The year 2015 has seen the emergence of full-fledged gene editing, the rise of immunotherapy and the first hints of a drug capable of slowing the pace of Alzheimer's disease. The new discoveries and technological innovations could herald the dawn of new era that changes medicines and healthcare for all of us. Here is a look at some of the breakthrough changes in medicine during the past year.
CRISPR/Cas9: The innovative genome-editing system, CRISPR/Cas9, has allowed molecular biologists to edit genes with unprecedented accuracy, offering the promise not only of greater understanding of the genetic machinery but also, it is hoped, the ability to fix that machinery much more effectively when it goes wrong. This new method of genome engineering is derived from an adaptive immune system known as CRISPR (Clustered Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) that bacteria use as a means to protect themselves against foreign invasive elements.
The techniques have thrown up a huge number of ethical issues including concerns about the creation of designer babies. Meanwhile, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, China announced they had successfully edited the genome of a human embryo. The breakthrough showed that errors in DNA that led to a blood disorder, beta thalassemia, could be successfully corrected in embryos. Gene editing has also been used to make mosquitoes resistant to malaria and to make pig organs suitable for human transplant. Scientists have also used the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing system to excise HIV from several human cell lines.
Combating Cancer: One of the most promising fields in the fight against cancer, immunotherapy, has finally come of age and could be on the cusp of revolution. Tumors have for long masqueraded as healthy normal tissue to evade assault by our immune system that seeks out and destroys foreign bodies harmful to the body. Immunotherapy aims to stop cancer cells hiding and exposes it to the immune system.
Latest reports from trials in the US suggest that immunotherapy can help double lung cancer survival rate in some patients. Tumors also shrunk in nearly six out of 10 patients with advanced melanoma cases. However, the remarkable aspect of these stories is that the few patients who responded best to treatment went from terminal cancer to no cancer at all.
Alzheimer’s held at bay: Solanezumab, a drug manufactured by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, has been found to cut the rate of progression of dementia by attacking deformed proteins called amyloid, which builds up in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease, and cutting the death of brain cells by about a third.
Anti-biotic apocalypse averted: In a sign that the ‘post-antibiotic era’ could still be averted, a team of scientists at Northeastern University in Boston, US and at Bonn in Germany, have developed a novel method for growing bacteria in soil that has yielded 25 new antibiotics, with one termed ‘very promising’.
The new antibiotic, named teixobactin has yet to be tested in people, but it cured mice of pneumonia, staph, and blood infections. Teixobactin is so different from current antibiotics in its functioning that the scientists said they hoped germs might never become resistant to it. Testing on the drugs is continuing to see if they are suitable for medical use.
Baby from frozen ovary: A woman in Belgium became the first in the world to give birth after using ovarian tissue that she had frozen when still a child. The 27-year-old women, who had her one ovary removed at the age of 13, ahead of undergoing invasive treatment for sickle cell anemia, had four fragments from her frozen ovary re-grafted onto her remaining ovary. She then successfully gave birth to a baby boy.
Full-face transplant: Surgeons in the US carried out the world’s most extensive face transplant restoring the face skin, including scalp, ears and eyelids on a firefighter who had suffered third degree burns. After a marathon 26-hour surgery, doctors took the entire face and scalp off a donor, who had died in a cycling accident, and transplanted it on the recipient.
Breaching blood-brain barrier: Scientists in Canada have for the first time breached the blood-brain barrier to deliver cancer-fighting drugs directly to the brain. A beam of focused ultrasound waves caused bubbles, filled with gas and chemotherapy drugs and injected into the blood stream, to vibrate and push their way through the blood-brain barrier. The technique has the potential to treat cancer, dementia and Parkinson's disease, but more safety studies are still needed.