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Biggest medical breakthroughs of the last decade

The last 10 years have seen an onslaught of new medical discoveries and technologies, with many of them bordering on science fiction.

These discoveries have changed the way people live now and how they will live in the future.

Here are some of the biggest advances in medical science in the last decade — though this is by no means a complete list.

CRISPR gene editing

CRISPR is the name of a technique used to quickly and easily edit DNA — either snipping off genes entirely or replacing them with different ones.

The basic mechanism was discovered decades ago, but the technology has taken off in the last few years after it became more precise and easier to use. Right now, scientists are experimenting with editing the DNA of mosquitos to make them resistant to malaria or to make all offspring male, meaning they’re less likely to pass the disease on to humans.

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Scientists have also treated sickle-cell anemia in mice and are testing a cure for an inherited form of blindness, and these are just some of many, many experiments underway.

A look at the top medical breakthroughs of the past decade
A look at the top medical breakthroughs of the past decade

READ MORE: CRISPR-Cas9 — The science behind the world’s first gene-edited babies

Yes, we’re editing DNA now. Experts warn this won’t be without consequences. Studies have already shown that some CRISPR-edited cells get damaged and are missing a gene, leading to a potentially higher risk of cancer.

Then there are the ethical issues.

In 2018, a Chinese researcher claimed to have edited the genes of two unborn twin girls with the goal of immunizing them against HIV.

READ MORE: Here’s what you need to know about a Chinese scientist’s claim of gene-edited babies

His experiments were not published in journals, nor were full results ever released, raising questions about the experiment. His claim was also roundly denounced by pretty much every medical body as well as the Chinese government.

But can we shut the door on human DNA editing? We’ll find out over the next decade.

PrEP

Medications to treat HIV have been around for a while, and they’re very effective: drugs can actually reduce a person’s “viral load” — the amount of virus circulating in their blood — to undetectable levels. This means that it’s very unlikely, even impossible, for them to pass the virus on to others if the medication is used correctly. It’s also vastly extended the expected lifespan for someone following an HIV diagnosis.

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In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of an HIV drug for prophylactic purposes — meaning people could use it to actually keep from catching HIV in the first place. The drug, Truvada, which was approved by Health Canada for HIV prevention in 2016, and subsequent generic versions are now being used by high-risk populations across Canada.

READ MORE: Over 2,000 people prescribed HIV prevention drug since B.C. fully funded it, health minister says

So far, prescriptions for PrEP have lagged behind public health officials’ hopes — which might be due to spotty drug coverage and the high cost of the medication — but it has made a difference. A recent study found that PrEP use was associated with a significant reduction in the number of new infections in an Australian state.

Ebola vaccines and treatments

While we’re talking about infectious diseases, it’s definitely worth noting another big one: Ebola.

Ebola outbreaks are ongoing in a few African countries, mostly the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. In 2014, a huge outbreak across West Africa killed more than 11,000 people.

Developing a vaccine for the Ebola virus
Developing a vaccine for the Ebola virus

It’s a nasty disease. It kills more than half of people who catch it, often through internal and external hemorrhagic bleeding.

READ MORE: Congo approves four experimental Ebola treatments to battle outbreak

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However, over the last decade, we’ve seen clinical trials for various vaccines and even treatments for the disease, which are showing promising results. One vaccine, Ervebo, has even passed the clinical trial phase and was approved for use in November. It’s now being stockpiled for use in future outbreaks.

Although Ebola generally occurs far away from Canada, there is a Canadian connection: some vaccines and treatments were actually developed by researchers at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.

Artificial pancreas

The term “artificial pancreas” is a bit of a misnomer, according to Diabetes Canada, but it’s the popular term for a device approved in the U.S. in 2016 and in Canada in 2018 to help treat patients with Type 1 diabetes. It’s more formally called a “closed-loop” system.

People with Type 1 diabetes no longer produce insulin. They used to have to take injections of insulin throughout the day to regulate their blood sugar and cut their risk of developing longer-term health problems like nerve issues that can lead to amputation or retinal problems leading to blindness.

READ MORE: Towards an ‘artificial pancreas.’ New technology holds promise for diabetes patients

Many patients have since moved on to more modern insulin pumps and testing devices.

This device makes things even easier. It first reads a patient’s insulin level, then decides via algorithm how much insulin to give them, shooting “microdoses” of the drug into their bloodstream automatically. The patient still has to add extra insulin in a few other circumstances, such as before a meal, but studies report these systems often lead to better control of blood sugar levels.

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Diabetes advocates are looking forward to the development of a fully automatic system or a true “artificial pancreas” that requires no intervention from the patient, and also for better insurance coverage of these advanced devices.

3D-printed prosthetics

One of the coolest new technologies is 3D printing, in which an object is created bit by bit from a computer pattern. And it didn’t take long for medical researchers to see the potential.

Doctors have created a handful of 3D-printed organs and body parts, but over the last decade, 3D-printed prosthetics have really taken off.

Need a new hand? Just visit a website and you can download a blueprint for free, along with detailed instructions on how to size and build it. Seriously. There has been an open-source community for years, run largely by volunteers. The organization e-NABLE estimates that thousands of people around the world are now using these prosthetics.

How an army of volunteers are 3D printing prosthetics for kids
How an army of volunteers are 3D printing prosthetics for kids

They’re not perfect: the devices can break, and e-NABLE recommends that people work closely with a health-care provider as they use their new prosthetic. But they’re much cheaper than traditional models and can be made much faster, putting prosthetics in reach for more people around the world.

Experts imagine that the medical applications for 3D printing will continue to expand, with complex organs like a replacement heart possibly coming down the road.

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