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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a nasty disease. It kills more than half of people who catch it, often through internal and external hemorrhagic bleeding.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
– Global News
Factbox: Countries respond to heart inflammation risk from mRNA shots
Some countries have halted altogether or are giving only one dose of COVID shots based on so-called mRNA technology to teens following reports of possible rare cardiovascular side effects.
Europe’s drug regulator said in July it had found a possible link between a very rare inflammatory heart condition and COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
However, the benefits of mRNA shots in preventing COVID-19 continue to outweigh the risks, European and U.S. regulators and the World Health Organization have said.
Here are some of the steps some countries are taking:
The Public Health Agency of Canada said data suggested that reported cases of rare heart inflammation were higher after Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine compared with the Pfizer/BioNTech shots.
The Danish Health Agency said on Friday that it was continuing to offer Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine to under-18s, and that a statement on Wednesday suggesting a suspension had in fact been a miscommunication.
Finland paused the use of Moderna’s vaccines for younger people and instead would give Pfizer’s vaccine to men born in 1991 and later. It offers shots to those aged 12 and over.
A panel of health experts advising the Hong Kong government has recommended in September children aged 12-17 should get only one dose of BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine after reports of heart inflammation as a side effect.
Norway will hold off giving children aged 12-15 a second dose of a vaccine against COVID-19 until it has gathered more research. On Oct. 22 the health ministry said there was no urgency given that children have a low risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19.
On Sep. 2 Norway decided on giving one dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to children aged 12-15.
Sweden has extended the pause of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine beyond the original Dec. 1 deadline for people aged 30 and younger due to rare heart-related side-effects, the public health agency said on Oct. 21.
The agency said earlier in October that data pointed to an increase of myocarditis and pericarditis among youths and young adults vaccinated with Moderna vaccine Spikevax, and paused the use for all born 1991 or later.
South Africa will start vaccinating children between 12 and 17 using the Pfizer vaccine, the health minister said, as the country looks to ratchet up inoculations ahead of final year examinations.
On the advice of its vaccine advisory committee the government would only give teenagers a single shot of Pfizer’s normal two-shot regime due to concerns that it may affect the heart.
Britain has been offering all 12-15-year-olds a first a shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Second doses would not be offered to the age group until at least spring when there may be more data from around the world.
(Compiled by Antonis Triantafyllou; Editing by Joanna Jonczyk-Gwizdala and Tomasz Janowski)
Hong Kong’s zero-COVID policy undermining financial hub status – industry group
A financial industry group warned on Monday that Hong Kong‘s zero-COVID policy and strict quarantine requirements for international travellers threatens to undermine the city’s status as a financial hub.
The Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (ASIFMA) said a survey of members, including some of the world’s largest banks and asset managers, showed 48% were contemplating moving staff or functions away from Hong Kong due to operational challenges, which included uncertainty regarding when and how travel and quarantine restrictions will be lifted.
Hong Kong has some of the most stringent travel restrictions in the world and is virtually COVID-19 free, however unlike regional rival Singapore, which is slowly re-opening its borders, the Chinese-ruled city has no public plan for opening up to international travellers.
Local leaders say their focus is removing restrictions on travel from Hong Kong to mainland China, which also has strict entry restrictions. At present travellers from Hong Kong to the mainland must still undergo quarantine.
“Hong Kong’s status as an (international financial centre) is increasingly at risk along with its long-term economic recovery and competitiveness as a premier place to do business,” Mark Austen chief executive of Asifma wrote in open letter to Hong Kong’s financial secretary Paul Chan.
The letter made a series of recommendations including publishing “a roadmap for exiting Hong Kong’s ‘zero-case’ based COVID-19 strategy beyond solely the immediate goal of opening borders with China”, as well as prioritising vaccinations.
Hong Kong has reported just over 12,300 cases since the start of the pandemic, mostly imported, and 213 deaths.
Regional rival Singapore is expanding quarantine-free travel to nearly a dozen countries, but authorities are grappling with how to do so while averting a surge of Covid-19 cases among older people and those with weak immune systems.
(Reporting by Alun John; Editing by Michael Perry)
Red Cross urges action for Papua New Guinea as COVID-19 overwhelms health system
Concerted international action is needed to support Papua New Guinea as a surge in COVID-19 cases overwhelms the Pacific country’s health system, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on Monday.
Coronavirus cases in the island nation of 9 million have been surging in recent weeks, with 385 new cases recorded on Thursday, according to latest available government data.
There have been 26,731 officially confirmed cases and 329 deaths in the country 150 km (90 miles) north of Australia.
Less than 1% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data figures, although the government anticipated months ago that it would have enough shots by now for everyone who wanted to be vaccinated.
Misinformation, public apprehension, and logistical challenges with the rollout have slowed down vaccinations, the Red Cross said.
“Urgent efforts and further support are needed in healthcare to prevent a massive loss of life in the coming days and weeks,” Uvenama Rova, PNG Red Cross secretary general, said in a statement.
According to the PNG National Control Centre for COVID-19, all major hospitals have been hit with rising cases.
“We’re at the moment barely managing with the existing load,” Gary Nou, team leader for Emergency Medical Team at the National Centre, was quoted as saying last week in a statement on the centre’s website.
A medical team from Australia arrived in Port Moresby this month, and Britain was also to send a team.
While some other nations in the Pacific region, such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, have also had sluggish vaccine rollouts, the tiny nation of Palau had 99% of its population over 12 vaccinated by mid-October, while Fiji had 96% of eligible people with one dose, the Red Cross said this month.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by William Mallard)
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