13 Amazing Medical Breakthroughs of 2018
Science is always marching forward—here are the most exciting advancements of the year in cancer, stroke, and migraine treatment, and more.
Cancer: A vaccine is on the way
Earlier this year, Stanford University researchers announced in a press release that they were recruiting lymphoma patients in a clinical trial to test a potential cancer vaccine. The treatment involves injecting immune-stimulating agents into solid tumors; in trials in mice, this has been shown to eliminate “all traces of cancer in the animals” without side effects of traditional immunotherapy. “Our approach uses a one-time application of very small amounts of two agents to stimulate the immune cells only within the tumor itself. In the mice, we saw amazing, bodywide effects, including the elimination of tumors all over the animal,” said oncology professor Ronald Levy, MD, in the press release. If human trials are successful, Dr. Levy says that it could potentially treat all different types of cancer tumors. Here’s why it’s important to know the 10 surprising factors that increase your cancer risk.
Spotting a quiet killer: A test that detects hyperkalemia
Hyperkalemia is a condition where the potassium level in your blood is higher than normal, according to the National Institutes of Health, and it usually results from kidney troubles, diabetes, or as a side effect of some blood pressure medications. When levels of this electrolyte mineral soar, it can be dangerous for the heart, resulting in chest pain, palpitations, and a weak pulse; for those with chronic kidney disease, it can be deadly. Typically, a blood test would be needed to detect elevated potassium. However, this fall the Food & Drug Administration declared AliveCor’s KardiaK Software Platform a “Breakthrough Device,” which means it is on the fast track to FDA clearance status, AliveCor announced. The technology, developed with the Mayo Clinic, detects potassium levels using artificial intelligence through electrocardiograms (ECG).
Improved monitoring: A wearable ECG and fall detector
By the end of 2018, the Apple Watch Series 4 is slated to launch its ECG app. The app “is capable of generating an ECG similar to a single-lead electrocardiogram,” according to the company. Electrodes built into the back of the watch take data on your heart’s electrical impulses to detect abnormalities that may suggest an irregular heart rhythm, like atrial fibrillation, they explain. Data is saved over time, you can then take that info to your doctor. Another advancement on the watch: an accelerometer and gyroscope that detects falls and can automatically call emergency services.
Endometriosis: A non-invasive test
More than 6.5 million women in the United States have endometriosis, a painful condition where the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) grows outside the uterus. Diagnosis may require invasive and expensive testing like a laparoscopy; it often goes undiagnosed, and it can take years and several doctors to identify the disease. A company called DotLab is aiming to change that with the first-ever non-invasive endometriosis test called DotEndo, which measures biomarkers specific to endometriosis through a patient’s saliva and blood. In 2018, the company announced they were expanding enrollment for fertility clinics into their early access program for the saliva test. Research shows the blood test can also help monitor disease progression.
Stroke: A new treatment
A treatment called deep brain stimulation is one step closer to becoming a therapy to help patients regain motor function after being paralyzed from a stroke. Developed by the Cleveland Clinic with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the researchers announced that after five months, the 59-year-old patient in the first human clinical trial made vast improvements. What’s new in 2018? The NIH announced that the trial will continue, giving the Cleveland Clinic a $2.5 million grant to further fund their research. “If this research succeeds, it will offer new hope for patients who have suffered a stroke and remained paralyzed…It’s an opportunity to allow patients to rehabilitate and gain function—and thereby gain independence,” said Cleveland Clinic’s Andre Machado, MD, PhD, co-primary investigator of the grant in a press release.
Stroke part 2: And hope for better recovery
A new category of wearable devices aims to improve stroke rehabilitation. Researchers at Northwestern University developed a wireless, stretchable electronic sensor that sticks onto the skin. The sensor, which looks like a Band-Aid, is worn on the throat and measures vocal cord vibrations to analyze a patient’s patterns of speech, as swallowing function, according to information from the university. Other electronic sensors are also worn on legs, arms, and chest, which send data directly to clinicians so they can monitor how a patient is progressing when they’re in real-world settings after leaving the hospital. The signs of stroke look different in men and women. These are the symptoms everyone needs to have on their radar.
