Research scientists around the world have been working on new medical treatments that will improve millions of lives. We’ve chosen 20 of the most fascinating and important to showcase here.
1. REGENERATING BODY PARTS
Regenerative medicine—a branch of science working to find ways to regrow or replace damaged tissue and organs—took a huge leap forward in 2017, when Ohio State University researchers announced the development of a new technology called tissue nanotransfection. TNT technology, which is embedded in a tiny chip, can reprogram skin cells to repair organs and blood vessels.
With certain kinds of DNA, “we can convert one kind of cell into other types,” says Jim Lee, an Ohio State professor and coleader of the project. The noninvasive procedure involves placing a postage stamp-size chip on the skin and sending a small electric current through it. The process delivers DNA vectors into the body in less than a second. So far, the research has focused only on animals, growing blood vessels in an injured mouse leg in a week and generating nerve cells that helped mice recover from strokes. Clinical trials in humans are scheduled to begin in 2018.
2. A SMARTPHONE HEART MONITOR
Keeping a watch on your heart has gotten more convenient and sophisticated. People can get medical-grade electrocardiograms using a small device that attaches to the back of a smartphone, then receive monthly analyses of their results and have the reports sent directly to their doctors.
And soon, pending FDA clearance, consumers will be able to get EKGs simply by placing a finger on the band of an Apple Watch.
Vic Gundotra, CEO of AliveCor, which produces the monitors, says the company is also collaborating with Mayo Clinic to develop an artificial intelligence system that can predict from an EKG if a patient has too much or too little potassium in the blood and is at risk of sudden death.
3. LIQUID BIOPSIES
Scientists announced major steps forward this year in the development of “liquid biopsies,” methods for analyzing blood samples to find evidence of cancer. Currently being used to detect changes in people with metastatic cancer, liquid biopsies could eventually help diagnose new cancers early, when they’re most treatable.
“Finding tumor DNA in the blood is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Pedram Razavi, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City who led a recent study. The latest tests in development are so comprehensive that doctors don’t even need to know what genetic mutation they’re looking for.
4. A FAST-ACTING DEPRESSION DRUG
Nearly one-fifth of people suffering from depression get little, if any, relief from prescription drugs. But researchers have discovered that treatment-resistant depression can sometimes be lifted in a matter of hours with ketamine, an intravenous anesthesia drug.
“This could be a bigger game changer than Prozac,” says Anthony Rothschild, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who is studying a nasal-spray version of the drug. Ketamine could be the first drug in 50 years found to affect various neurological pathways to alleviate depression—and it may radically change scientific understanding of how depression works.
Ketamine does have downsides. The powerful effects last only 7 to 10 days, and it’s unclear whether repeated infusions will be safe. The medication can also elevate blood pressure and sometimes trigger hallucinations. Researchers are studying similar drugs that may not have such dire side effects, and some hope a new medicine will be available in the next few years. “It looks more promising every month,” Rothschild says.
5. EARLIER PANCREATIC CANCER DETECTION
The third-leading cause of cancer death, pancreatic cancer is especially lethal because it’s usually detected only after malignant tumors have spread. But researchers have made a discovery that could finally make early detection easier.
By reverse engineering late-stage cancer cells to their stem-cell state, researchers identified two key proteins that appear in the blood of patients when they initially develop the disease.
“It’s promising, but we have more work to do,” says Ken Zaret, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who conducted the work with Gloria Petersen of Mayo Clinic. If all goes well, the test could be ready within a few years for people at high risk of contracting the disease.
6. SURGICAL SUPERGLUE
A humble slug has inspired scientists to develop a new superglue that could be an alternative to surgical stitches and staples.
Jianyu Li, now an assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal, helped create the new adhesive after studying the mucus secreted by slugs when they’re startled. Li says the hydrogel, made of biomaterials that replicate the mucus, is strong, nontoxic, flexible, and able to stick to wet surfaces—even those covered in blood. “This could be the next generation of bandages and could also be used for wound healing,” he says.
The material has been tested in animals and was able to seal a hole in a pig’s heart. Next, Li, who developed the glue with colleagues at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, hopes to make it biodegradable so it dissolves after use.
7. DEEP BRAIN STIMULATION FOR STROKES
Researchers at Cleveland Clinic conducted the first-ever deep brain stimulation therapy in a stroke patient this year, and the patient regained more of her motor function than expected.
The therapy, originally scheduled to last 4 months, is ongoing because the patient continues to make progress, says Andre Machado, a neurosurgeon and chair of the clinic’s Neurological Institute, which is conducting the experiment.
“We’re encouraged,” Machado says, adding that there are “strong implications” the therapy will be useful in helping people recover physical function after a stroke leaves them paralyzed or faced with other debilities. Nearly half of the 5.5 million Americans who have had strokes are unable to perform daily activities without assistance.
