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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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Illustration of a Double Helix DNA StrandA grand scientific revolution is redefining how humanity looks at itself

by Ajay Singh
Illustration by Mirko Ilic
Portraits by Stephanie Diani

IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE AT A SHOPPING MALL somewhere in a major — city Los Angeles or York, let’s say. All of a sudden, people around you start falling to the floor. A police officer who is called to the scene takes out a slim gadget about the size of a tiny Post-it note. He waves it over the collapsed shoppers and then slides it into a wireless handheld device and presses a button. Within minutes, a text message flashes across the instrument’s screen, a reply from police headquarters confirming that a toxic agent has been released and that authorities know exactly what it is as well as the correct antidote to administer.

Such a speedy response to a terrorist attack still sounds like science fiction, but it could well be reality in the not-too-distant future. And when that happens, chances are that the handheld bio-analyzers employed will be based on microelectromechanical technologies developed at UCLA. A device capable of detecting poisonous gases is most likely to use miniature “lab-on-a-chip” technology, a unique version of which Chang-Jin Kim, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has spent the past four years developing.

Or consider another scenario that is likely to shape the future. A cardiologist inserts two catheters, each about the thickness of a thin piece of spaghetti, into the heart of a child born with defective valves — a congenital condition that currently requires one or more open-heart surgeries. Introduced through a puncture near the child’s groin, one of the catheters threads through an artery while the other goes up through a vein, giving the cardiologist access to all chambers and valves of the heart. At the tip of either catheter is a piece of thin-film nitinol, an extremely strong, malleable and biocompatible nickel-titanium alloy that is four times thinner than human hair and can be “trained” to assume any shape. When it pops out of the catheter it becomes a prosthetic aortic or pulmonary valve — valve replacement without surgery.

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