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Driverless cars, artificial intelligence, smartwatches, and more – the future is truly upon us. With science and technology developing so quickly, medical breakthroughs continue to be made every day all around the world.
But what are some of the most profound advancements and how can they change the way we treat medical conditions? Here are 19 of the most mind-blowing medical discoveries of the past nine years.
3D printing is widely regarded as being an industry-changing technology for consumer goods and manufacturing. But what’s not well-known is that scientists have successfully created human body parts using 3D printers.
In 2013, researchers from Cornell University printed an outer ear that worked like and resembled the real thing. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and MIT have also reproduced blood vessels using similar processes.
At Wake Forest University in North Carolina they were able to print skin cells onto wounds for rapid healing. A San Diego company called Organovo has also committed itself to printing human livers, and a 3D-printed partial liver transplant is expected by 2020.
Other exciting new medical applications for 3D printing include the printing of denture material such as crowns, orthodontic appliances and dentures, as well as hearing aids and inexpensive customised prostheses for landmine amputees.
Surgical applications of 3D printing are also evolving rapidly, with 3D printed models being used to plan complex neurosurgical procedures, craniofacial reconstruction and spinal surgery.
Taking 3D printing up another notch is bioprinting. Bioprinting can produce living tissue, bone, blood vessels and human cartilage, which are used in medical procedures, training and testing. For example, a team from Swansea University in the UK has developed a bioprinting process that creates an artificial bone matrix in the shape of the bone required using a biocompatible material for bone transplants.
Scientists can also create artificial organs like synthetic ovaries and even a pancreas, which grow inside the body to replace original faulty ones. This is useful for organ transplants. With bioprinting, patient-specific tissue can be generated in order to develop accurate, targeted and personalised treatments.
Gene therapy technology is the modifying of someone’s DNA to treat disease, rather than just treating the symptoms like most drugs on the market.
The use of gene therapy technology to treat blood cancers such as leukaemia is one of the most exciting medical developments in recent history. Recent experiments have also revealed the potential for gene therapy to be used in reversing other types of cancers such as breast cancer. There’s some promise that gene therapy could one day be used to eliminate the need for traditional treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy or surgery.
2017 was a landmark year for many gene therapy breakthroughs, including it being used to cure a teenage boy with sickle cell disease. Gene therapy has also been used to successfully build new skin for a patient with a connective tissue disorder, restore sight in several patients with retinal diseases, and substantially increase the blood-clotting proteins in patients with haemophilia.
Developments have also occurred in relation to the use of gene therapy to treat symptoms of ageing. If muscle mass and stem cell depletion can be effectively treated with gene therapy, this technology has the potential to significantly slow the human ageing process.
On the other hand, gene editing technology such as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) has also transformed the way we treat disease. CRISPR is found in bacteria and involved in immune defence, defending against invading viruses. Scientists have used CRISPR to cut infected DNA strands or to enhance a person’s genetic code.
In 2017, scientists from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland revealed in the journal Nature that they have successfully removed a heart disease defect in an embryo using CRISPR. This means that by modifying genes, things like cancer and HIV could be overcome in a matter of years.
As our understanding of gut bacteria and how it impacts the rest of the body develops, scientific breakthroughs in relation to gut flora continue to shape how we treat illness.
Amazingly, scientists have discovered that the mix of bacteria or microbes in our digestive system could affect how our brain functions and the way we think. There’s also research demonstrating a potential link between obesity and the mix of gut bacteria in our bodies.
Microbiome therapy (the use of the body’s bacteria to treat illness) has been successfully used to treat certain forms of diarrhoea, life-threatening gut infections, and inflammatory bowel disease, and researchers are now focusing on other possible applications including treatments for cancer, metabolic disease, mental illness, autoimmune disease and even sports performance.
But the medical field is only just beginning to understand the degree to which gut bacteria affects human health. Gut bacteria may one day be used as part of possible treatments for diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, as well as common allergies and cancers.
The field of cancer therapies has also seen some recent breakthroughs, including a better understanding of cancer fingerprinting. Cancer fingerprinting is a new approach to analysing how specific cases of cancer react to different treatments.
