Morphine for teething babies? Opium to control diarrhea?
Arsenic and mercury to treat syphilis? Heroin to ease asthma symptoms? Don’t be too quick to dismiss such peculiar treatments. All of these were at one time considered legitimate options to treat various illnesses and conditions.
Medicine and medical treatments have come a long way in a relatively short time, with some of the latest advances being nothing short of miraculous. We’ve rounded up a number of the more impressive recent medical breakthroughs, some of which may change your life—or that of someone you love—for the better.
Promising Treatment For Alzheimer’s
Hailed as “the best news for dementia in 25 years,” a new antibody has been shown to substantially reduce the harmful protein deposits (beta-amyloid plaques) found in the brains of patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. D eveloped by the University of Zurich, the antibody known as Aducanumab significantly slowed cognitive decline in patients treated with it over a one-year trial. Treated patients showed almost complete clearing of the harmful plaques.
The clinical study included 165 patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s. Two larger clinical trials involving 2,700 patients from 20 different countries are currently underway to further evaluate safety and efficacy. The drug has been put on the “Fast Track” program by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to speed up development.
Fecal Transplants to Treat Intestinal Infections
About a half million Americans are infected annually with Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a potentially life-threatening bug that causes hard-to-treat intestinal infections and diarrhea. This nasty bug contributes to the death of 30,000 people each year. Although C. diff is often found in the gut, it can become dangerous when beneficial bacteria are killed off, typically by taking antibiotics.
That’s where fecal microbiota therapy (FMT) comes into play. Think of it as fighting bad bacteria with good bacteria. And where does that good bacteria come from? Someone else’s poop. Ideally, from a healthy person living in the same environment as the patient. (The donor’s stool is carefully screened to avoid disease transmission.)
The transplant is usually done via colonoscopy. Success rates of 91 to 97 percent are reported, which is especially significant when you consider most are resistant cases. The majority of FMT patients were free of diarrhea within three days after one treatment.
Are You At Risk?
Following the premise that forewarned is forearmed, researchers have found a better way to predict future risk of heart attack, stroke and death, even in patients who appear healthy. The new blood test measures blood levels of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), a compound the liver produces after a person eats certain nutrients found in meats, egg yolks and full-fat dairy products.
Studies have shown that TMAO directly contributes to the narrowing of artery walls due to plaque buildup. The higher the level of TMAO, the more susceptible that person is to the risk of a cardiac event. Patients with high levels of TMAO may need to change their diet, lose weight and possibly take medication to lower lipids. Now available through Cleveland HeartLab, the test is considered by the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association to be one of the top advances in the science of heart disease and stroke.
Brain Defibrillator Stops Grand Mal Seizures
For the 3 million Americans living with epilepsy, as many as 40 percent have seizures that are uncontrolled because of disturbances in the brain’s normal electrical function. Of those seizures, the type known as “grand mal” involves violent muscle contractions and loss of consciousness. Drugs are typically used to treat seizures, but aren’t always effective.
A new therapy known as Neuropace (or the RNS System) can stop seizure activity by enhancing brain stimulation. It has been described as a “pacemaker for the brain.” The implanted device, about the size of a flash drive, “continuously monitors electrical activity in the brain, detects abnormal electrical activity and delivers imperceptible levels of electrical stimulation to normalize that activity before the patient can sense an oncoming seizure.” The RNS System is reversible and doesn’t require removal of any brain tissue.
For someone with an irregular heart rhythm, a pacemaker can literally be a lifesaver. Traditional pacemakers use a “lead” to travel through a vein, across a valve and to the heart. However, that lead has long been considered the “weakest link” of the whole system because it can become infected, get dislodged, erode and cause serious complications. Adverse events typically occur in about 10 percent of patients.
Enter the new leadless pacemaker. About one-tenth the size of a traditional pacemaker, the leadless pacemaker integrates the pulse generator and the sensing-pacing electrode into one compact unit. While traditional pacemakers are inserted surgically, the leadless models are put in place in one chamber of the heart via catheterization through a vein in the leg. Once in the correct place, the pacemaker is “anchored” by a tiny corkscrew-like tip. Common complications should be eliminated because of the surgery-free insertion and the device, which is designed to be removable, has a battery life expectancy of seven to 10 years.
More Sensitive Cancer Screening
Cancer can’t be treated unless it’s detected, but some of the most deadly cancers aren’t easy to diagnose until they are advanced. Because cancer produces abnormal proteins, blood tests are used in diagnosis, but the problem has been that such tests weren’t always able to identify the proteins in question.
