[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e all want to know about the latest advancements in health. But the avalanche effect of scientific and technological advancement means that groundbreaking innovations, revolutionary creations, and pioneering discoveries are occurring all of the time—and it’s not easy to stay on top of them. So in case you were otherwise distracted during 2017, here are some interesting breakthroughs you may have missed in five different health-related fields.
Burgeoning with discoveries and innovations, the impact that the field of nanotechnology may have on the future of mankind cannot be minimized. Particularly when it comes to medicine and the treatment of disease, nanotechnological advancements are taking place at breakneck speed, and are highly specific to the disease being treated. For instance, as reported recently in the journal Nature Materials, scientists have recently developed microscopic particles (nanoparticles) that selectively seek out and destroy specific viruses, like the human papillomavirus and the herpes simplex virus.
In 2017, researchers published a paper in Science magazine describing a scientific breakthrough that could one day lead to a game-changing drug that may defy the normal aging process. The discovery centered on a metabolite known as NAD+—found in all living cells—that plays a key role in DNA repair.
Traditionally, viral infections have been difficult to treat with medicine, but these new designer nanoparticles are capable of actually destroying the virus, representing a potential paradigm shift in how they are treated. Similarly, recent research published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society demonstrated that researchers have developed nanoparticles capable of tricking cancer cells into essentially killing themselves. And, unlike with traditional chemotherapy, these nanoparticles only target the cancer cells, while leaving normal and healthy cells unharmed.
“Antibiotic resistance has been called one of the world’s most pressing public health problems,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s website. It occurs when bacteria find a way to evade and survive the effects of antibiotics—even if only a small number do this, the ones that do can multiply, leading to an army of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that becomes more and more difficult to treat. One stark example of this is Lyme disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by ticks that produces symptoms like headache, fever, fatigue, and often a bull’s eye skin rash, and if left untreated can have serious, lifelong neurological side effects. A recent study of primates led by researchers at Tulane University found that Lyme bacteria could survive a 28-day course of antibiotic treatment. Even more concerning was that some of the subjects in the study actually tested negative for Lyme disease based on an antibody test, even though the bacteria were still present in their bodies and had invaded organs like the heart and brain. This finding illustrates how difficult it can be to treat bacterial infections when antibiotics aren’t effective, and may help explain why people treated with them for Lyme disease often still report symptoms.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness, and one in 25 U.S. adults experiences serious mental illness, every year. Additionally, 6.9 percent of U.S. adults had at least one
major depressive episode in the last year, and 18.1 percent experienced an anxiety disorder. But one exciting field of study that may help with this epidemic is that of psychopharmacogenetics, which is essentially using a person’s specific genetic makeup to prescribe medications and doses, instead of taking what basically amounts to a shot in the dark. Many antidepressants work only slightly better than a placebo in many studies and they are often wildly inconsistent in terms of effectiveness and type and severity of side effects. It turns out that this may be due to genetic differences among people whose bodies either break down the medications very rapidly or very slowly. In the case of the former, not enough of the drug reaches the brain to be effective, and in the case of the latter, too much of the drug builds up in the system and causes severe side effects. A better understanding of psychopharmacogenetics may lead to highly individualized and more effective treatments for all sorts of mental health conditions. Or perhaps simply try the quirky and counterintuitive approach of sleep deprivation (typically conducted in controlled, inpatient settings), which a recent meta-analysis covering more than 30 years and 66 studies found to rapidly reduce depressive symptoms in about half of the patients. Even more encouraging was that these results seemed to be independent of age, gender and medication status.
It is said that Father Time is undefeated, so the idea of hanging an “L” on him and turning back the clock has always been a deeply seductive human pursuit. In 2017, researchers published a paper in Science magazine describing a scientific breakthrough that could one day lead to a game-changing drug that may defy the normal aging process. The discovery centered on a metabolite known as NAD+—found in all living cells—that plays a key role in DNA repair. Mice given an NAD+ booster called NMN showed an improvement in their cells’ ability to repair DNA damage caused by old age, and the research is so encouraging that human trials are set to begin soon. Another type of anti-aging treatment known as senolytic drugs are also being championed for human trials by researchers. These drugs work by killing off old and damaged cells called senescent cells that hang around and wreak havoc in the body, and are implicated in many chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and diabetes.
In August, the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) granted what it called “Breakthrough Therapy Designation for MDMA-assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD” for phase 3 trials, thanks in large part to the research and advocacy of Santa Cruz-based MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). That the FDA is allowing MDMA—a schedule 1 drug defined as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse—to be medicinally studied this extensively is truly a breakthrough. The announcement comes on the heels of encouraging results from phase 2 clinical trials, and researchers look forward to teasing out just how effective MDMA-assisted psychotherapy might be when tested using the gold standard of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled design. It also represents somewhat of a full circle moment for MDMA, which was originally used in the psychotherapy community in the 1970s to much success and acclaim—but when the drug became associated with the recreational party scene, it got fast-tracked to criminalization. The FDA’s announcement may also have an opening-of-the-floodgates effect with respect to other psychedelics being studied in a similar manner. In particular, drugs like psilocybin, ibogaine, and ketamine have all shown some level of effectiveness in treating other mental issues like depression, anxiety, and addiction, and are all good candidates for further research.