‘A new hope’- Recent medical breakthroughs that have changed the world

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Money, a resource which some would say is a necessity. We are told that earning money is the sole purpose of life – to go out into the world, study hard, and get a job that pays well enough to enable us to enjoy life. As such, many people focus on making money, and overlook those things that can have a much more significant impact on the world – such as diseases.

Throughout history, science has often baffled some of the greatest scientists, from Democritus to Leucippus, from those who once sought the unknown mysteries of the atom, to the academics now researching and studying COVID-19, in order to find a cure. Since the start of the 21st century, technological advances have bolstered the development of cures for multiple diseases. 2019 was one of the biggest years for medicine, and there were multiple discoveries and advances that were made in the quest for answers.

Dementia has been one of the more difficult diseases that humanity has had to deal with. It has had a detrimental effect on the brain, causing memory loss and a decline in the ability to partake in daily activities that involve the use of the mind. Last year, a US pharmaceutical company revealed that it had developed the first drug to successfully slow down the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on the human body. The drug is called Aducanumab, and is responsible for the removal of toxins that build up in the brain. Normally, the brain’s cells communicate with each other through the synapses of neurons, but when these are damaged, your feelings, thinking and behaviour, can all be significantly affected. In your brain, there are many different regions which are responsible for many different things, and when one of these areas is affected by the toxins, the cells in this region can no longer communicate between each other. Aducanumab has been developed in order to remove the effect of the toxins and restore normal brain cell communication, as well as regular activity. Studies show that those who took the highest dose of the drug retained the most memory and language ability, and were better at day-to-day tasks such as cleaning, shopping and doing laundry. The drug has not yet been approved, but it seems to be what a large portion of the world has been waiting for. Meanwhile, other experts also believe that there is a new form of dementia that has never been seen before. If this is the case, there may be many who have been diagnosed incorrectly.3

Elsewhere in the world of medicine, there have been major advances in cancer treatment. A young girl named Charlotte Stevenson was treated with a ‘tumour-agnostic’ drug, which is designed to target tumours with a genetic abnormality, known as an NTRK gene fusion. It is called ‘larotrectinib’, and has been approved for use across Europe. Cancer Immunotherapy has also seen incredible developments. This involves the use of the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. 10 years ago, a rare skin cancer called melanoma was considered unbeatable, but now, more than 50% of patients are surviving. Immunotherapy is a Nobel-prize winning development, and there is no surprise as to why. Two drugs called Ipilimumab and Nivolumab interrupt the chemical signals output by cancers, causing the immune system to recognise the cancerous tissue. This would not occur otherwise, as cancerous tissue is a corrupted version of healthy tissue.1

One of the most interesting breakthroughs has to be the use of viruses to fight off bacteria. Isabelle Carnell Holdaway was infected with a rare bacteria called Mycobacterium Abscessus, which causes big, black festering lesions on your skin. Her journey began from when she was born, where she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition which causes sticky mucus to develop inside your lungs. She then contracted the Mycobacterium Abscessus bacteria, and needed strong antibiotics to tone down its effects. At the age of 16, she had a double lung transplant, and little did she know, the invisible killer was still lurking. As she began to take immunosuppressants to prevent the lungs from being rejected, the bacteria came back. She was told that she had less than a 1% chance of surviving, and spent as much time with her close relatives as possible. A sparkle of hope suddenly appeared when her mother found a possible solution. She contacted the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which then liaised with an American Medical Institute to find the correct phages to begin the treatment. Three phages were used in the end, with two having been genetically modified. These phages needed to be injected into her blood stream twice a day and rubbed onto the lesions on her skin. The bacteria has not yet been completely cleared, but is under control. In an attempt to remove the bacteria completely, there may be a fourth phage added to the mix. Phage therapy saved the life of a helpless 17 year-old, and once again science has proved itself to be a hero.2


References

  1. James Gallagher, ‘Man on the Moon’ moment – the year’s big breakthroughs, BBC, 31 December 2019
  2. James Gallagher, Phage Therapy: ‘Viral cocktail saved my daughter’s life’, BBC, 8 May 2019
  3. Michelle Roberts, ‘First drug that can slow Alzheimer’s dementia, BBC, 22 October 2019

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