Every incidence of cancer has a unique fingerprint or identity code, and cancer fingerprinting allows medical staff to analyse the mutated genes of tumours and understand how sensitive particular cancers will be to different types of chemotherapy.
Additionally, there have been advances in cancer immunotherapy, which treats cancer by boosting the body’s immune system, rather than removing or targeting the tumour cells through surgery or chemotherapy.
There are several types of immunotherapy, including monoclonal antibody therapy, oncolytic virus therapy, t-cell therapy and cancer vaccines. These use proteins, genetically modified viruses, immune cells and antigens to fight cancer. Immunotherapy can be given as oral pills or liquid, via an injection, as a cream to rub onto the skin, or is administered directly into the bladder.
While still not widely used in surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, immunotherapies have been approved to treat people with many types of cancer and are currently being studied in a number of clinical trials.
The development of the bionic eye has begun to accelerate in the last few years. In 2013, Second Sight, a California-based company, received approval from the US government to start marketing a bionic eye. The artificial eye uses a camera set into the user’s glasses, and the camera then transmits electrical messages wirelessly into the user’s retinal implant.
While it doesn’t fully restore normal vision, it does enable certain patients to attain a level of vision and some patients have even been able to see colour.
Then in 2016 in Australia, Bionic Vision Technologies was given $23.5 million in capital to develop their own version of a bionic eye. They intend to use the funds to begin surgical trials in Melbourne in the coming months.
And hot off the press, a new wireless bionic eye developed in Australia will be tested in humans for the first time later this year. While it won’t fully restore sight, it’s hoped that it will restore enough vision to improve a blind person’s level of function in their daily activities.
The device is composed of a coiled antenna that sits on the back of the wearer’s head and transmits information from a camera into the brain, bypassing the wearer’s sightless eyes altogether. Trials will start this year and will take 6 to 12 months, with the results expected to be announced in 2019.
While it seemed as though a major breakthrough was on the horizon for patients at risk of heart failure, the latest news is unfortunately not good.
While around a quarter of patients who are hospitalised for serious heart conditions don’t live beyond a year after their hospitalisation, a new drug had seemed to have the potential to improve this outlook dramatically.
Serelaxin, a synthetic version of the hormone relaxin developed by Novartis, had been shown in trials to boost survival rates in patients by 37%. The drug works by opening up the blood vessels and had an anti-inflammatory impact on the system.
Unfortunately, serelaxin has recently failed to achieve its objectives in a second phase III trial by the company. Novartis has revealed that serelaxin missed two main endpoints in the trial – worsening of heart failure at day five and cardiovascular death at day 180.
This is a big disappointment for Novartis, which has said it will examine all the data in detail before deciding whether to continue with serelaxin. It’s also a massive blow for patients, as AHF (Acute Heart Failure) has a high death rate and there have been no new therapies developed in recent decades.
So, unfortunately, as far as breakthrough heart treatments are concerned, for now at least we can only say …. watch this space.
Faecal transplants involve removing good bacteria from a healthy person’s faecal matter and transplanting it into a patient’s colon.
Commonly used to replace gut bacteria in people that have complications after the prolonged use of antibiotics, faecal transplants are now also being increasingly trialled in the treatment of conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, autism and irritable bowel syndrome.
They have also been used to successfully treat people infected with C. difficile, which is a type of infectious diarrhoea responsible for around 15,000 deaths each year. Donors whose faecal matter has more bacterial diversity and doesn’t contain diseases or antibiotic-resistant infections have a higher success rate treating intestinal disorders like C. difficile. The cure rate was over 90% for those who underwent multiple treatments.
In 2019, a clinical trial began in order to assess the long-term safety of faecal transplants via enema for C. difficile. The study is expected to be completed in three years.
An interesting side note reported recently regarding faecal transplants is that some patients seem to have been taking on the characteristics of their faecal donors, such as developing a similar body shape (over or underweight) or symptoms of depression.
While there are no immediate plans to start using faecal transplants to treat conditions such as depression or weight disorders, some researchers believe that faecal transplants could play a role in the future of a number of different treatments.
