While every year brings about exciting advances in medical science, 2015 was notably spectacular. Over 12 months, we saw certain areas of health science move forward at such a rate that we can hardly keep up. Here are our highlights.
From the laboratory to the surgeon’s scalpel, the innovation of health scientists in 2015 reached a new high, redefining how we treat the human body and all its frailties. By expanding treatment options, understanding more complex biological factors and building on the research findings of others, fewer diseases have an inevitable outcome. In some cases, the disease will be conquered in the near future, a mere footnote in history.
These advancements are changing the way we approach certain conditions, diseases and ailments, bringing long-awaited relief to those affected. The illnesses that cause the most intense unpleasantness are often the hardest nuts to crack, so when a potential cure is on the horizon, this is very big news indeed. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the most stunning medical innovations of the year.
Surgeons successfully complete a full face transplant
In 2001, a firefighter from Mississippi named Patrick Hardison received extensive facial injuries after a burning roof collapsed on top of him. The intensity of the heat melted his protective gear and disfigured him beyond recognition, taking his ears, eyelids and scalp. After enduring 71 surgeries and chronic pain, he received a life-transforming gift – the donation of a new face and scalp from the family of a 26-year old man in a vegetative state. Over 26 hours, a 100-strong surgical team would attempt, for the first time, the incredibly complex feat of attaching donor nerves, muscle, eyelids, lips, skin, and scalp with hair, making it the most complete facial transplant in medical history.
It was Hardison’s 72nd surgery since the accident and the most risky – he was given a 50% chance of survival, with the first 3 months the most critical as his body responded to the new tissue. Against uncertain odds, Patrick Hardison has not rejected the donor face after 93 days and has responded well to immunosuppressant medications. Doctors say that after this period, the chance of rejection is minimal. Now, as Hardison adapts to his new physiology, he can look forward to further cosmetic changes to enhance his appearance, as well as the promise of eating and speaking comfortably once more. This success has laid the groundwork for treating similarly injured veterans and first-responders. See the transformation here.
Stem cell research has promised much but delivered relatively little in its 30 year history, but the science is finally yielding results that can translate to treatments. In October, two research teams lead by Douglas Melton of Harvard University successfully grew a replacement pancreas from stem cells for the purposes of insulin production, potentially changing the lives of type 1 diabetics. The study involved implanting stem cells into diabetic mice, which resulted in insulin production within 10 days and cured them of the condition. Once the teams have protected the stem cells from potential attack by the recipient’s immune system, human trials can begin.
Cataracts affect as many as 32 million people world-wide, often leading to blindness when surgical options are unavailable. They occur when the proteins that make up the lens of the eye deteriorate, usually as a resulting of ageing, leaving a cloudy, thick layer of debris. Intra-ocular lens (IOL) surgery will soon be a relic of history, now that a University of California research team has developed and tested eye drops that dissolve the milky film that can be completely debilitating. These drops were produced from the naturally-grown steroid known as lanosterol, and have now been tested on dogs and rabbits with severe cataracts, with tremendous results. Within a week of treatment, 11 of the 13 test subjects had either a significant reduction or a complete absence of their cataracts. Before long, the drops will shift to human clinical trials. This is especially exciting for those who cannot afford the expensive surgery and those in developing nations without comprehensive medical care.
A huge year for neuroscience
Brain science, the so-called last frontier of biology, is finally moving forward at an unstoppable pace. While there are more achievements in 2015 that we can document, there are a few standouts that deserve attention. Crossing the blood/brain barrier is no easy task, and remains the primary reason why brain tumours and neurodegenerative diseases are so difficult to treat.
Enter nanotechnology: the science of manipulating extremely small bodies of matter down to individual atoms and molecules, small enough to pass through the barrier without damaging it in order to deliver a new form of medication.
New Parkinson’s treatment on the horizon
Scientists at the CSIR-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research have recently developed a method of delivering dopamine directly to the brain using nanotechnology, providing relief for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease. Innovations in Parkinson’s disease made our 2014 list also, but we’ve moved on from experimental treatments in rats.
The symptoms of Parkinson’s are caused by the death of dopamine-producing neurons in an area of the brain known as the substantia nigra, resulting in a loss of muscle control as well as other issues such as disturbed sleep, altered mood and changes in speech. Unlike other drugs for Parkinson’s, the new dopamine nanotechnology has not shown side-effects in successful rat trials, so researchers are ready to move ahead with primate trials set to begin in the near future. With continued success, human trials can expect to show an entirely new way of treating a disease that affects around 80,000 Australians.
A new brain mapping model
The next breakthrough in neuroscience was also achieved thanks to rodents, after a Harvard cell biologist named Jeff Lichtman spent 6 years mapping a section of a mouse brain, leading to a three dimensional model in 2015. It is the first time that a section of tissue from the mammalian neocortex has been mapped. Found in the frontal lobe where higher-order thinking, reasoning and planning take place, it is the brain region that developed last, moving the animal beyond a behavioural pattern of primal urges. It is most pronounced in humans.
The findings have the potential to revolutionise advanced computing methods through reverse-engineering, paving the way for learning computers that can understand human cognition. Despite the lengthy process to refine the mapping method, future research can now advance at an increasing rate, with the inevitable prize being a complete map of a human brain. Watch the video here.
