10 Most Important Medical Findings of 2016
2016 was a year of huge advances in the medical field. Many of these were based on the rapidly improving technology that is touching all of our lives. As we look through the many technological advances that have impacted the medical field over the course of the year, it can often seem like we are reading a science fiction book. Those who remember the movies Blade Runner or Total Recall might even have some moments of déjà vu. While we may not yet be living in a world of flying cars and travel to Mars, the new landscape of technology is nonetheless revolutionary. Imagine replacing a lost tooth with an organically grown new one or being able to have faulty DNA cut out of your eggs before they are fertilized. The future promises these advancements and much more.
From studies on how psychedelic drugs can be used to treat depression and PTSD to a new implantable lens that could be the cure for blindness, it was a year that could lead to major improvements in how long we live and in what condition. Many of the largest findings in 2016 are still in the early stages and have not been brought to market or tested on large groups of human subjects. However, many of the breakthroughs have already been through numerous lab simulations or have been approved by the government to take testing to the next stage. From those suffering from Type 2 diabetes to parts of the world that have been crippled by the Ebola virus, the findings of 2016 could very easily change millions of lives.
10The World’s First Artificial Pancreas
Diabetes has become an epidemic in our society. It’s estimated that over 30 million children and adults in the United States suffer from the disease. The overwhelming percentage, over 95%, suffer from Type 2 diabetes. This type often occurs later in adulthood and can be the result of poor diet and lack of exercise. Because it affects a far greater population, Type 2 diabetes usually gets more press than the deadlier Type 1. While Type 2 diabetics form insulin resistance, those with Type 1 have little to no insulin production at all from their pancreas. Type 1 diabetics are usually diagnosed in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood and face a lifetime of blood monitoring and insulin supplementation. There are currently 1.25 million children and adults in the United States who have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
More than 1/3 of those living with Type 1 diabetes use an insulin pump to help regulate their blood sugar due to the failure of their pancreas to produce it. Whether they use a pump or the manual method of testing and injecting insulin when needed, life as a Type 1 diabetic is not easy and can lead to a marked reduction in lifespan. Medtronic’s new MiniMed 670G, which was approved by the FDA in September of 2016, is one of the year’s most exciting advances for those with this condition. Called the world’s first artificial pancreas, the device continuously monitors blood sugar levels and delivers insulin as needed via a pump worn on the abdomen. The MiniMed 670G is approved for those over 14 years of age and could lead to a dramatic improvement in the quality of life of Type 1 diabetics.
9DEA Approves First Medical Marijuana Study
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) was founded in 1986 and has raised over $36 million for medical marijuana research and education as well as other psychedelic therapy. They have been petitioning the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for years to approve a study on the medicinal effectiveness of marijuana but have been unsuccessful. The only sanctioned clinical trials have been on extracts of the cannabis plant. That all changed in April when the DEA finally gave them the green light to run a trial and establish if smoking pot can have positive effects on patients experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. This initial study will focus on veterans suffering from PTSD, but could easily be opened up to other sufferers of this debilitating condition.
The approved study will explore a variety of marijuana strains with different ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It will seek to gather data that will provide valuable information on composition, side effects, dosing, and areas of benefits of medicinal marijuana. This information can then be presented to clinicians and legislators in the hopes of increasing the legal use of marijuana to treat PTSD. Previous studies not sanctioned by the FDA have found a link between PTSD and low levels of anandamide in the brain. Anandamide, which is sometimes known as ‘inner cannabis,’ is a calming chemical that helps people forget traumatic memories. Cannabis can possibly be used to replenish these missing chemicals to fill receptor sites and give sufferers relief. The softening in DEA policy that allowed this study to be sanctioned could mean that further testing will be approved in the near future.
8Trials Start to Find Anti-Aging Drug
A pill that will make you live forever has long been a topic of science fiction movies and television shows. While we may not be close to developing a drug that will make humans live forever, 2016 was the year we took a major step closer. Researchers began a new trial called Targeted Aging with Metformin (TAME), which tests a popular treatment for Type 2 diabetes on age-related conditions like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Unlike prior trials which have tested drugs for individual conditions, this trial will focus on a drug that could affect the fundamental process of aging. The goal is to help those taking the drug live as long as 120 years without major detrimental health impacts.
The clinical trial uses the FDA-approved drug Metformin, which has been used safely and effectively in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes for over 60 years. Lab trials on animals have shown that the drug is effective in slowing the aging process and halting disease. The new trial will try to replicate those results in humans. Scientists will test the drug on 3,000 individuals who have or are at risk of developing an age-related disease. The patients will range in age from 70 to 80 years old. There are many other drugs that could have the same benefits if Metformin fails, so this initial trial could be the doorway to a new revolution. Metformin is being tested first because of its proven track record of safety and because of its relative low cost compared to other drugs.
