2019 is over! What a fantastic year for medicine, from pictures of a baby’s heart being taken whilst still in the womb, to the ultimate limit of human endurance being found by scientists analysing a 3,000 mile run, the Tour de France, and other elite events, to the a diet for malnourished children on bananas, chickpeas, and peanuts, which can boost gut bacteria helping them to grow, and so much more!
Firstly, 30 year old Thibault, who was an optician before he fell 15m in an incident at a night club four years ago, leaving himself paralysed. In 2017, he began to be involved in a trial by Clinatec and the University of Grenoble, which is a mind-controlled exo-skeleton. This 65kg machine works as Thibault had 2 implants on the surface of his brain, each of which had 64 electrodes which read the brain activity and beam the instructions to a nearby computer which reads the brainwaves and turns them into instructions for controlling the exoskeleton. Thibault still needs to be attached to a ceiling-harness to minimise the risk of him falling over in the exoskeleton, hence, the device is not yet ready to move outside the laboratory. As to its success, when rotating his wrists and moving his arms, it was successful 71% of the time, but overall shows a huge improvement into the treatment of paralysis.
Another paralysis project was a trial involving patients with quadriplegia, affecting movement in all their limbs except for some muscles in their upper arms. If you have quadriplegia, your functioning nerves leading from the spinal cord to these muscles were rewired. The nerves were cut and then attached to nerves that control other muscles. For example, nerves that once turned the palm up to face the ceiling could be used to extend all the fingers in the hand. So now when a patient thinks of rotating their hand, their fingers extend. Dr van Zyl said that they were ‘definitely not restoring normal hand function’ by rewiring these nerves. The focus is on two areas – opening and closing the hand and being able to extend the elbow to reach for something. Dr van Zyl added that this would allow ‘your hand open, get it around something and then grasp and pinch’. So, it can make a massive difference to people’s lives.
Another fantastic project was the creation of a unique drug for a girl with batten disease. Mila Makovec, 8, suffered from an incredibly rare disease, and, by the age of six, she was blind, could hardly speak, and had many seizures. It is caused due to the buildup of fatty substances called lipopigments in the body’s tissues. As these substances accumulate, they cause the death of cells called neurons in the brain, retina and central nervous system. Mila’s family set up the ‘Mila’s Miracle Foundation’ resulting in the Boston Children’s hospital creating a drug that corrected the errors in Mila’s DNA, as it is a genetic condition. Although not cured, she is now having fewer seizures.
There are many diseases which result in the loss of ability to speak, such as: motor neurone disease, throat cancer, some strokes, or neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s).The University of California have developed a ‘mind-reading’ technology, an electrode is implanted into the brain, which picks up electrical signals that manoeuvre the lips, tongue, voice box, and jaw. Then computing simulates how the movements in the mouth and throat would form different sounds, resulting in synthesised speech coming out of a ‘virtual vocal tract’. Previous attempts have searched for individual words in one’s brain, and then turned this into speech, however these have had limited success. This trial focuses on shaping the mouth, and the sounds that it would produce, and, as Professor Edward Chang (one of the researchers) said, ‘for the first time, this study demonstrates that we can generate entire spoken sentences based on an individual’s brain activity.’ So far it has had fair amounts of success. In trials, people could work out what was said by the synthesised voice 70% of the time, and could therefore make massive improvements in people’s lives.
Finally, in the US, Biogen says it will seek regulatory approval for a groundbreaking drug, called aducanumab, which targets a protein called amyloid that forms abnormal deposits in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Several drugs have been designed to target this process, but none has yet succeeded in improving outcomes for people living with Alzheimer’s disease. The findings of their trial indicated that people who received the drug had lower levels of amyloid in the brain on brain scans and a slower decline in memory and thinking skills. Those who received the highest, 10mg/kg dose, showed the strongest signs of a benefit.
Therefore, 2019 has been a fantastic year for medical developments, and I hope that the same is true of 2020, and the following years.