False memory technology
From the benign to the potentially sinister, our next leap in neuroscience will excite secret agents and Bond villains everywhere. Imagine if you implant false memories into others? Two MIT scientist first placed a rat into a metal cage with black plastic flooring. The rat became rigid with fear, remembering the trauma of receiving a shock to the foot whilst in that very box. It sounds like textbook behavioural science, but this time it was special – the rat had never actually experienced any such thing. The memory was entirely false, and a new hypothesis had formed.
Over the next two years, the team of two tested and re-tested the process of creating false memories by identifying the structure of individual memories and manipulating them, stunning the neuroscience world by the sheer achievement and its potential to revolutionise treatments for people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, and even Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the fodder of science-fiction scripts such as Total Recall, the Matrix and Inception, but now someone’s creativity is becoming our reality. Meet the researchers here.
Further laboratory research
Gut health research soars
Microbiome is the hottest word in gut research right now, with 2015 bringing us headline after headline about what new aspect of human health is affected by the state of our digestive tracts. Consider this: there are 10 microbes in our bodies for every human cell, most of which reside in the gut and number in their trillions. Collectively they weigh around two-and-a-half kilograms, and perform essential functions such as aiding digestion, synthesizing vitamins and preventing localised infection. This has long been known. What is being discovered now, through tentative research findings, is that these bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea have roles that go beyond these realms.
We’re discovering that geography can affect the make-up of the microbiome, as can general health and diet. Each of these factors influences the presence and prevalence of over 1,000 species that make up the human microbiome. In areas of ongoing research, scientists hypothesized or found suspicious links between gut health and conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and even colorectal cancer.
Our internal ecosystem is now being examined for its influence on neurological conditions such as depression, multiple sclerosis, depression and Parkinson’s disease. Though the headlines often sound definitive, the ideas are still firmly placed within the realm of possibility rather than accepted science. Watch this space.
Malaria is still a serious threat to human lives, particularly in tropical areas. After humans, mosquitoes are the most dangerous creature on the planet, due in large part to the fact that they spread diseases like malaria at an alarming rate. In particular, the potential to eradicate malaria would be a significant health advances in the modern era, and targeting mosquitoes is a smart place to start.
Malaria is caused by parasites that hitch a ride in mosquitos, which transfers the disease from one person to another. US researchers have managed to genetically manipulate mosquitos using mice DNA so they can attack the parasites before they can be passed along with the next bite. The jewel in the crown is that these new genes are almost always passed along to the next generation, potentially changing the mosquito genome forever. Modelling shows that releasing just 1 million GM mosquitoes into a population of 100 million will result in the trait being spread within a single season. Implemented on a wide-scale, we can save the lives of 600,000 people every year, and prevent suffering in millions more.
Human vocal cords transplant could restore speech
Doctors have harnessed cells from human larynx donors in order to build a set of vocal chords from the ground up, in an impressive feat documented by New Scientist. These cells were coaxed to form human tissue that resembles vocal fold mucosa, the fleshy folds in the larynx that vibrate when we speak and sing. The laboratory-grown vocal chords, constructed from two different types of tissue – collagen for strength, and fibroblasts that produce soft tissue for elasticity.
The new technology has been tested on mice and dogs, with no signs of rejection evident, leading the researchers to conclude that the tissue is not targeted by the immune system. The application could be transferred to programmed cells that are grown within the recipient, or bespoke larynxes that are fully cultivated in the lab and then implanted. The refinement of this technology hold the promise of giving a voice to those who have lost or never developed vocal chords, as well as those with severely damaged vocal folds.
3-D printing takes another step forward
2015 was the year of the printer. The small steps that had been taken in 2014, such as the world’s first surgery involving a 3-D printed skull, have since moved in leaps and bounds. Now we have entire limbs being printed that are fully functional. Robot, meet human.
The DARPA programme, a military-funded prosthetics scheme, financed the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University to design a revolutionary 3-D printed hand. The result is a hand that is not only strong and flexible, but actually transfers sensation to the brain, providing a biofeedback loop that will allow its owner to experience a tactile relationship in what was previously dead space.
This goes beyond the previous technology, which permitted control of the prosthetic limb via thought alone, but provided no sensation in response. The new model is built with tiny sensors that can ascertain pressure before being converted to electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain. The first volunteer subject to test the hand was able to identify which finger was being touched 100% of the time – whilst being blindfolded. It’s an overwhelming success. Whilst we’re not replacing lost limbs, we can restore the relationship between the lost limb and the outside world in the interim. Watch a video demonstration here.
Platelet bioreactor on a chip
Stores of donated blood for the purposes of transfusion often dip below the required levels. Blood transfusions are required under many circumstances, and save lives. Injury, surgical bleeding, disease that causes red blood cell or platelet loss and severe anaemia often require blood supplementation. Because its use is so common, it relies on the goodwill of regular donors, who sacrifice their time (and often submit to pain) so that others can have the best chance of survival.
Donation may soon be a thing of the past if a new technology succeeds, providing a reliable stock for hospitals and care facilities, and increasing the safety profile of blood products. Scientists have created a bioreactor, a tiny microcosm of simulated bone marrow made from silk that produces the most important components of the blood. The bioreactors, which mimic actual biological blood production when manually stimulated, will soon be produced on a large, cost-effective scale in a laboratory setting. It’s also an exciting opportunity to further examine the biological changes that stem from blood-borne disease.
With so many new health innovations in 2015, we can only await with bated breath what innovations are in store this year. What new health innovation could soon change your life?