Hepatitis C is a potentially fatal disease that causes 12,000 deaths every year. Around 30% of people can’t be cured, and those who are cured undergo a heavy anti-viral-drug treatment program that lasts for nearly a year and is associated with major side effects.
With a 95% cure rate and a treatment program lasting only 12 weeks, a new drug called Sofosbuvir could help patients avoid the extended treatment period and improve the rate of people cured from Hepatitis C.
Direct-acting antiviral drugs work by blocking the action of particular proteins or enzymes which the Hepatitis C virus needs to replicate and infect liver cells. And while some only work on specific strains, Sofosbuvir works against all six major types of Hepatitis C.
Sofosbuvir also has very few side effects and requires only one daily dose, making it ideal for widespread use in the quest to eliminate Hepatitis C.
Unfortunately, Sofosbuvir is quite expensive. While it’s subsidised through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in Australia and costs just AUD$38.30 a month, the drug’s regular price of USD$1,000 per pill for a 12-week treatment (upwards of $84,000 per patient) has meant that millions of people around the world have failed to gain access to it as yet.
Epilepsy is a chronic brain disorder producing unpredictable seizures that can have a debilitating effect on a sufferer’s lifestyle, with around 50 million people suffering from epilepsy worldwide.
In 2013, a company called NeuroPace revolutionised epilepsy therapy by developing the RNS System; the world’s first closed loop, brain-responsive neuromodulation system.
The RNS System works by continually monitoring brain waves, and when it detects unusual activity, it emits electrical pulses before a seizure can occur. Since its initial release, NeuroPace has been working to refine the RNS System and has now produced what it calls the Next Gen RNS System.
This latest version has twice the battery power and twice the memory of previous models, all in the same size device. This means that patients will have fewer disruptions to their lives and doctors will be able to review a wider amount of brain activity data.
Responsive neurostimulation, the science behind the RNS System, holds a great deal of promise for the future. As well as being used to treat epilepsy, it’s hoped it can be applied to treat a range of other disabling neurological, psychiatric and chronic disorders negatively impacting millions of people worldwide.
In 2010, the first completely new synthetic cells were created by stitching together chemicals to synthesise the full genome of a bacterium. This could open the way to new treatments in synthetic biology that could have applications in a range of industries, from biofuels to healthcare.
Research on synthetic cells progressed rapidly in 2015, when a group of Japanese biologists created a synthetic “protocell” made from DNA and proteins packaged inside lipids.
While these spheres weren’t alive, the DNA in them contained instructions to replicate when the conditions were right. Then by altering the pH of their environment, the team were able to trigger the cells to divide.
Then in 2017, Israeli researchers developed synthetic cells that could function autonomously and be used to kill cancers. After being implanted in breast cancer tumours, they were encoded to produce an anti-cancer protein, which they did, killing cancer cells en masse and with little damage to surrounding healthy tissue.
This potential for on-site production of compounds necessary for a healthy body has wide reaching implications for medicine, and synthetic cells will be one to watch in the not-too-distant future.
Cluster headaches are chronically painful headaches many times more intense than a migraine. They can occur up to eight times a day and last from 2 weeks up to 3 months or longer.
Cluster headaches are believed to be generated by the hypothalamus, which is home to the brain’s biological clock, and imaging studies have shown activation in this area during cluster attacks. Despite this, until now, there has been no known cause for cluster headaches and no cure.
Fortunately for sufferers of this debilitating condition, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic may be close to an effective, practicable treatment. Their research involved successfully implanting a small device behind a patient’s upper jaw. The device works by sending electrical pulses into the patient’s head and can be operated via remote control.
The electrical-pulse stimulation was shown to reduce the impact of headaches, so hopefully science is finally closing in on a cure or at least a remedy for this truly terrible condition.
This new type of antibiotics, known as teixobactin, can kill serious infections such as tuberculosis and septicaemia without encountering resistance. It could eventually be used to treat drug-resistant infections caused by the superbug known as MRSA.
Currently, MRSA is treatable only with a combination of drugs, and without new classes of antibiotics being discovered, basic operations can carry a high risk of untreatable infection.
