Advancements in technology have revolutionized the way we communicate, travel, and do business. But they’ve also had a profound effect on our health. Many people complain about video game, smartphone, and Internet addictions as well as the increasing isolation fueled by our reliance on communication methods that let us avoid ever coming face-to-face with another human being.
Ironically, this same technology has also turned our globe into the information equivalent of a small city or village. With all the sharing of medical data and the improvements in powerful equipment to make and keep us well, advances in medicine are occurring faster than ever.
Designer genetics, reversing the aging process, and a cure for the common cold all sound like futuristic medicine. But considerable progress was made on all these things and more during the past year. Here are 10 recent medical breakthroughs and how they will impact the future.
10 Successful Artificial Womb
Scientists have created an artificial womb capable of allowing very premature fetuses to develop normally for approximately one month. The device was tested on eight fetal lambs, which were extracted from their mother’s wombs prematurely and transferred to an artificial womb. The lambs continued to develop, showing normal growth and maturation until they were “delivered” after four weeks.
The artificial womb consists of a clear plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid. The umbilical cord of the fetus is connected to a machine that provides nutrition and oxygen to the blood, similar to the placenta.
A normal pregnancy lasts approximately 40 weeks. Thousands of babies are born very prematurely every year—after less than 26 weeks in utero. Only about half of these babies survive, and those that do suffer severe complications such as cerebral palsy, paralysis, and mental retardation.
An artificial womb approved for use with humans would allow these early births to continue developing in a womb-like environment for a longer period of time. Creators of the device hope to test it on human babies within the next five years.
9 First Human-Pig Hybrid
This year, researchers successfully created a human-pig hybrid, something scientifically referred to as a chimera. A chimera is an organism that contains cells from two different species.
One way to create a chimera is to introduce the organ of one animal into the body of another, but this carries a high risk of the host body rejecting the foreign organ. The other way to create a chimera is to begin at the embryonic level, introducing the cells of one animal into the embryo of another and allowing them to develop together.
Early chimera experiments resulted in the successful growth of rat cells inside a mouse embryo. Mouse embryos genetically modified to produce a rat’s pancreas, eyes, and heart had all developed normally. The promising results led to experiments with human cells.
Pig organs are quite similar to human organs, which is why the animal was chosen as a host. Human cells were injected into early stage pig embryos. The hybrid embryos were then implanted in surrogate sows and allowed to develop through the first trimester before being removed and examined. The result was 186 chimeric embryos that contained the beginning stages of important organs such as the heart and liver.
Being able to produce human organs and tissue inside another species is a big step toward the ultimate goal of lab-grown human organs, which have the potential to save thousands of lives. Currently, 22 people die every day while awaiting an organ transplant.
8 Flu-Fighting Frog Slime
A frog species that was recently discovered in southern India has flu-fighting slime. The secretions on a frog’s skin contain short chains of amino acids, or peptides, which act as a guard against bacteria. Scientists tested the peptides of the Indian frog and discovered that one of them, urumin, is capable of protecting against the flu.
Each strain of the flu contains two surface proteins, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. Flu strains are named for the variation of each protein they contain. For example, H1N1 has the H1 version of hemagglutinin and the N1 version of neuraminidase.
The most common strains of seasonal flu viruses contain H1. Urumin has effectively killed every type of H1 flu strain tested, even strains that have developed a resistance to current antiviral treatments.
Current medications that treat the flu target the neuraminidase protein of the virus, which mutates more often than the hemagglutinin. A drug that specifically targets the hemagglutinin would be effective against more strains of the flu and could provide the basis for a universal vaccine.
7 New Melanoma Treatment
A team of researchers at Michigan State University has discovered a potential drug that could drastically reduce the mortality rate of melanoma. This is the deadliest form of skin cancer primarily because the disease can quickly metastasize (spread through the body and affect organs such as the lungs and brain). This happens through a transcription process in which our genes produce RNA molecules and certain proteins in melanoma tumors that allow the cancer cells to spread.
A new chemical compound has shown success in interrupting this cycle. The compound shuts down the transcription process, which prevents the cancer from being able to spread so aggressively. In lab studies of its effect on melanoma cells, the compound was successful in reducing the spread of the cancer by 90 percent.
The potential drug is still a few years away from human trials, but researchers are optimistic about the possibilities. In addition to treating melanoma, the compound will also be tested for its ability to halt the spread of other types of cancer.
6 Bad Memory Eraser
People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma-related anxiety attacks could one day have the ability to simply erase their bad memories.
Scientists have been studying this for years. Recently, a pair of researchers at the University of California–Riverside (UCR) experienced a breakthrough when examining the effects of memory. They specifically looked at the pathways that create memories and allow us to access them.
When a traumatic event occurs, the brain’s pathway to that memory is stronger than pathways to memories that are not associated with trauma. This is why a person can remember every detail of a horrific event that happened years earlier but fail to recall what he ate for breakfast that morning.
To test traumatized mice, the UCR researchers played a high-pitched noise and shocked the mice at the same time. Predictably, playing the sound again caused the mice to freeze in fear.
Using a technique called optogenetics, the researchers were able to weaken the connections between the neurons associated with the pathway of the high-pitched noise. The mice were once again exposed to that sound but no longer showed any signs of fear. Their memory of the traumatic event had been effectively erased.
