Medical Breakthroughs 2016

First New Antibiotic in 30 Years

In January 2015, scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany, in collaboration with Northeastern University in Boston, announced the discovery of an antibiotic that has the potential to work against a broad range of fatal infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and blood and soft tissue infections.

Studies show that the drug, called teixobactin, is highly unlikely to lead to drug resistance, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in developing new antibiotics as well as being a major health problem today. Teixobactin was especially effective against tuberculosis, a disease that is on the comeback in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe. The new antibiotic is expected to receive approval in Europe and the US within five years.

Don’t Cut the Cord – Just Yet

Of the many complications premature babies can experience, the most common is bleeding in the brain, the leading cause of premature infant death. Now, researchers from the Dallas-based Baylor Research Institute, led by principal investigator Dr Arpitha Chiruvolu, have found that merely waiting 45 more seconds before clamping the umbilical cord can significantly reduce this risk.

“We were impressed especially by the reduction in [bleeding in the brain] by almost 50 per cent,” she said. “There were no adverse effects and significantly fewer babies who got delayed cord clamping were intubated for apnoea or respiratory diseases in the delivery room.”

Quick Test for Deadly Fevers

Imagine being able to quickly identify deadly, highly contagious haemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, dengue and yellow fever in hospitals in remote or underdeveloped areas, so that precious time is not lost in starting treatment or implementing quarantine.

Such a test, in the form of a set of colour-changing strips, has been developed by researchers at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with the US Food and Drug Administration. The strips work similarly to pregnancy strip tests and can alert healthcare workers to the possible presence of a specific deadly viral infection, turning orange for yellow fever, red for Ebola and green for dengue.

The new strips will not replace more accurate testing procedures that are conducted in laboratories. “This is a complementary technique for places with no running water or electricity,” says Dr Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli, one of the team leaders. “We’re trying to move this into the field and put it in the hands of the people who need it.”

Womb Transplant

There is new hope for women who because of birth defects or cancer treatments are left without a functioning womb. A Swedish woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy following a successful uterus transplant in September 2014. Malin Stenberg, 37, was born without a uterus; the womb was donated by a 61-year-old family friend. Dr Mats Brännström at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, led an international team of medics and support staff that performed the transplant.

As this edition went to print, four women in Sweden had given birth following successful transplants.

A Portable Breathing Lung

In 2013 transplant specialists at University Hospital in Leuven, Belgium, succeeded in preserving donor lungs outside the body for 11 hours, the longest time in medical history. This is good news for those who suffer from chronic lung disease and failure and are waiting for transplants.

This is thanks to OCS LUNG, a portable machine that supplies the donor lungs with a continual, fresh supply of oxygen. Developed by TransMedics, a US company, the machine will revolutionise lung transplants by enabling surgeons to preserve and monitor donor lungs for longer between sites. It is now commercially available in Europe and Australia.

New Help for Those Losing Their Sight

Last year Ocata Therapeutics announced the start of its second phase of studies into a human embryonic stem cell therapy. The US-based company’s research could help restore disintegrating eyesight due to age-related macular degeneration.

In the most common form of the disease, a thin layer of tissue that delivers nutrients and oxygen to the eye’s rods and cones begins to deteriorate. Without these nutrients, eyesight begins to be compromised. Ocata coaxes stem cells to become healthy tissue – the retinal pigment epithelium cells – that can then be injected into the eyes. In the company’s first two clinical trials, ten of 18 people experienced some improvement in their vision and the therapy seemed to halt its loss in another seven. It is hoped that the treatment may one day be as common as cataract surgery.

Turning the Tide on a Child Killer

In July 2015, the European Medicines Agency announced its recommendation to approve what could be the world’s first licensed vaccine against malaria in infants and children.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2013 there were an estimated 627,000 deaths from malaria – almost 90% were in sub-Saharan Africa and 77% were children under five. The latest clinical trial for the new vaccine, Mosquirix, showed that four doses of the vaccine reduced malaria cases by almost 40%.

Much of the credit for the vaccine is being attributed to husband-and-wife team Professors Ruth and Victor Nussenzweig, at the Department of Microbiology at NYU Langone, US, whose research of the past 50 years or so against malaria has brought them international recognition. Now in their 80s, the Nussenzweigs are working to improve the vaccine’s efficacy.

Filtering Water with a Book

As many as 358 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have reliable access to safe drinking water. Now researchers have come up with a book on water safety, the pages of which can be used to filter water. In trials in South Africa, Haiti, Kenya and Bangladesh, the paper successfully removed more than 99% of bacteria. One page can purify up to 100 litres of water. Each thick, sturdy sheet of paper is embedded with silver nanoparticles, which are lethal for microbes.

Dr Theresa Dankovich, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in the US who developed and tested the technology over several years working with colleagues at the University of Virginia and Canada’s McGill University is hoping to start trials in which local residents use the filters themselves. Each page carries instructions in the local language.

“We need to get it into people’s hands to see what the effects are going to be,” says Dr Dankovich.

Vaccine Improves Survival in Lung Cancer Patients

All cells, including cancer cells, need various naturally occurring “growth factors” in order to proliferate. Now Cuban scientists have developed what appears in early clinical trials to be a safe and remarkably effective vaccine, CIMAvax EGF, that inhibits the body’s production of epidermal growth factor (EGF), used by certain cancer cells.

According to Dr Kelvin Lee of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, New York, adult patients with stage IIIB/IV non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC), who received CIMAvax survived significantly longer than those who didn’t. Their cancers didn’t disappear but grew much more slowly. Dr Lee, who, with his colleagues, is now seeking permission from the US Food and Drug Administration to offer CIMAvax in a trial says, “There are a lot of other cancers that utilise EGF as a growth factor. Colon, breast, head and neck, pancreatic and prostate cancers all do.” Which means it is possible CIMAvax can slow or stop these, too.

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