These are exciting times, with scientists making giant leaps in many areas, including cancer prevention and treatment, AIDS, surgery, mental health and heart disease. Reader’s Digest reviews the latest medical findings.
By HELEN SANDSTORM and HELEN SIGNY for Reader's Digest magazine
Coming soon: bionic eye to restore sight
Cochlear implants – the bionic ear – have revolutionised the treatment of deafness, and now the same team from Australia is working on a “bionic eye”. The eye uses a tiny video camera fixed to a patient’s glasses to capture images. These are then translated into electrical impulses that stimulate electrodes inserted into the same area of the retina that is ordinarily activated by light. Over time, the patient learns to interpret these nerve signals as useful vision.
“The principle is similar to the bionic ear, but there are more technical challenges,” says Professor Rob Shepherd, director of the Bionic Ear Institute, who is collaborating with Bionic Vision Australia on the project. The bionic ear delivers a useful amount of auditory information with 22 electrodes.
Eye for the future: Prof Robyn Guymer, one of the team working on the retinal implant
However, a useful replacement eye needs at least 100, perhaps even 1000 electrodes. As the technology improves and more electrodes are added, the quality of vision will allow the blind to recognise familiar faces and to read large text.
However, already Dr Anthony Burkitt, research director of Bionic Vision Australia, is confident enough to say that “this new device will be far superior to other retinal implants being developed”.
>> A 100-electrode prototype will begin patient trials in 2013 and a 1000-electrode model is expected by 2015.
Vaccines: the next generation
A shot against cancer
After 30 years of disappointing starts, “vaccines” against lymphoma, prostate cancer, melanoma and neuroblastoma are finally making headway.
Last year, a trial of patients with late-stage melanoma found 22% responded favourably to a vaccine combined with the immunotherapy drug interleukin-2 (IL-2), compared with 9.7% of patients receiving conventional treatments. Says Dr Patrick Hwu, melanoma chief at the University of Texas
M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre, “If we can use the body’s own defence system to attack tumour cells, we can rid the body of cancer without destroying healthy tissue.”
The current vaccine can be given to only 50% of people with melanoma as it has to match a patient’s tissue type. “Studies are trying to identify which patients will respond,” says Hwu.
>> 2-5 years
Needle-free edible vaccine
In 2005 scientist Barry Marshall won the Nobel Prize for discovering that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori causes some stomach ulcers. Marshall has been working on ways to put this naturally occurring stomach bug to better use – as a vaccine carrier. His plan? Take some of the DNA from a harmful agent – such as the flu virus – clone it inside the H.pylori and it will begin to exhibit parts of the flu virus on its surface. “As the H.pylori grows in your stomach, you also become vaccinated against the flu,” he says.
>> 10 years
Reducing HIV risk
Last September, US researchers reported the world’s first vaccine success in a trial of more than 16,000 people in Thailand. The vaccine cut the risk of contracting the disease by almost a third. Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, considers the study groundbreaking.
“We’ve seen for the first time that an AIDS vaccine can prevent infection in humans.” Although the vaccine is not yet available, it provides an unprecedented leap forward.
>> 10+ years
A faster mental health check
Gateway to the mind
Scientists have developed an ear probe providing a direct line to the brain, which they believe will revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The probe works via the ear canal to reach a part of the brain that controls balance, but can also gauge depression and schizophrenia.
Inventor Brian Lithgow tests his ear probe
Inventor Brian Lithgow, a biomedical researcher at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia, calls it an “ECG [electrocardiogram] for the mind”, analysing the brain’s electrical signals the same way an ECG detects heart problems. One of the major advantages: it can detect differences in signals from people with bipolar disorder as distinct from uni-polar or single depression.
“Bipolar depression currently takes years to correctly diagnose,” says Lithgow. “Now, the chance beckons to do so in an hour.”
>> 5 years
Bluetooth technology is set to change medical check-ups, especially for the heart. Alive Technologies has developed a system that logs and transmits your heart rhythm data to a central network via a cell phone – so your specialist calls you when a problem appears. The Alive Heart and Activity Monitor is already at work. Cardio rehabilitation patients can now be monitored remotely as they exercise.