But progress is being made …
In 2015, a University of Lincoln team revealed that it had developed a synthesised version of teixobactin with a much faster and easier synthesis process.
And now, three years later, an international team of researchers has successfully synthesised the teixobactin compound and used it to treat bacterial infection in mice.
Unfortunately, scientists believe we are still up to 10 years away from producing a drug that can be prescribed to humans. But with 10 million people worldwide predicted to succumb to drug-resistant infections every year by 2050, this latest development is an important milestone in the quest to developing a new weapon in the war against superbugs.
Valued for its strength and conductive properties, graphene can potentially be used in anything from medical treatments to solar cells.
At one atom thick, graphene is the thinnest material known to man. It’s also around 200 times stronger than steel, is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and has unique light absorption abilities. It can also be combined with other elements such as gases and metals to create materials with unique properties, giving it unlimited value in practically any field.
But while graphene has excellent potential for a variety of applications, a major factor preventing its wide distribution is its high cost of production.
Scientists have recently found a way to produce high-quality graphene at a fraction of the cost of previous manufacturing methods. This new technique involves applying graphene on copper foils by chemical vapor deposition.
Other researchers have found new ways to eliminate the need for highly controlled production environments by growing graphene film in ambient air with a natural precursor. This not only speeds up the production process, but also makes it much more cost effective.
Cataractsare a leading cause of blindness around the world, and current treatment options are limited to an operation to replace the clouded lens with an artificial one.
But researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, have discovered anon-surgical treatment that uses eye drops. These eye drops contain compounds that dissolve the cataracts, eliminating the need for surgery.
The researchers who discovered the compounds reviewed almost 2,500 different chemicals to identify two sterols known as lanosterol and compound 29 that could be used to melt away the amyloids that lead to cataracts.
A cataract forms when a natural protein clumps and folds together, which causes the lens to lose transparency. The eye drops used by the researchers were able to dissolve these clumps of protein in the eyes of lab mice and restore clearer vision. The drops were found to also be able to prevent this protein from clumping together in the first place.
This study is part of a growing body of research showing promising results of eye drops as a non-surgical alternative to cataract treatment, and those people living in the developing world, where access to cataract surgery is limited, will stand to benefit greatly from this new medical discovery.
Programming T-cells to fight a particular type of leukaemia has resulted in an extraordinary success rate in experimental trials. Of the patients suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia who received the trial treatment, 94% experienced an elimination of symptoms. More than half of the patients had a complete remission of their cancer.
This new immunotherapy treatment known as Adoptive Cell Transfer (ACT) involves taking immune cells from patients and reprogramming them with receptor molecules to target specific types of cancer. The cells are then infused back into the body. What’s more, the technique holds promising potential to treat other types of cancer and diseases.
The remarkable progress now being made in this field has come after several decades of painstaking research, with progress accelerating markedly in the past few years as researchers gain a better understanding of how these therapies work in patients.
Researchers warn though that it’s still early days, with questions still surrounding whether this treatment will work against solid tumours, although one approach that uses immune cells from around the tumour (known as TILs), has shown promise in clinical trials.
Medtronic’s MiniMed 670G measures your blood glucose every five minutes using a sensor with a protruding needle. Known as an artificial pancreas, the device also delivers insulin through a pump worn on your abdomen, adjusting the dosage according to your readings.
The MiniMed was approved by the American FDA in 2016. It’s expected to significantly reduce the risk of hypoglycaemia and make life easier for those with type 1 diabetes by saving them from having to check their blood sugar levels throughout the day.
The MiniMed 670G can slow or stop the level of insulin delivery if it senses that the user’s glucose is low, or increase it if it detects that the glucose levels are high. The sensor contains a wire inserted under the skin on the abdomen or upper arm, which measures glucose values in the tissue fluid.
These values are transmitted wirelessly to the insulin pump and displayed on the pump’s screen. The pump then delivers a prescribed dose of insulin through an infusion set.
As well as alerting people with diabetes if their glucose levels are potentially approaching dangerously high or low levels, users can use the information from the MiniMed 670G to help determine patterns in their glucose levels, which they can then use to help keep their glucose at a safe level.
