute recently became the first Texas medical facility to employ a new technology that provides hope for hundreds of thousands of Americans with serious back pain.

The Stabilimax NZ® Dynamic Spine Stabilization System is designed to offer relief to people suffering from spinal stenosis, a degenerative disease that can cause the spinal canal – the passageway through the spine that shelters the spinal cord – to narrow and compress the nerves, causing extreme pain.

Traditional treatments for the condition range from medication and steroid treatment to spinal fusion surgery, which simply freezes all movement in the affected area of the spine. The Stabilimax system, by contrast, involves a surgically installed device that stabilizes the spine, allowing for bending and twisting while still decreasing movements that cause pain.

Last fall, the Texas Back Institute’s Dr. William Bradley became the first Texas physician to use the Stabilimax system. The patient, Vernon Bittmann of Wichita Falls, described the results as “a miracle,” saying that the procedure had largely eliminated “teeth-gritting pain” and allowed him to walk without his cane.

The new treatment, based on research by Dr. Manohar Panjabi of the Yale University School of Medicine, is still under investigation.

For more information, contact the Texas Back Institute at (800) 247-2225, or visit www.texasback.com.


ENERGY/UTILITIES

Grass to gas

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Lincoln, Nebraska, have verified that switchgrass can yield more than five times the energy required to grow, harvest, transport and process it into ethanol. These results were published in the January 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and are expected to help speed development of cellulosic ethanol plants in the United States.

“At present, there are very few plants producing ethanol from cellulose material,” says Rob Mitchell, a research agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But more exciting, in the last year the U.S. Department of Energy released funding assistance for six different cellulosic pilot plants scattered around the country.”

Mitchell says there is always considerable concern about energy input, so being able to produce more energy than we consume is very significant.

“Equally important, researchers found that switchgrass is carbon-neutral,” says Mitchell. “It absorbs essentially the same amount of greenhouse gases as it emits when it is burned as fuel.”

Switchgrass is native to North America and is grown in Texas as forage for livestock and also as ground cover for erosion control.

For more information, contact Rob Mitchell, U.S. Department of Agriculture, rob.mitchell@ars.usda.gov, (402) 472-1546.


TRANSPORTATION

Iceland goes green

Surrounded by water and a leader in generating electricity, Iceland is poised to create the world’s first hydrogen economy. The Mercedes-Benz A-Class F-Cell, the first fuel-cell-powered passenger car, recently hit the road in Iceland. DaimlerChrysler delivered the zero-emissions vehicle to the companies Landsvirkjun and Reykjavik Energy. The two will use the vehicles in their fleets for a year.

“Mobility plays an essential role on the way toward a sustainable hydrogen economy,” says Gudmundur Thoroddsson, chief executive officer of Reykjavik Energy, which requires that half of the company’s fleet be fueled by alternative sources by 2013. “We are convinced that fuel-cell-driven vehicles are the concept of the future.” So far the company has five hydrogen cars and several methane-fueled vehicles.

Through the reaction of hydrogen with oxygen, the fuel cell produces electrical energy with very high efficiency – approximately twice as high as that of internal combustion engines – regardless of whether the internal combustion engine is run on conventional fuel or hydrogen. Fuel-cell-powered vehicles emit nothing other than pure water vapor. In the Mercedes F-Cell, the entire fuel-cell system and the hydrogen tanks fit into the underbody of the vehicle and do not take up any space in the interior or luggage compartment.

For more information, contact Haflidi Helgason, haflidi.helgason@rei.is.


EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

Control chip for the brain

University of Florida (UF) researchers are working to decode brain signals and help patients control diseases such as epilepsy and overcome paralysis through direct neural control of artificial limbs or prosthetics.

“When you think of moving your arm, for instance, certain neurons fire in your brain,” says Justin Sanchez, an assistant professor at University of Florida’s Department of Pediatrics, Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering. Sanchez has worked on neural decoding for the past eight years. He and his team have developed algorithms that decode those firing neurons and interpret what a user intends to do. Their ultimate goal is a computer chip, resting strategically between a patient’s skull and scalp, which acts on the decoded signals directly from the patient’s brain activity.

“There are prosthetics for vision, hearing, the motor system and even epilepsy and Parkinson’s,” he says. “We’re talking about sensing a neural command, decoding it and then delivering therapy to the patient.”

These could apply to paralysis, stroke, epilepsy and even amputations.

Soldiers who have lost a limb could control an artificial limb just by thinking about it, Sanchez says.

Implants in laboratory animals, connected to specific neurons with wires the width of a human hair, have recently controlled a robotic arm, a significant step. Human trials with similar devices are also under way.

“There is an ever-growing neurotech market, which should see huge growth in the next 10 years,” Sanchez says. “The FDA will have to evaluate the new treatments, and extensive testing is necessary before they’re in widespread use. But there are patients who have sought out this treatment and been granted access to it, so it could be viable sooner than you think.”

For more information, contact Justin Sanchez, jcs77@ufl.edu, (352) 846-2180, or visit http://nrg.mbi.ufl.edu.


TexasCOMPUTER TECHNOLOGY

Tracking hope

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hammered the Gulf Coast in 2005, emergency workers were forced to manage a mass exodus of residents moving to safer ground. More than 1 million people were displaced and sent to safety across the nation, with most of them arriving in Texas.

Emergency personnel faced one challenge that was particularly critical: keeping track of special-needs evacuees.

Texas officials hope to implement new technology that will overcome this challenge.

Through a partnership with telecom giant AT&T, the Texas Division of Emergency Management (DEM) has developed the Texas Special Needs Evacuation Tracking System, the country’s first statewide citizen-evacuation system.

During an evacuation, special-needs evacuees will be issued a bar-coded wristband that will be scanned by the DEM with a wireless device as they board vehicles. Their information will be added to a log that can be monitored to ensure that families have up-to-date information about their loved ones’ status.

The system uses radio-frequency identification and wireless and mobile data technologies to provide real-time information on evacuees.

For more information, contact Mary Lenz, mary.lenz@txdps.state.tx.us, (512) 424-2138, or visit www.txdps.state.tx.us.

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