7Researchers Make Progress Growing New Teeth
It’s estimated that 24% of Americans will have lost all of their permanent teeth by the age of 74. Though there are many options for replacements such as dentures and implants, nothing can replace natural teeth. That’s what makes the new research on growing new teeth so exciting. A group of researchers from Harvard has successfully used lasers to activate stem cells and kick start the growth of new teeth in rats and in dental tissue taken from humans. The lasers are low-powered and pose little risk to human health. Stem cells are also the star of Pam Yelick’s research. Pam is a professor of orthodontics at Tufts School of Dental Medicine and she and her team are also utilizing stem cells to grow healthy new teeth. The cells are harvested from healthy adult tooth pulp and carefully placed on custom-designed scaffolding created to mimic human jaws. They are then coaxed into forming new tooth buds that have the ability to grow into mature teeth.
The process is slow and has taken years to get to its current stage. Human teeth need the right conditions in which to grow, and early stage teeth can still take up to five months to reach maturity. It will likely take years before the technology is able to be utilized in real life scenarios. However, the progress is incredibly exciting. Not only does it mean a leap in advancement for dental innovations, but it could also be applied to other areas. If researchers are able to stimulate stem cells to grow in a controlled way, they could also be used for the repair wounds, muscle and tissue, and even possibly regenerate bones.
6A New Light Bulb That Kills Bacteria Is Brought to Market
Approximately one in 25 patients in the United States contract at least one infection when they are in the hospital. The infections cause almost 99,000 deaths per year. These numbers, provided by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were one of the reasons why a company called Indigo-Clean began working on a solution to help kill the bacteria that causes these infections. The result is technology that uses visible light to disinfect the hospital environment on a continuous basis. The light affects molecules that naturally reside inside bacteria. Called porphyrins, these molecules are susceptible to the type of light used in the product. When the light is absorbed, it causes a reaction within the bacteria that deactivates it. The effect is similar to if household bleach were released within each cell. The light is lethal to bacteria and pathogens, but safe to use around patients and hospital staff.
The reason that Indigo-Clean has proven to be so effective is because it prevents bacteria from regenerating and populating the space again. While other disinfecting methods are effective at killing bacteria, it is short-lived. The bacteria-killing light bulb, on the other hand, provides continuous treatment for the air and hard surfaces in a hospital room. This not only kills bacteria that is present, but also prevents new bacteria from forming. The company plans to make the bulbs available for commercial use and is also working on a partnership program with healthcare facilities to enable them to utilize the technology. This could mean a drastic decrease in hospital-contracted infections and resulting deaths in the near future.
5First Three-Parent Baby Born
Aspiring parents who carry harmful DNA that could be passed on to their children have new reasons for hope. A baby was born in 2016 to a Jordanian couple who technically had three parents. The infant was the result of a process called mitochondrial transfer. The process occurred when scientists removed some of the mitochondria from the mother’s egg before fertilization. In this case, the mother carried DNA that predisposed her children to Leigh syndrome, a severe and most often deadly neurological disorder. This particular couple had already had two children with Leigh syndrome, both of whom had died. After the healthy DNA was removed from the mother’s egg, it was slipped into a donor egg and fertilized with the father’s sperm. The result was a baby who effectively had the DNA of three parents.
Though this seems like the stuff of science fiction, mitochondria transfers have been researched for more than a decade. Scientists had attempted to inject healthy mitochondria into an egg to help with in vitro fertilization. Though this method involved no swapping of nuclei, it was still controversial and subsequently banned. Work with human mitochondria is still banned in the United States and the Jordanian couple in this breakthrough had the procedure done at a Mexican clinic. Britain has recently allowed research on these types of transfers to occur, but the United States still bans this type of research. Supporters are hopeful that, due to the success of this procedure, other governments may ease their legislation and allow more breakthroughs to occur.
4Effective Ebola Virus Developed
A major milestone was achieved in 2016 when an experimental Ebola vaccine proved to be highly effective in preventing the spread of the deadly virus. The vaccine was developed by the Canadian government and manufactured by Merck, Sharpe & Dohme. The company received Breakthrough Therapy Designation from the USDA and PRIME status from the European Medicines Agency to enable a faster review of the vaccine once it was developed. Though the vaccine has no effect on those who have already contracted the virus, it provides 100% immunity for those who are or may be exposed. This is a huge breakthrough, especially in the wake of the 2013-2016 West African Ebola outbreak which caused more than 11,300 deaths.