Additionally, the MiniMed 670G is a hybrid (not fully automatic) system as you have to manually enter the amount of carbohydrates you’ve eaten so it can adjust your insulin dose. The good news is that automatic artificial pancreas systems have been developed since then.
The Control-IQ system, derived from research done at the Center for Diabetes Technology at the University of Virginia, automatically monitors and regulates blood glucose levels in people with type 1 diabetes.
Researchers at the Australian Artificial Pancreas Program have developedSCEN1C for type 1 diabetes. It uses a closed loop algorithm to autonomously adjust insulin delivery as a person’s blood glucose levels rise and fall.
An effective psoriasis drug might be on the horizon for those who suffer from this chronic skin condition. Johnson & Johnson’s drug Guselkumab has achieved the highest ever response rates in psoriasis patients in a phase three study.
Psoriasis is a common, chronic skin disease that can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. An inflammatory autoimmune disorder, it results in the overproduction of skin cells, causing raised, inflamed red lesions, which can be physically painful.
Guselkumab is a human monoclonal antibody that selectively blocks the protein interleukin (IL)-23. Administered via injection, Guselkumab had 85.1% of patients achieving clearance or minimisation of their symptoms within 16 weeks, while only 6.9% of placebo patients achieved this.
At the 16 week stage of trial, 73.3% of patients had 90% skin clearance. By the 24-week stage, 80.2% of patients had 90% skin clearance compared with only 53% of patients who were given Humira, the current top-selling psoriasis drug.
It’s believed that up to 125 million people around the globe suffer from psoriasis, which is nearly 3% of the world’s population, so the amazing success rates achieved by Johnson & Johnson’s new drug Guselkumab will have far reaching results once the drug is made readily available.
Probuphine, an implant to treat opioid (painkiller) dependence, has been approved by the American FDA. Probuphine is used to automatically administer low doses of buprenorphine to opioid dependent patients to support their recovery process.
While buprenorphine tablets are already widely available, an implant is considered a ‘breakthrough’ development because it eliminates the need to take multiple pills throughout the day.
There’s also no risk of forgetting to take your medication, and because the implant disperses the medication evenly through your body, it can be effective in reducing withdrawal symptoms.
An implant also can’t be lost or stolen, is a safe way to have medication in your home around children and pets, and once it’s inserted the daily temptation to take opioids instead of buprenorphine is removed.
Probuphine is implanted under the skin of the upper arm in a procedure which takes just 15 minutes in an outpatient setting.
The world’s first baby born with a new three-parent technique has avoided the risk of developing the fatal Leigh syndrome, thanks to mitochondrial replacement therapy.
A team of doctors created an embryo by using the nucleus from the mother’s egg and inserting it into a donor egg that had the nucleus removed. The egg was then fertilised with the father’s sperm. In doing so, the doctors successfully created an embryo able to develop into a healthy baby boy.
Mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT) is a procedure designed to bypass devastating genetic diseases arising from abnormalities in the DNA in mitochondria, the cell’s power sources.
Babies can only inherit mitochondria from their mothers, so replacing abnormal mitochondria in an embryo with normal ones from a donor can produce healthy babies. But because it means the child will have DNA from three parents, MRT is a controversial procedure.
While MRT is illegal in many countries, the UK recently legalised it and Singapore appears about to follow suit. And because it’s not much different to other fertility treatments, many scientists believe that with more research and proper legislation, MRT is likely to become commonplace in the future.
Additionally, MRT has been used in Spain to treat infertility despite it being illegal in the country. Spanish centre Embryotools partnered with the Institute of Life in Athens, Greece, to carry out a clinical trial using MRT with approval from the Greek National Authority of Assisted Reproduction. It resulted in a pregnancy, showing MRT to be a good alternative to egg donation.
These 19 developments only scratch the surface of the incredible medical breakthroughs that have occurred in the last nine years. Though there are plenty of technological advancements to be concerned about – weapons, surveillance and an increasingly virtual world, to name a few – these advances in medicine show the potential for humans to work together to engineer a brighter, healthier future for all.