Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bio-compatible diamonds for a bionic eye?

I'm constantly amazed by the strides technology is taking in many directions - limited, it seems, only by the fertile imaginations of researchers. The latest example is reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.

IT TAKES up to 3.3 billion years for nature to make a diamond. But physics professor Steven Prawer can cook them up in five days using the microwave-like reactor at his Parkville laboratory.

"They are made with methane and hydrogen," Professor Prawer said. "You cook them in the microwave oven on high for five days and then you have lovely little diamonds."

The diamonds - which come out black because of their tiny size which scatters the light - are likely to prove a key ingredient in Australia's $42 million quest to develop a bionic eye.

Diamonds have long been used in the body due to their durability and low rejection rate, with diamond coating applied to everything from heart valves to hip joints. They are also a common insulator. But Professor Prawer, inaugural head of the Melbourne Materials Institute at Melbourne University, said diamonds have never been used to stimulate the nerves.

"We have discovered a form of diamond that we can make which is bio-compatible and very good as a stimulating electrode, which means we can put an electrical signal onto it that then causes the neurons to fire and get a response," he said.

It's this novel approach being taken by the multi-disciplinary team behind Bionic Vision Australia that has researchers most excited. "I don't think anyone ever believed that diamonds could be used to stimulate [the ganglion cells] … this is a uniquely Australian approach," Professor Prawer said.

He said establishing that diamonds could be used to stimulate nerves could have future applications in the treatment of other conditions such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

There's more at the link. The first prototype 'bionic eye' is expected to be ready for human testing next year.

It boggles my mind to think how many different areas of technological development had to come together for this project. Synthetic diamond production; electrical conductivity; brain and nervous system anatomy, physiology and chemistry; optical sensor development . . . and they're all going to come together in a tiny system that will be implanted into the human body to replace what Nature gave us. Furthermore, as the article points out, this is just the start. If they can get all these elements working together successfully, who knows what treatments may be possible a few years or decades from now?

For all the problems of our modern world, it's still an exciting time to be alive.


No comments: