For anyone who follows developments in medical science, technology and research, 2014 was an exciting year by any standard. Several truly remarkable advancements are redefining the way we treat a number of conditions, giving renewed hope for sufferers. While we chip away at the unpleasantness of many mild conditions, the diseases and ailments that bring the greatest suffering are generally mitigated at a slower pace, often due to the complexity of these conditions and the severity of the damage. It is always with the greatest pleasure, then, that we can announce the biggest “wins” in this category. Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the Oscars of the Health world.
Bionic Eye Helps the Blind to See
Although first developed in the US in 2013, the bionic eye device known as Argus II was refined and implanted into human subjects in 2014, and has given a new lease on life for those suffering from a degenerative disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, for which there is no cure. This condition gradually renders sufferers unable to distinguish between light and dark, ultimately resulting in total blindness. The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is the first real treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, and a moving video made at Duke University shows the sheer joy felt by Larry Hester of North Carolina as his device is turned on for the first time. He is able to see light once more.
So what exactly is the Argus II? It’s a small electronic gadget that is implanted directly into the eye accompanied by a camera in a pair of glasses. A video processing unit is carried by the recipient. The camera creates an electrical signal from the images it records, which are then transmitted to the implant. The implant stimulates the retina, or the back of the eye, and an image is then sent to the visual cortex in the brain. While the images are not comparable to normal vision, they can restore confidence and independence by allowing the implant recipient to navigate around solid object and discern, to some degree, the surrounding environment. It may not seem like much, but to someone who has been living in darkness for decades it must feel like a miracle. Expect vision technology to go in leaps and bounds in the near future.
Skull the Next Frontier in Transplants
It feels like just a couple of years since we first heard about 3D printing, but in the blink of an eye it’s made its way into homes, businesses and… hospitals! In a world-first in 2014, surgeons in the Netherlands replaced the skull of a 22-year old woman suffering from a bone condition that placed increasing pressure on the brain, which would eventually lead to a loss of motor function before ultimately killing her. The operation was done in less than a full day using the 3D printed plastic.
Previously, surgeons had to use a cement-like material which often fit poorly and caused more problems down the track, and multiple surgeries were necessary, with recovery time required between each. Prosthesis fit is now a problem of yesteryear, with precise, individualised measurements the main advantage of this technology. Additionally, the need for multiple major surgeries is gone, resulting in better recovery, better brain function and altogether less trauma for the patient. Interestingly, the 3D printing technology that lends itself to anatomical use was developed in Australia.
Embryos Inherit Traits from Three People
Whoever heard of a three-parent baby? Scientists have developed a way to take genetic material from the cell of a donor and splice it into an embryo prior to implantation. Far from being a scary lab experiment at the whim of researchers, the technique will be used to combat serious genetic diseases which can be debilitating or even fatal if it develops. Children will often experience muscle wastage, liver failure, blindness and brain damage – a horrific prospect for any parent. While this technology is not new, the law allowing its use certainly is. The British parliament has just voted in favour of a new law allowing prospective parents to use mitochondrial DNA from a donor which will effectively eliminate the possibility that their offspring will develop mitochondrial disease.
So how does it work, exactly? We actually have two kinds of DNA. The first kind sits in the nucleus of the cell, and contains the double-stranded helix that is all familiar to us from science class. When an embryo is created, it takes one set of information from the male parent, and another set from the female, and the combined genetic information creates the unique human being that will ultimately be born into the world. The second kind of DNA is called mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, and only makes up 0.054% of the overall genetic material – none providing the code for any emerging trait. That is, it won’t give you brown eyes or long legs or a penchant for mathematics or a predisposition for diabetes. It operates on a very local level, in the mitochondria of our cells (the energy-creating parts known as the “powerhouse”), and it comes solely from the mother.
Parkinson’s Patients May Get a New Lease on Life
Stem cells have come a long way in recent years, despite many charlatans offering stem cell cures for all manners of disease. And this good news story is one breakthrough that is no junk science. Swedish researchers at Lund University have successfully reversed neurological damage in rats after simulating Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s affects mostly older people, though early onset is possible, and compromises their ability to control their movements. A person with advanced Parkinson’s will experience tremors, a hunched gait, poor muscle control, balance problems and slurred speech, all stemming from the impaired nervous system. The disease destroys the dopamine-producing neurons in the body. You may know dopamine as the feel-good chemical, but beyond emotional affects, it also regulates muscle control.
The scientists have managed to create new dopamine-producing neurons from embryonic stem cells – the cells that have the ability to become any type of cell in the body. After destroying half of the dopamine neurons in the rats, which damages a significant portion of the brain, they implanted the stem cells, which had been programmed to release dopamine, and actually reversed the damaged part of the brain. This is an incredible result that has yet to be recreated in human test subjects, but these kinds of animal trials are tremendous predictors of future results.
New Hope for Endometriosis Sufferers
It wasn’t until Linda Griffith, a bioengineer at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began to collaborate with her gynaecologist and surgeon that she turned away from studying liver tissue and bone degeneration and started focussing on the condition that had caused her so much trauma – endometriosis. Having undergone nine separate surgeries for the disease, she knew only too well the physical and emotional burden. Although experts aren’t certain what causes endometriosis (they have a few theories), they can survey the full effects under the knife. What Linda and many other women (at least 6%) are experiencing is the result of uterine tissue that grows outside the uterus – this means it can be found in the bladder, the bowel, and the ovaries, or anywhere in the pelvic region. In the early stages it can just mean pain, abnormal menstruation and fertility problems, but if it advances then an inflammatory response sets in and organs can begin to “stick together”, as if by Velcro. This is extremely debilitating, and requires surgical intervention.
Thankfully, through the diligence of Linda’s research team, they have recently discovered cellular changes in pelvic fluid taken from endometriosis sufferers, marking the first time that an underlying mechanism has been identified. The team found thirteen out of fifty tested immune proteins called cytokines appeared to increase in concert – and women with the increased count (compared with a healthy control group) reported more pain and less successful pregnancies than women without it. The overriding approach would be to target the cytokine-producing immune cells with a tailored drug. This mightn’t seem like earth-shattering news, but when you consider that no new treatments for endometriosis have been offered in decades, sufferers must be rejoicing with the breakthrough.
The final word
There were additional medical breakthroughs that we can expect to hear a lot more about in the coming years – take the man who took his first steps since becoming a paraplegic due to a stem cell transplant, or the young Adelaide boy who now controls his diabetes through an intuitive insulin pump beneath his skin. These are just a few of the amazing and brilliant advances that the scientific community is bringing us year after year. And all to make our lives easier, healthier and fuller!