An important aspect of the technique is that only targeted memories are affected, so trauma sufferers would be able to forget their painful experience without forgetting how to tie their shoes.
5 Spider Venom Stroke Treatments
You would not want to get bitten by an Australian Darling Downs funnel web spider. Their venom can kill a human in 15 minutes. But it also contains an ingredient that can protect brain cells from the damage inflicted during a stroke.
When someone has a stroke, blood flow to the brain is interrupted, which starves the brain of oxygen. The brain reacts by functioning in an abnormal way that produces acid. This acid causes brain cells to die.
Hi1a, a particular molecule found in the Australian spider’s venom, has been shown to protect brain cells from stroke-related damage. When Hi1a was administered to rats two hours after an induced stroke, the extent of brain damage was reduced by 80 percent. When researchers waited until eight hours after a stroke to administer Hi1a, the amount of brain damage was still 65 percent less than what was seen in untreated rats.
There are currently no medications that protect stroke victims from brain damage. Some treatments will break up blood clots in the brain or control hemorrhaging to reduce injury to the brain. But nothing is available at this time to reverse brain damage from a stroke. If Hi1a proves successful in human trials, it would drastically improve the outcome for stroke victims.
4 Human Trials Of Antiaging Treatment
An antiaging treatment is one step closer to hitting the market. After animal trials showed incredible success in reversing the aging process of cells, human trials are currently underway.
Our cells are capable of repairing themselves, but their ability to do so declines as we get older. A certain metabolite called NAD+ is present in every cell and crucial to the repair process.
A team of researchers from the University of New South Wales conducted trials involving NMN, which makes up half of an NAD+ molecule. After NMN was given to elderly mice, they exhibited an increased ability to repair damaged cells. After just one week, the cells of older mice that had been treated with NMN were functioning just as well as the cells of younger mice.
A final step in the trial included exposing mice to radiation. Mice that had been pretreated with NMN showed lower levels of cell damage than ones that had not. Even mice treated with NMN after exposure exhibited less cell damage.
An effective antiaging treatment would not be limited to use in elderly patients. Astronauts experience accelerated aging when they are exposed to cosmic radiation. People who travel on airplanes or undergo X-rays are also exposed to radiation, albeit a much smaller amount. And childhood cancer survivors experience accelerated cell aging, which leads many to suffer from a chronic disease such as Alzheimer’s before they reach age 45.
3 Early Detection Cancer Tracking
Scientists from Rutgers University discovered a way to successfully track micrometastases, tiny tumors in the body that are too small to be detected by current screening methods. This new technique involves injecting tiny glow sticks into the bloodstream and waiting to see where they land.
The Rutgers team used nanoparticles that emit shortwave infrared light. The nanoparticles are designed to stick to cancer cells as they move throughout the body. In early studies, a test done on mice showed that the nanoparticles accurately tracked breast cancer cells as they spread to various locations in the critter’s legs and adrenal glands.
The nanoparticle method is capable of detecting a tumor months before MRI scans would be able to. Researchers believe the technique will be used for human cancer screenings within the next five years.
2 A Cure For The Common Cold
For centuries, humans have been trying to find a cure for the common cold. An ancient Egyptian medical document dated 1550 BC instructs someone suffering from a cold to recite “in association with the administration of milk of one who has borne a male child, and fragrant gum” to cure themselves.
Today’s treatments are about as effective. Vitamin C tablets, Echinacea teas, and various over-the-counter medications fail to work against the common cold.
But that may be about to change. While many viruses are responsible for causing the common cold, rhinovirus is the most prevalent, causing up to 75 percent of infections. A team of researchers at Edinburgh Napier University found success earlier this year when testing certain antimicrobial peptides.
The team synthesized peptides found in pigs and sheep. Then the researchers tested the peptides against lung cells that had been infected with rhinovirus. The peptides were successful in killing the virus.
Researchers are working to modify the peptides to be even more effective against the rhinovirus before developing them into a drug capable of curing the common cold.
1 Embryonic DNA Repair
For the first time, scientists have successfully edited the DNA in a human embryo without causing any unintended harmful mutations.
An international team of scientists conducted an experiment using a powerful new gene-editing technique. Sperm was obtained from a donor carrying a genetic mutation that causes cardiomyopathy, a disorder that weakens the heart and causes irregular heartbeats, heart valve problems, and heart failure.
The sperm was used to fertilize donor eggs, and then the gene-editing tool was used to alter the mutation. Scientists described it as a microscopic surgery in which they administered a precise cut to the mutated gene.
When the gene was cut, the embryo was triggered to repair the defective gene on its own. The technique was used on 58 embryos, and the gene mutation was successfully corrected in 70 percent of them. Most importantly, the correction did not result in unintended defects in other areas of the DNA, as was the case in earlier experiments.
The embryos were not used to create babies. More testing is required before that would be possible.
Critics of genetic modification in embryos are concerned about a few factors. Changes made to the DNA of an embryo would be passed down in future generations, so any mistakes made in the gene-editing process could ultimately result in new genetic diseases. There are also concerns that the research could lead to “designer babies,” where parents pick and choose the traits of their children before birth, effectively crafting a child with certain physical aspects and abilities.
Scientists researching embryonic genetic modification state that their work is only aimed at preventing genetic diseases, not creating made-to-order offspring. Diseases that could be prevented with embryonic gene editing include Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and cases of breast and ovarian cancer caused by mutations in the BRCA gene.