FASTER vaccine development, better cancer screening and treatment and discovering genetic keys to stopping drug-resistant bacteria were just some of the key advances made in medical research in 2016, according to three US health experts.
In an e-mail exchange with The Manila Times, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, Michael Roizen, head of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, and Michael Misialek, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine reviewed predictions they had made at the end of last year for medical advancements anticipated in 2016. They concluded that although there were a few surprises, most of the expected progress was achieved, particularly in medical information, cancer treatment, vaccine development and genetic research.
Part of the efforts toward genetic research was applied to the Precision Medicine Initiative launched in the US earlier this year. The research program, which uses genomic and molecular information from more than one million volunteers, seeks to discover more precise factors that influence health. “The question it’s trying to answer,” Collins explained, “is why does a treatment work for some people but not others with the same disease?”
Cleveland Clinic’s Roizen pointed out that advances in Internet and smartphone technology have contributed to the development of innovations such as wearable health sensors for people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma. Devices such as stick-on sensors, wristbands and special clothing that monitor respiratory and heart rates, EKG readings, body temperature and glucose levels were introduced in the past few months, and new gadgets that can monitor stress levels and inflammation readings are being developed, Roizen said.
One of the areas that saw a great deal of progress this year was cancer treatment, according to Tuft’s Misialek. New immunotherapy cancer vaccines, which train the immune system to use its anti-viral fighting response to destroy cancer cells without harming healthy cells were the focus of research this year, with the Food and Drug Administra tion (FDA) already approving these kinds of vaccines for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer and melanoma. Among the most eagerly anticipated vaccines in 2016, Misialek said, was a lung cancer vaccine, based on a version first developed in Cuba. While it did not progress as far as researchers hoped, it is still being developed and should be available soon.
More work is being done on medicines that could treat many different cancers, Misialek, who is a pathologist, added. “We’re throwing all cancers with the same mutation in one basket, and then testing drugs that target that particular mutation,” he explained.
Other advances were made in cancer detection, including more sensitive blood tests that can detect abnormal proteins produced by cancer cells. In an online article, Cleveland Clinic said the new type of analysis would lead to a more effective test for pancreatic cancer, considered the most deadly type of cancer in terms of five-year survival rates, as well as prostate and ovarian cancer.
Noting the headline-grabbing outbreak of the Zika virus that has affected many parts of the world, Roizen said it is now possible to anticipate the availability of a vaccine in a matter of months, rather than years, thanks to accelerated development and approval processes crafted during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. “With international travel, a single person [potentially infecting]huge numbers of people has led to a system to be able to immunize a large number of people really fast,” Roizen explained. As one example, he pointed to the rapid development and release of vaccine for a form of meningitis, after there was an outbreak at two universities in the US.
One advance that saw wider use in 2016 was a technique called gene editing, which was first used last year to cure a child in the UK of leukemia. “It basically gives you a scissors to cut out pieces of genes,” Roizen said.
The technology can be used to correct human DNA to fight diseases or hereditary defects, although as Collins pointed out, it causes some worries that it might be misused to alter genetic traits for cosmetic rather than medical reasons.
Similar technology can also be used to study and develop defenses against so-called “superbugs,” disease-causing bacteria that have become resistant to conventional antibiotics. A large part of the challenge in fighting this difficult infections is identifying the traits of the resistant bacteria, Misialek said.