Researchers have begun testing new protein analysis that allows those proteins to be found sooner, so vital cancer treatment can be started at an earlier stage. The new tests identified twice as many cases of ovarian cancer at this earlier stage than tests currently used. Experts at the Cleveland Clinic hope this will result in longer survival rates for patients with pancreatic, ovarian and prostate cancers.
Intraoperative Radiation Therapy (IORT) for Breast Cancer Surgery
As if a diagnosis of breast cancer isn’t bad enough, many women have had to endure standard radiation therapy, which often means five days of treatment per week over a course of five to six weeks.
Typically used on patients in the early stage of the disease, IORT can reduce the need for this additional radiation therapy. It allows the oncologist to deliver a concentrated dose of radiation therapy directly to the tumor bed after the tumor has been removed surgically. The radiation helps destroy any microscopic tumor cells left behind.
Healthy tissues and organs are protected because of the precise application of radiation.
IORT only takes a few minutes, but it gives a “boost” for those patients whose doctors recommend radiation treatment after surgery, and they usually have fewer complications. IORT also allows more patients to take advantage of nipple-sparing surgeries, even if a full mastectomy is required.
I Spy A Bionic Eye
Now approved by the FDA, the Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System (Argus II) is being hailed as a bionic eye of sorts. This retinal prosthesis is designed to provide partial sight for people suffering from blindness caused by severe to profound retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that destroys the photoreceptors in the eye.
The device is implanted on the retina and receives a signal from an eyeglass-mounted camera. Patients with this new “artificial retina” are now able to discern between light and dark, an improvement that allows better function and more independence.
One-Drop Blood Tests
Researchers at the University of Victoria (Canada) have developed a less invasive method of blood testing to screen for cancer. All that’s needed is a pinprick and one single drop of blood.
From that one drop of blood, which is collected on a filtered paper, up to 25 tests can be conducted and markers found for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and signs of prostate and ovarian cancers. Some U.S. laboratories are already using similar one-drop testing to check for thyroid cancer.
Stem Cell Progress
Research continues on stem cells and reveals impressive progress. Adult stem cells from skin and bone marrow in particular have been shown to identify damaged tissue and produce near perfect repairs when re-injected into animals that have been given artificial strokes or heart attacks. Additional studies have shown that bone marrow from an adult human can form healthy brain tissue.
Researchers are presently working on ways to use stem cells to treat cardiovascular disease using “heart patches” in a pig, which, in the animal world, is a close approximation to a human heart. This is considered the last major hurdle before trials can move forward in human patients.
Another study successfully used low-powered lasers to activate stem cells and stimulate the growth of teeth in rats and human dental tissue, so one day it may be possible to regrow missing teeth.
Recent studies done under “real world” conditions showed that the new artificial pancreas significantly improves glucose control in patients with type 1 diabetes. That bodes well for the estimated 1.25 million children and adults in the United States who are affected by the condition.
The artificial pancreas, which received FDA approval in September, is a “closed loop” system worn by the user that combines an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor. The device monitors blood glucose and automatically adjusts levels of insulin entering the body. It’s a huge improvement from current technology in which the pump and monitor are separate. Studies and clinical trials continue on the artificial pancreas device, which will hopefully appear on the market by the end of 2018.
Pen-Sized Microscope Can Identify Cancer Cells
Surgeons rely on vision, sense of touch and pre-operative images of the brain when removing malignant brain tumors. Once the patient is on the operating table with their skull open, there’s no time to send samples to a lab to definitively determine which cells are cancerous and which are normal.
Researchers at the University of Washington (in collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University and the Barrow Neurological Institute) have developed a small, hand-held microscope capable of identifying cancer cells. This technology will allow surgeons to “zoom in” and observe the area at the cellular level so they can clearly differentiate between tumor and normal tissue. The goal is to allow a surgeon to remove all cancerous cells, leaving none behind. With human trials expected to start next year, the research team hopes surgeons will be using the device by 2018 to 2020.
Melting Sensors Monitor Brain Injury
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have developed a new class of electronic biomedical implants that can dissolve harmlessly in the human body.
Roughly the size of a penny, these tiny sensors can monitor swelling and brain pressure after surgery. Unlike conventional monitoring implants that carry risks of infection, allergic reaction, inflammation and even hemorrhage, the new sensors can transmit signals wirelessly and are absorbed into the body once they’re no longer needed. Because they’re made of bioabsorbable materials, they literally “melt away,” eliminating the risk of additional surgery for their removal. Human trials are the next step for this promising technology.