Deep brain stimulation, typically used in Parkinson’s disease patients, can foster new neural connections and improve plasticity in the brains of stroke patients. It also may boost the effects of standard physical therapy, says Machado, who is currently working with another patient and has plans to conduct the therapy in 10 more stroke victims soon.
8. 3-D PRINTED SPINAL IMPLANTS
Patients suffering from spinal deformities began getting more high-tech help this year, thanks to new 3-D printed implants made from titanium.
Several of these implants are made from titanium powder and designed with rough surfaces and porous structures, which allows them to integrate more quickly and completely into the body. “3-D printing technology is designed to allow bone to grow onto and through the implant,” says Eric Major, president and CEO of K2M, the manufacturer of two 3-D printed implants cleared by the FDA this year.
One of the K2M implants can stabilize the spine where portions of the vertebrae were removed. Another, created by SI Bone, can be implanted in patients with disorders of their sacroiliac joint, which is the cause of almost one-quarter of all chronic lower-back pain.
9. CONTACT LENSES FOR MORE THAN VISION
Scientists at Oregon State University have developed transparent sensors that can turn contact lenses into sophisticated health monitors, measuring levels of blood sugar, uric acid, and other substances.
“We believe we could integrate more than 100 sensors into the lenses,” says Gregory Herman, the chemical engineering professor spearheading the research.
Blood glucose monitoring through contacts could help people with diabetes, who must repeatedly prick their fingers to track blood sugar. The contacts might also be able to detect cancer early, track stress hormones, or even improve athletic performance, Herman says. If the research continues to go well, the contacts could reach the market within 5 years.
10. NO-DRILL TOOTH REPAIR
British researchers announced a novel technique that could make dental fillings obsolete. Their work shows that teeth can repair themselves naturally, using stem cells to stimulate the growth of dental tissue.
Scientists at Dental Institute at King’s College London found that small amounts of tideglusib, an Alzheimer’s drug currently in clinical trials, promote the growth of dentin (the material under enamel that can repair teeth) and jump-start tooth regeneration.
In an experiment in mice, researchers soaked a small biodegradable sponge with the drug, then put it in the tooth pulp, where stem cells reside. New dentin began to grow. Within weeks, the sponge decomposed, and in its place was a perfectly restored tooth.
11. NEW DRUG FOR OVARIAN AND BREAST CANCERS
A new type of drug, called a PARP inhibitor, can sometimes delay progression of ovarian cancer for up to 2 years and may also be effective against breast cancer. Three of these drugs are on the market, and all are designed to ensure that cancer cells damaged by chemotherapy can’t repair themselves. Prior to the development of PARP inhibitors, no new ovarian cancer drug had been approved in the US since 2006.
Scientists initially believed that the medications would work only in women who carry BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, but now it looks as if the drugs could help a much larger group of cancer sufferers. Zejula, the most recent PARP inhibitor, was approved this year for all relevant ovarian cancer patients, not just those with the genetic mutations.
12. PERSONAL ROBOTS
The nation’s first personal health care robots moved into patients’ homes this year, helping people manage such chronic illnesses as rheumatoid arthritis, late-stage kidney disease, and congestive heart failure.
Deep inside Mabu, one of the first of these robots, are sophisticated electronics that allow it to monitor medication use, motivate patients to follow doctors’ orders, and connect people with doctors or pharmacists when necessary.
The goal is to increase support between health care visits, which could improve patient compliance and reduce hospital readmissions, says Cory Kidd, CEO of Catalia Health, the creator of Mabu.
13. ANTIINFLAMMATORY CARDIAC CARE
Researchers showed a clear link between heart disease and inflammation for the first time this year, raising the possibility that anti-inflammatory drugs could become a key treatment for heart disease.
“This has far-reaching implications,” says Paul Ridker, a Harvard Medical School professor who oversaw the landmark study. Given that half of heart attacks occur in people who do not have high cholesterol, the findings suggest that doctors can help high-risk populations “by leveraging an entirely new way to treat patients—targeting inflammation,” he says.
The study, which followed more than 10,000 heart attack survivors, showed that anti-inflammatory drug injections reduce the chances of getting a second heart attack or stroke by 15%. The patients, who received injections of the drug canakinumab four times a year, also had a significant reduction in deaths from cancer, especially lung cancer. Scientists are studying other anti-inflammatory drugs to better understand how they work.
Ridker predicts that cardiologists may soon be able to tailor heart disease treatments to different groups of patients, distinguishing those at risk due to high cholesterol from those at risk due to inflammation.
14. DNA EDITS TO ELIMINATE DISEASE
Scientists successfully edited DNA in human embryos for the first time this year, removing a genetic mutation that causes sudden death.
The achievement raises the possibility that families could soon prevent their children and future descendants from developing such debilitating or deadly inherited diseases as Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs, and cystic fibrosis.
“This is proof of concept,” says Paula Amato, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health and Science University, who was part of the team that conducted the experiment.