Initial trials of the vaccine have been performed on healthy adults. However, new studies are being done to test the safety of the vaccine in children and individuals with lowered immunity, such as those suffering from HIV. Though the vaccine appears to only be effective against one or two of the most common strains of Ebola and may not offer long-lasting protection, it’s still a breakthrough that could change the way we fight a previously unbeatable killer. Scientists are calling it a major step in the right direction, though the most effective vaccine would be one that could protect against all five strains of Ebola as well as the related Marburg virus.
3New Gene Identified Linked to ALS
A new gene was identified in 2016 that is a major contributor to the hereditary Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more often called Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that leads to total paralysis. A progressive disease, those with ALS lose control of muscle movement that is controlled by nerve cells in the brain and spine. Death normally occurs within two to five years of diagnosis. The newly identified gene, called NEK1, is associated with three percent of all ALS cases. Though this may not sound like a high percentage, the discovery is a significant one that could lead to more effective therapy development. Due in large part to funds raised during the popular ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the gene was identified through Project MinE. The project was an effort to sequence the genomes of 15,000 people internationally with ALS and was only made possible with the new sources of donations developed during the Ice Bucket challenge. In the past, such a large sampling was impossible due to its cost.
Researchers have believed in the past that ALS was only 10 percent genetic, with the other 90 percent of cases occurring randomly. However, this and other new research could prove that there is a much larger genetic factor involved. The NEK1 gene was present in cases both genetic and those that were thought to be random, proving that genetic factors are much more in play than previously believed. This new discovery will help further research and contribute to the understanding of the disease process.
2Scientists Discover New Genetics of Cancer Tumors
Researchers at the University College London have discovered new information about the genetics of cancer tumors, which could lead to a new way to target and kill the deadly cells. When cancer cells mutate, scientists discover, they product distinct antigens that appear on the surface of the tumors. These unique flags are what researchers are equating with the tumor’s ‘Achilles heel’ and could help doctors identify which cells to target in various cancer treatments. One approach to target these mutations is to develop cancer vaccines that train each patient’s immune system to spot them. The other involves ‘fishing’ for the immune cells that already target these mutations in a patient’s body, remove them, replicate them, and place them back in the patient.
This could address the major problem in traditional cancer treatments, which is that healthy cells are killed along with the diseased cells. This often makes the treatment of cancer, mainly chemotherapy and radiation, as damaging as the disease itself. Though the new discovery is exciting and could lead to major advances in targeting and killing cancer cells, scientists and doctors alike caution that it is still early days. Cancer cells are notoriously complex and ever-changing, which make them difficult to destroy. The proposed targeting procedures have also not been tried on human patients, so their effects have not been proven.
1Google Unveils Patent Application for ‘Cyborg Eye’
Google has taken another leap forward in technology by patenting what some are calling the ‘cyborg eye.’ This Google Contact Lens would be implanted to replace the human eye’s natural lens, destroying it in the process. It can adjust to correct poor vision as well as read the blood pressure for glaucoma patients, the glucose levels for those living with diabetes, and could potentially restore lost vision completely. The device not only adjusts to correct for changing vision, but it also wirelessly sends data to a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. This could be instrumental in communicating information to a doctor or optometrist, who could then adjust for changing vision needs and monitor any red flags that may occur. The device would be powered by an outside antenna that would could be worn in a watch or other small piece of jewelry and would pull power from nearby sources. This would make the need for a replaceable battery unnecessary.
In addition to helping with vision and health, the tech could also lead to a smart contact lens that would allow the user to read barcodes, have night vision, or detect environmental allergens. It could also allow outsiders to monitor body temperature or even blood alcohol levels of the wearer. However, this type of technology opens up the possibility for abuse that has some detractors objecting to its use. Though the patent has been filed and initial trials have confirmed that the project is viable, there is no telling when or if the ‘cyborg eye’ will be on the market.
We may not be living in a world of time travel and aliens, but we’re certainly living during a time of unique and sometimes stunning medical breakthroughs. While researchers and scientists continue their studies and trials, we can be assured the there will always be some big news on the horizon.
From those suffering from previously incurable diseases to those whose lives have been impacted by traumatic events, the medical breakthroughs that occurred in 2016 couple spell the means to a better life. As we better understand the impact of stem cells and their use in re-growing human tissue and as we integrate more artificial technology, the new developments will come at a rapid pace. We look forward to the medial findings of 2017 and how they will enhance what is already on the market and move us forward to a healthier and better tomorrow.