Migraine: A shot for prevention
An estimated 39 million Americans suffer from migraines. These notoriously tough to treat headaches may respond to a new drug approved by the FDA in May: Aimovig is the first-of-its-kind injectable drug that can prevent migraines. “Aimovig provides patients with a novel option for reducing the number of days with a migraine,” Eric Bastings, MD, deputy director of the Division of Neurology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in a press release. In clinical trials, patients who used Aimovig cut their migraine days by two-and-a-half a month compared to those treated with a placebo.
Parkinson’s: A new drug on the horizon
Ketamine is best known for its rise as an illegal psychedelic party drug in the 1990s. Today, however, it may give hope for Parkinson’s patients. University of Arizona in Tucson researchers began a phase I clinical trial this summer on ten patients using ketamine to control the side effects of levodopa, the first-line medication for Parkinson’s. While levodopa is effective in treating symptoms, 40 percent of patients experience difficult side effects, such as uncontrollable body movements, notes a press release from the University of Arizona Health Sciences. Ketamine, however, has been found to reduce these movements. Under supervision and with the proper dose, researchers believe that they can control the mind-altering effects of the drug. The early symptoms of Parkinson’s are easy to brush off; here are 8 that may surprise you.
Type 1 diabetes: Better insulin control for young patients
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When a child is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, their entire world changes; they need to continuously monitor their blood sugar (glucose) because levels that go haywire can be a matter of life-and-death. A glucose monitoring device, called the MiniMed 670G hybrid closed-loop system, can dose out insulin automatically to regulate levels around-the-clock and prevent dangerous highs and lows in their blood sugar. This summer, the insulin pump was FDA approved for use in children ages 7 to 13, making diabetes management more bearable—and without routine injections. These are 15 of the best foods for diabetics.
Zika: A vaccine on the way
Early this year, results of a phase I placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials on 67 volunteers published in The Lancet showed that a potential Zika vaccine was well-tolerated and effective. In fact, 92 percent of the people in the trials who received the vaccine had an immune response to the virus. The virus is mainly spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes and can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, causing a birth defect called microcephaly that affects brain development. “I’m happy to see our work help make progress toward a vaccine against Zika,” principal investigator Sarah George, MD of Saint Louis University said in a press release.
Improved eye care: Robot-assisted surgery expands
In June 2018, a study in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering detailed the first surgery using robots to operate on a human eye. Researchers enrolled 12 patients who needed retinal surgery. One group was randomly assigned to robot-assisted surgery, while the other group received traditional manual surgery. The results? Both modes of surgery were equally effective, though robotic surgery took much longer to perform. Still, this research is paving the way for robots to—in the future—perform surgical procedures that require more precision than human hands can offer.
Diabetes: Smart contact lenses can monitor blood glucose
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In patients with diabetes, regulating blood sugar levels is critical to feeling well, maintaining health, and controlling the disease. But using traditional finger pricking methods of testing is cumbersome. Researchers at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea have developed a smart contact lens that can detect blood glucose levels through tears in the eye, as they announced in early 2018 in the journal Science Advances. Up next: human testing. “We are now a step closer to the implementation of a fictional idea for a smart contact lens in the films, like Minority Report and Mission: Impossible, first author of the study Jihun Park said in a press release.
Troubled infants: A robotic bassinet helps soothe babies (and moms)
Life with a newborn is anything but easy. The SNOO, an AI-assisted robotic bassinet that responds to a baby’s cries with different stages of comforting rocking and sounds—the company says it’s like having an extra caregiver around. Developed by sleep specialist Harvey Karp, MD, the SNOO is currently being studied to prevent and treat postpartum depression by improving a mother’s sleep. What’s more, at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital and South Shore Hospital in Boston, SNOO is also being studied as a tool to help wean and soothe infants with withdrawal after being born to opioid-addicted mothers. “The use of non-pharmacologic tools like the SNOO bed can play a huge role in soothing NAS babies to the point where the baby may not need treatment,” says Brittany Vandecar, NICU nurse at the University of Kentucky Hospital. Next, check out 50 weight-loss breakthroughs doctors wish you knew about.