Wireless cardiac monitor
Preserving donor hearts
Heart transplants are a race against the clock: hearts begin to deteriorate after about five hours outside the body. Scientists at Sydney’s Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute have reformulated a solution that protects the donated heart, potentially doubling the organ’s life outside the body. Trials on human organs begin this year.
At the moment, about 60% of donor hearts are ruled out due to the age of the donor or the condition of the heart. Says Professor Peter Macdonald, leader of the project, “We think the solution will allow us to use those hearts more vulnerable to damage and potentially increase the number of transplants by about 50%.”
The team hopes the solution will also work for other organs, including the lung, liver, kidney and pancreas.
>> 2 years
Cancer: improved diagnosis and treatment
Robert Goldman made his fortune in computers, but when his sister developed terminal colon cancer, he put his money into designing a device that could better deliver his sister’s chemotherapy. Last year, the FDA in the US approved Goldman’s IsoFlow. A tiny catheter is threaded through a patient’s veins to deliver medication directly into the tumour’s feeder blood vessel, leaving healthy cells unaffected. “It’s more a surgical strike as opposed to a widespread bombing of the entire area,” says US neuroradiologist Dr Huy Do.
The IsoFlo delivers chemotheraphy directly into a tumour's feeder blood vessel
Quicker cancer tests
US scientists have successfully used nanosensors to pinpoint cancer in the blood of patients. The latest test can detect the smallest concentrations of cancer biomarkers, in the order of a trillionth of a gram per millilitre, the equivalent of being able to detect a single grain of salt dissolved in a large swimming pool. Instead of having to wait days for lab results, the test gives a reading in minutes.
>> 2-3 years
Trojan horse molecule
Scientists have developed a molecule packed with an inflammatory agent that binds specifically to pancreatic tumours and attracts millions of immune cells to the site to kill off a tumour.
“The trigger for the immune system is the inflammatory agent that locks onto the tumour and inflames the area – similar to what happens with a skin rash – so immune cells come running to fight the infection,” says Professor Ruth Ganss, at the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, who leads the team.
>> 5-10 years
One in every 29 South African women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, according to the CANSA Association. For some of them, treatment involves the loss of a breast. An experimental technique could allow them to grow their own “replacement” breasts within six months.
Neopec technology involves implanting a biodegradable chamber beneath the skin to act as a scaffold for the new breast. A blood vessel from the underarm is redirected to a piece of the patient’s own fat. The fat grows to fill the chamber, which dissolves after the new breast is formed. It’s a natural alternative to silicon implants, says Professor Wayne Morrison of the Bernard O’Brien Institute of Microsurgery.
>> 3+ years
Diabetes: better therapies and quality of life
Medtronic’s MiniMed Veo System suspends insulin delivery if its wearer hasn’t responded to warnings, reducing the risk of hypoglycaemia.
The device suspends insulin delivery when glucose leves drop too low
The Glucoboy was the first monitor to double as a computer game, rewarding kids for testing their glucose levels. More recently, Bayer launched its Didget monitor, which plugs directly into Nintendo DS systems.
For decades, researchers have tried to co-ordinate insulin delivery with changes in blood sugar. Scientists at the University of Cambridge are now developing an artificial pancreas system, which combines a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and insulin pump with an algorithm to calculate the insulin needed.
In night-time trials, children maintained normal-range blood sugar levels 60% of the time, compared with 40% using a normal pump. Says study leader Roman Hovorka, “This is critically important because between 50% and 70% of hypoglycaemic emergencies happen at night.”
>> 4 years
Scientists at the Southern Cross University in Australia have discovered compounds in sugar cane that control carbohydrate absorption and lower blood sugar levels. In trials, the compounds have been up to 125 times more effective than a pharmaceutical equivalent. The compounds have been turned into a substance called GI-Wise, which could be used as a food additive or as the basis for new drugs.
>> 5 years
Robots in hard-to-reach places
Melbourne researchersare working on a motor smallerthan the width of four humanhairs. The “Proteus motor” willbe small enough to be injectedinto the bloodstream, navigatearteries and organs andperform risky surgicalprocedures. “Remote controlledminiature robotssmall enough to swim uparteries could save lives byreaching parts of the body that catheters can’t,” saysProfessor James Friend ofMonash University.
>> 5 years
The future of medical breakthroughs
(This is an edited version of an article that originally appears in the July2010 edition of Reader's Digest magazine. The current edition is on sale now.)