Five Cool Recent Medical Advances You May Not Have Heard About

Every year we get a little closer to the Six Million Dollar Man future we were always meant to live in, with awesome Lee Majors hair and one arm that’s way stronger than the other for reasons that don’t get you arrested in an Arby’s restroom.  We’ve already covered some of these innovations, like robots that can perform heart surgery through veins in the neck, researchers who are regrowing bones and organs and possibly entire limbs, and the 3D bio-printer to eventually print up our new livers with (and not a moment too soon).  Here are five more awesome medical innovations you may not have heard about yet.


Scientists at the University of Calgary inserted a human insulin gene into safflowers.  The seeds of the plant can be ground, with very inexpensive insulin refined from the resulting oil.  It would take just 16,000 acres (25 square miles) of these safflowers to meet the insulin demand for the entire world.  It currently costs around $800 per year for the average insulin user’s yearly supply, which is out of reach for many patients.  The WHO (the World Health Organization, not the band.  Roger Daltrey couldn’t be reached for comment.) estimates that the developed nations in the West consume about 70% of all insulin while only having 35% of the total diabetic population.  And even in the West, there are people who can’t afford regular insulin prescriptions.  These people are called “bloggers”.


Keepin' it classy.

Did you know scientists at the University of Calgary also created a vaccine that stopped or delayed the onset of Diabetes Mellitus Type 1 in mice? Using nanoparticles coated in specific peptides, they were able to keep the mice’s immune systems from damaging the pancreas without suppressing the overall function of their immune systems.  Now they’re planning human trials and, if it works, nanoparticle vaccines might also work on other autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.  But not lupus.  It’s never lupus.


When a person loses a lot of blood, they go into shock.  To conserve energy and keep blood pressure stable, the body turns off the expression of some proteins.  Around six to seven percent of our genes change expression to accomplish this by removing acetylations from the genomes.   The problem is, if the patient stays in shock for too long, this shutdown can cause organ failure and death.  Hasan Alam at Massachusetts General Hospital wondered if histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors could be used to counteract the removal of acetylations well enough to prevent organ failure in a patient who is rapidly losing blood.

His team had already found that one very common HDAC inhibitor, valproic acid, increased survival rates in injured rats. So they went to work testing it on another animal: pigs.  They drained several pigs of 60% of their blood [the saddest / most delicious massacre ever] then gave them them a saline infusion before dividing them into three groups: those who were also injected with valproic acid, those who were given a blood transfusion, and those who only received the saline.

They estimated that it would take about 4 hours for injured soldiers to receive a blood transfusion at a hospital, so the pigs were tested at 4 hours.  All of the pigs receiving an immediate blood transfusion lived.  Only 25% of the pigs receiving just saline lived 4 hours.  86% of the pigs who received no blood transfusion but were given a shot of valproic acid lived. (Surgery, DOI: 10.1016/j.surg.2009.04.007 [via]).  If the valproic acid works the same way in humans, it can buy enough time to increase survival times drastically in soldiers who have suffered massive blood loss far from an available blood transfusion.

As an additional piece of good news, valproic acid (a very common drug for seizures, as well as sometimes being used for migraines and acute mania) is very inexpensive, even as an injection.  How inexpensive?  The store where I work charges around $40 for 50 vials, each containing 250 mg of the drug.  I realize the picture is of a 500 mg vial, but we’re apparently not cool enough to get any of those here.


There have been many interesting studies and devices for blindness lately, like the BrainPort and an experimental subretinal implant for patients with retinitis pigmentosa and even the study where up to 150 billion viruses were injected into the eyes of blind kids, which sounds completely insane but worked.  I’d like to talk about one of these treatments I haven’t written about before: a bionic eye made by American company Second Sight which is being tested in at least 32 retinitis pigmentosa patients worldwide.  Peter Lane is one of these patients.  The 51-year-old from Manchester, England started losing his sight nearly 30 years ago, but his new implant allows him to see outlines of objects and read large print text on a special screen. Another patient with the implant was able to watch a fireworks display for the first time in 40 years.

The implant works by magic sending images captured by a camera (attached to sunglasses), converting them in a processor on the patient’s belt, and sending the converted signal to a transmitter in the glasses, where it’s then wirelessly beamed an electrode array implanted on the patient’s retinal nerves. What the patient sees are patterns of light and dark spots.  It’s a start.



Kefah Mokbel and colleagues at the London Breast Institute (which sounds like the most magical place in the world) and St George’s Hospital are pioneering a technique to regrow fatty breast tissue using a mastectomy patient’s own fat cells.  The technique has already been tested successfully on pigs and mice by Wayne Morrison and his team at Bernard O’Brien Institute of Microsurgery in Melbourne, Australia.  In the pig test, they regrew new breasts [pigs have boobs?] in six weeks.  The technique involves removing some of the patient’s fat cells, increasing the concentration of stem cells in the fatty tissue, placing a breast-shaped scaffold under her skin, then injecting the cells under the scaffold (with a blood supply coming from blood vessels in the armpit) where the cells will divide until the cavity is filled.  They estimate that this might take eight months in humans.  The scaffolding has to then be removed, although they’re working on a biodegradable one that can be left in.

Which raises the question, can the scaffold be placed anywhere under the skin, and can the process be sped up to about nine hours instead of eight months?  If so, this is going to make for the greatest frat party prank ever.

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