10 big medical breakthroughs of 2017

2017 has been a great year for medical breakthroughs.
2017 has been a great year for medical breakthroughs.

Every year, medical technology advances a little more, bringing hope for those suffering from grave illnesses and debilitating conditions.

Here are the breakthroughs that wowed the world in 2017.

1. Growing organs in a petri dish to help treat cystic fibrosis

Els van der Heijden has cystic fibrosis but the 53-year-old was not benefiting from the expensive medication she was taking. Doctors did not want to try a new, more expensive drug because it had not been proven to work in people with the rare type of cystic fibrosis that Van der Heijden had.

Instead, they scraped a few cells from Van der Heijden and grew a mini version of her large intestine in a petri dish. When Van der Heijden's "mini gut" responded to treatment, doctors knew it would help her too.

This experiment was conducted to help people with rare forms of cystic fibrosis. So far, doctors have grown mini guts – just the size of a pencil point – for 450 of the Netherlands' roughly 1 500 cystic fibrosis patients.

2. Lab-grown skin saves boy dying from rare genetic disease

A seven-year-old boy from Germany had a rare genetic disease called epidermolysis bullosa and was on the brink of death. This disease makes the skin extremely fragile and thin, and had destroyed nearly 60% of his skin. As a result, he was suffering from fatal sepsis.

Doctors intervened by using stem cells and gene therapy to engineer a fully functional skin for the boy. He was the first person in the world to receive a skin transplant of this magnitude, and this operation holds potential for more research.

3. Lymph-node transplant surgery in South Africa a success   

On local soil, a man suffering from advanced skin cancer and lymphoedema has received successful reconstructive surgery.

Surgeons at Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital successfully performed a novel vascularised lymph node transfer, a procedure done on small blood vessels to treat lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema is a painful side effect of cancer and cancer treatment. This procedure is believed to be the first in South Africa.

4. Boy born with HIV remains stable for eight years, without using drugs

A South African child born with the Aids virus has kept the infection suppressed for more than eight years after stopping anti-HIV medicines – more evidence that early treatment can occasionally cause a long remission that, if it lasts, could be a form of cure.

The case was revealed during July 2017 at an Aids conference in Paris, where researchers also gave encouraging results from tests of shots every month or two instead of daily pills to treat HIV. This is a very promising reason why people should stay on their treatments, according to researchers. 

5. HIV eliminated from mice

Another important breakthrough was made with regards to HIV. Scientists discovered that they could successfully cut out the HIV virus from mouse cells making use of CRISPR (gene editing) therapy. The study was first published in the journal Molecular Therapy.

While this study is still in its infancy, the HIV virus was eliminated by only one round of treatment – with more research, this technology can have far-reaching consequences for HIV.

laboratory rats

6. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded for breakthrough research on the circadian rhythm

This year the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded for insights into our internal biological clock. The Nobel Prize for Medicine was presented to three Americans for discoveries about the body's daily rhythms

Circadian rhythms adapt one's physiology to different phases of the day, influencing sleep, behaviour, hormone levels, body temperature and metabolism. Groundbreaking research into our circadian rhythm can produce even more groundbreaking research on health.

7. Landmark gene therapy for leukaemia approved

US health officials have approved a breakthrough treatment that genetically engineers patients' own blood cells into an army of assassins to seek and destroy childhood leukaemia.

CAR-T treatment uses gene therapy techniques to turbocharge T-cells, which are the immune system soldiers that cancer too often evades. Researchers filter those cells from a patient's blood, reprogram them to harbour a "chimeric antigen receptor", or CAR, that zeroes in on cancer, and grow hundreds of millions of copies.

When this cell is returned to the cancer patient, it can continue multiplying and help fight the disease for months or even years after.

8. Bio-engineering for penises

Scientists have made a new breakthrough in bio-engineering technology by successfully growing functional male penises in a US laboratory. This could be a potential solution for men who have lost their penis to injury or disease.

According to Mashable, the process of bio-engineering a penis involves using donor penis as a base. The penis is soaked in a solution for two weeks to remove the donor’s DNA. This prevents the recipient’s body from rejecting the penis once it is attached. Cells taken from the patient are cultivated in the lab for six weeks before they are placed onto the base.

9. The first robot-assisted super-microsurgery

Using robots during surgery is the way forward – especially when it comes to dangerous, delicate procedures. It seems like another robot-assisted surgery breakthrough has been achieved.

Surgeons from the Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands performed the first robot-assisted super-microsurgery. The robot sutured vessels as small as 0.3 mm to treat lymphoedema in a patient. It’s a delicate procedure but the robotic assistance made it go without a hitch. 

10. New gene discovered that causes heart disease

And finally, a huge breakthrough by South African researchers the identification of a new gene called CDH2. This gene is responsible for causing arrhythmogenic right ventricle cardiomyopathy (ARVC), a genetic disorder of the heart that causes cardiac arrest. 

Researchers at the University of Cape Town’s Hatter institute for Cardiovascular Research in Africa (HICRA), with global collaboration, have identified a new gene that is a major cause of sudden death among young people. Although everyone has the CDH2 gene, a mutation of it causes the genetic disorder that leads to ARVC.


Image credits: iStock

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