Review of medical advancements in 2015

2015 has been an exciting year and has seen many breakthroughs in medicine. Here are some of my favourites from this year:

1. Gene editing

Layla Richards, a one year old girl, had incurable aggressive leukaemia in June (when she was three months old). Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant didn’t work but because of advances in gene editing she’s alive and has no trace of leukaemia in her body.

Doctors used microscopic scissors (Talens) were used to engineer the DNA inside the donor’s immune cells. These immune cells were designed to kill only leukaemia cells. They were then injected into Layla and she then had a second bone marrow transplant to restore her immune system.

It’s too early to know if she has been cured or if the technique used to save her will work for other patients with cancer but this case clearly shows that gene editing could be used to treat cancer and also genetic diseases. As well as this, gene editing can have many other uses such as breeding genetically modified mosquitoes that are resistant to malaria and tweaking genes in human embryos before implanting them in a woman’s womb using the CRISPR method. This method is now easy, cheap and effective and works well in almost all animals, which means that next year will bring more gene-edited organisms and that the method will be used more often to change existing genes in animals and humans. Debates are still going on about the use of gene editing but if it is allowed, it would certainly change medicine and the way we live.

2. The discovery of new antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance has been a huge problem recently and scientists fear that the whole world is heading into a post-antibiotic era. Bacteria that are resistant to all drugs, including colistin, used when other treatments have failed have been found. This means that more infections would become untreatable and that we can’t do surgery, chemotherapy, etc. because we need antibiotics to treat infections and for certain operations.

However, this problem can be avoided as long as antibiotics aren’t overused/prescribed inappropriately in the future. This January, a team of researchers at the Northeastern University have discovered 25 new antibiotics, including teixobactin, by growing bacteria from the soil in a laboratory. These drugs have to be tested first to see if they are suitable for medical use but if they are suitable, then more antibiotics could be discovered in the same way and antibiotic resistance can be prevented or at least delayed.

3. Alzheimer’s disease

It has been suggested that solanezumab can reduce the rate of the dementia’s progression by around 34%. Right now, the death of brain cells in Alzheimer’s is unstoppable but the drug might be able to keep them alive. The drug works by attacking the deformed proteins (amyloid) that build up in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s. This prevents the formation of sticky plaques of amyloid between nerve cells and therefore prevents brain cells from being damaged and from dying. A large trial will be conducted next year to collect more evidence and to find out the drug’s impact on Alzheimer’s symptoms. Other drugs that could slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s (e.g. azeliragon, which works by reducing brain inflammation) are also promising.

But drugs aren’t the only way the symptoms of Alzheimer’s can be improved. Next year the results from a trial where people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s were given blood donated by volunteers aged 30 or younger to try to improve their symptoms. When young human blood was injected into old mice, their cognition, physical endurance and the health of their organs improved. Hopefully, the results of this trial will be good but we don’t know what will happen until next year.

4. Creating biolimbs and vocal cords from living cells

Harald Ott and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston grew a rat forelimb from living cells for the first time using the “decel/recel” (decellularisation and recellularisation) technique in June. Click here to find out more about this.

The same team then grew the world’s first vocal cords from scratch using cells from human donors last month. They then made the cells form tissue that was just like vocal fold mucosa (the flaps in the larynx that vibrate to create the sounds of the human voice when we speak). This could allow people who are unable to speak as a result of losing their vocal cords due to surgery or disease to speak again and would significantly improve their quality of life.

These are only a few of my favourites and there are many more breakthroughs that have fascinated me this year and that will have a significant impact on our lifestyles and on treatments for patients. As well as this, there are lots of things to look forward to next year, for example, some volunteers who have lost their sight due to injury will receive bionic eyes (a device with a camera mounted to a pair of glasses) that bypass most of the visual system and that should restore vision in people without a retina. If the bionic eye works properly, the volunteers will have a crude sense of vision.

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