The year in review: 2016 in medical and health news – Part 1
Calling the year 2016 eventful, while accurate, is, in my opinion, an understatement. I, personally, would call it crazy.
From the painful passing of too many high-profile, famous, and much-beloved celebrities to the surprising, if not disappointing, turn of events in the field of politics, this year definitely has had way more than its fair share of heart-stopping headlines.
The field of science has had some big breakthroughs this year. Physicists finally detected gravitational waves, giving long-overdue validation to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Elsewhere, governments worldwide have finally decided to stand for the planet, signing the Paris Climate Agreement into existence despite a hazy political future.
Health and medicine, too, has had an exciting 2016, bearing witness to three-parent babies to corporate meltdowns. So, as 2016 draws to a close, MIMS lists down 10 of the health and medicine news that made the biggest splashes this year.
A very effective male contraceptive
October this year, scientists from different labs worldwide released a study, published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, that presents evidence for the efficacy of a treatment regimen as a male contraceptive.
“The study regimen led to near-complete and reversible suppression of spermatogenesis. The contraceptive efficacy was relatively good compared with other reversible methods available for men,” the authors conclude.
The treatment regimen itself involves injecting a combination of two hormones: a form of progestogen, which does the actual work of suppressing spermatogenesis; and testosterone, which acts to balance the depression in testosterone levels caused by progestogen.
The treatment targets the pituitary gland in the brain, essentially turning off the sperm production mechanism of the body.
The treatment was found to be 95 percent effective. In the efficacy phase of the trials, only four out of the 266 male participants experienced pregnancies. This gives the male contraceptive a similar rate of pregnancy with the female contraceptive pill, and a much better level of efficacy than condoms.
Despite its promising results, the trials were stopped prematurely because of side effects. Among these were: mood disorders, muscle pain, irregular heart rate, increased libido, and acne. More work is needed to iron out such issues, the researchers explain.
Twenty males dropped out of the trials because of the side effects.
Stem cells for stroke
After injecting stem cells into their brains, stroke patients display significant and observable recovery, scientists from Stanford University School of Medicine revealed last June.
The small clinical trial, led by Gary Steinberg, involved 18 patients of chronic stroke who had had their first and only episode between six months and three years prior to the trial. They were administered only light anaesthesia and were conscious throughout the operation.
The entire procedure involved boring holes in each of the patients’ skulls and injecting, into their brains, modified mesenchymal stem cells which were originally from two donors. The stem cells were modified to be able to restore neurologic function.
Patients saw dramatic, long-term improvements in their movement post-operation, as measured by various accepted metrics of stroke recovery like the Fugl-Meyer test. These improvements, the team found, were independent of age, something unusual to most stroke treatments.
Remarkably, the recovery from the implants has persisted for more than a year as of publishing.
Also remarkable is how safe the treatment appears to be. Indeed, no immune rejection and unwanted differentiation events were observed in any of the patients, very uncharacteristic of stem cell implants. In fact, none of the patients received immunosuppressive drugs.
The team leader, while conceding that their results were “clinically meaningful,” is hopeful but cautious. This is, after all, only a singular and a small clinical trial. Further studies and trials are needed to validate the efficacy and safety of this approach.
Breast cancer blood test
The future of cancer detection may be moving away from the uncomfortable mammograms and invasive, not to mention painful, biopsies. Last May, scientists from the Australian National University released a study that may move medicine towards detecting breast cancer in the blood.
Necessarily, blood tests aiming to detect cancer should be focused around looking for molecular markers. In this particular case, the research team focused on the innate isotopes of carbon and nitrogen.
“Here, we took advantage of natural 13C and 15N isotope abundance to show there are isotopic differences between healthy and cancer biopsy tissues or between healthy and malignant cultured cell lines,” they write.
While a bit more research is obviously needed before these are deployed in hospitals, the authors are hopeful for their detection alternative that is not only more convenient and less invasive but also less expensive than the methods currently in use.
Mom and Dad... and Mom
Last April 6, 2016, the first baby, produced from a new three-parent technique, was born. This baby has DNA from three different people: nuclear DNA from his parents, and mitochondrial DNA from a female donor.
There are different techniques to produce an embryo that will produce such a baby. One is through pronuclear transfer, which involves fertilizing two eggs – one from the mother, one from a donor – using the father’s sperm cells.
The nucleus from the mother’s donor’s fertilized egg is replaced with the nucleus from the mother’s fertilized egg. This process, however, technically involves destroying one embryo. To the parents involved, who are Muslim, this was unacceptable.
The second technique, the one their doctor, Dr. John Zhang, used is called spindle nuclear transfer. It essentially follows the same process but the maternal nucleus is transferred before fertilization is performed. The resulting embryo will then have DNA from three people.
Parents opt for this procedure to avoid passing on the debilitating, if not fatal, mitochondrial diseases of the mother to the children. As a case in point, the couple in question has gone through several miscarriages and has experienced losing at least two children because of such diseases.
This procedure is understandably controversial; it has only been legalized in the UK. Similarly, safety remains an issue. A previous attempt at pronuclear transfer resulted in genetic disorders so, while the baby is healthy so far, supporters are encouraging caution and proactive monitoring of the baby.
Lymph vessels in the brain
“They’ll have to rewrite the textbooks,” was the only thing Kevin Lee, chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Virginia said when he found out that the lab his colleague, Jonathan Kipnis, discovered lymph vessels that connected the brain directly to the lymphatic system.
Antoine Louveau, a postdoctoral fellow at the lab, after developing a method to mount mice meninges on a single slide, noticed that the distribution of immune cells resembled that of a vessel. This led to the discovery.
That there were structures – vessels, no less – in the body that were thus far unknown is almost a miracle in itself, according to Kipnis.
This discovery now opens a floodgate of questions and opportunities. Virtually nothing is known about this system, and studies that map the processes out are required.
Most importantly, however, are the ramifications of this discovery on our understanding of neurological diseases. Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis, in particular, are known to involve immune responses. The discovery of the connection of the brain to the rest of the lymphatic system can now facilitate better research on these diseases, the scientists hope. MIMS
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