Medical Breakthroughs in 2016
Modern medicine would seem miraculous to people living less than 100 years ago, but the advancements on the horizon are even more incredible. From helping the paralysed walk to curing blindness, scientists and engineers from a wide range of different specialisms are bringing the latest developments together to create an array of new medical technologies that could completely transform the way we diagnose, treat and even cure disease.
The molecular machinery that keeps the human body running is built on a nanometre scale. Haemoglobin molecules (the proteins that carry oxygen in your blood) are roughly 5 to 7 nanometres in diameter – that’s about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair! Nanomedicine attempts to interact with this miniature world using materials that measure less than 1,000 nanometres across. Down at this tiny scale, scientists hope to develop high-precision nanotechnology that could repair or replace damaged cell components. Nanomaterials have already entered the clinic, where they are being used to make capsules that carry tiny packages of drugs into the body. Some capsules help to protect the drug from being broken down as it travels to the right part of the body, and others assist with targeting, ensuring that the treatment gets to the right place.
Stem cell therapy, Nanomedicine and immunotherapy is changing the approach of medicine. Utilizing the regenerative or destructive abilities of certain cells allows advanced targeting and delivery of treatments.
Regenerating damaged tissues
Most of the cells in your body are highly specialised; each is dedicated to its individual role, and once it has committed to becoming a certain cell type, the decision is permanent. Stem cells, however, have not yet chosen a specialism. Instead, they support growth and repair, and are able to carry on making copies of themselves long after most other adult cells would have stopped dividing. Each of those copies can rest, make more copies, or begin the process of transforming into a specialist cell.
The specialism that the stem cell chooses varies based on the signals it receives, and depending on the type of stem cell that it is – an embryonic stem cell, or one of the many different kinds of adult stem cell. Embryonic stem cells are the most powerful; they are found in the developing embryo and, with the right signals, can transform into any cell in the human body.
Given these incredible properties, it is no wonder that stem cells are receiving a lot of attention from the scientific community. Doctors already perform stem cell transplants to replace lost bone marrow, and stem cells are used to create skin grafts. In the future, it is hoped that they will be used to repair damaged tissues inside the body, or even to rebuild entire organs.
With incredible capacity for regeneration, stem cells have the potential to replace every cell in the body
If we are going to survive future infections, we need to tackle antibiotic resistance. Just like humans, bacteria have variations in their genes that give them slightly different characteristics. This means that some bacteria will succumb to antibiotics faster than others. If the more hardy bacteria survive until the course of antibiotics has finished, they can then go on to create an entire colony with the same genetic advantages. The antibiotic you took before will no longer be effective in treating the infection. The more antibiotics are used, the more this cycle repeats, and there are now several strains of bacteria that are able to resist the effects of some of our most powerful drugs. Even more worryingly, antibiotic resistance genes can be passed from one bacterium to the next, and even between species.
3D Printing body parts
The future holds custom-printed drugs and prosthetics, and even replacement body parts. Plastic 3D printers are a natural fit for creating prosthetics, but some of the most exciting medical 3D printers use a different kind of ‘ink’. Using precision techniques, scientists are working on combining different medicines into one compact pill. Different ingredients could be included in the printer to control when each drug is released, and custom pills could be printed for each patient. This goal is still decades away, but printers could be used to make vitamin supplements much sooner.
However, 3D printers don’t just produce artificial body parts; they are also able to recreate the real thing.
3D printers can also be used to create custom surgical implants, from plates, to replacement joints, to scaffolds used to encourage cells to grow into new tissues. These printed structures can either be long-lasting or soluble. However, 3D printers don’t just produce artificial body parts; they are also able to recreate the real thing. Some 3D printers are designed to print with living human cells, forming sheets of tissue that could be used as grafts to repair damage. Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, North Carolina, are also working on printing cells directly on to the body to repair wounds. Printing entire organs is the ultimate goal, but whether it is actually possible is a topic of debate among scientists.