The researchers used the new CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to do their work, and now they’ll try to repeat the experiment to better understand how the gene is being corrected, Amato says. But because of a federal ban on clinical trials that involve genetically modified embryos, they won’t be able to implant fertilized eggs into women in the US.
Some worry that gene editing could be used to create children with traits like superior intelligence or athletic prowess, but that isn’t technically feasible, says Amato. As of now, “you can’t replace one gene with another gene,” she says. “Embryos don’t like that.”
15. VIRTUAL REALITY THAT GIVES REAL PAIN RELIEF
Virtual reality therapy showed enormous promise this year, with studies suggesting that these high-tech treatments could reduce pain as well as potent drugs do. When patients at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles watched uplifting videos through virtual reality goggles, their pain levels dropped by 24%, says Brennan Spiegel, a physician and director of the hospital’s health services research.
“This works as well as—or better than—opioids,” says Spiegel, explaining that the therapy essentially overwhelms the brain with positive experiences, distracting it from the pain. Those with the most severe pain got the most relief, he says.
A virtual reality clinic is in the works, and Spiegel predicts that a new kind of medical professional will soon emerge: a virtual therapist, who will assess patients and prescribe specific virtual reality experiences, which can range from sitting on a beach to flying over Icelandic fjords. “This is the beginning of a new medical field,” he says.
16. PIG ORGAN TRANSPLANTS FOR PEOPLE
Scientists created designer piglets this year, genetically modifying them so their organs could be more safely transplanted into humans. The development raises hopes that xenotransplantation, the process of transferring organs from one species to another, could finally become a reality.
Scientists have tried—and failed—for more than a century to perform such surgeries, which could save countless lives because of the shortage of human organs available for transplant. More than 116,000 people are currently on waiting lists.
The piglets were created by eGenesis, a company that used the new high-tech gene-editing tool CRISPR to eliminate more than 2 dozen copies of pig genes that could produce dangerous viruses in humans.
17. GROUNDBREAKING GENE THERAPY
Offering a new approach to life-threatening diseases, gene therapy became available in the United States this year for the first time when the FDA approved Kymriah to treat children and young adults whose acute lymphoblastic leukemia doesn’t respond to chemotherapy. While the treatment will likely help only about 600 patients a year, the approval ushered in what the FDA commissioner described as “a frontier in medical innovation.”
This type of treatment, called CAR T-cell therapy, customizes a drug for each patient, collecting each person’s immune cells and then genetically modifying them to kill cancer cells. “It is, hopefully, a long-lasting or even permanent living treatment within the patient,” says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.
18. AN ANTI-AGING DRUG
Scientists discovered clues to the aging process this year, raising hopes that an anti-aging drug could reach the market within 5 years.
The researchers identified a compound called NAD that cells use to repair damaged DNA. NAD declines with age, says David Sinclair, a Harvard Medical School professor who helped lead the research.
In animal experiments, he and his colleagues found they could raise animals’ NAD levels by feeding them a related compound called NMN.
The scientists are studying whether NMN is safe for people before testing its effectiveness. “NAD is a molecule found in all life,” says Sinclair, adding that he’s confident the compound will work in people, too.
19. VOICE ANALYSIS TO DETECT DISEASE
Patients may one day be able to discover their health problems by uttering a few words into a phone. Several companies are working feverishly in this futuristic arena, examining how subtle voice characteristics can detect physical and mental illnesses.
Last year, a study conducted by Mayo Clinic with an Israeli company found more than a dozen voice features associated with heart disease—including one associated with a 19-fold higher likelihood of heart ailments.
Now another company, Sonde Health, is refining its software to predict depression, examining millisecond-long vocal changes that humans can’t perceive. “Subtle changes in how we sound can be measured to reflect the underlying health of the nervous, muscle, and respiratory systems,” says Jim Harper, Sonde Health’s chief operating officer and cofounder, adding that certain sounds become elongated when someone is depressed.
Voice analysis would make it easier for people to monitor their own health, Harper says, alerting them to serious problems they might otherwise ignore. One day, he says, people might be able to speak to their digital assistants and be warned that their voice shows early signs of depression, then receive options for getting appropriate help.
20. A PLANT-INSPIRED HEART SAVER
When heart attacks occur, doctors try to get blood flowing through clogged arteries as quickly as possible, since heart cells die if they’re deprived of oxygen. But Joseph Woo, chair of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford University, wanted to find another way to deliver oxygen to failing hearts.
In his research, Woo replicated photosynthesis, the process in which plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. He injected bacteria that use photosynthesis similarly to the way plants do into rats with failing hearts, then shone a light on the microbes. The rodents that underwent the therapy had oxygen levels 25 times higher than those that didn’t.
The method could eventually transform medical care by creating a new way to supply oxygen to damaged tissues. “It’s still in early stages,” says Woo. “That’s when it’s most exciting.”