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10 Biggest Medical Breakthroughs Of 2015

by Radu Alexander
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Scientists have had a busy year, with 2015 a particularly productive year for medicine. We’ve had exciting discoveries, breakthroughs in technology, and new applications for existing products. Here are 10 medical headlines from 2015 that are sure to make a significant impact on the world in the years to come.

10 Discovery Of Teixobactin


In 2014, the World Health Organization warned that the world was entering a “post-antibiotic era,” and they were right. We haven’t found a new antibiotic that was actually used as medicine since 1987, almost 30 years ago. Drug-resistant infections are becoming an increasingly prevalent problem. But in 2015, scientists made a discovery that has been described as a “game changer.”

Scientists discovered a new class of antibiotics with 25 new antimicrobials, including a potent one named teixobactin. This new antibiotic kills microbes by blocking their ability to build cell walls, so the microbes cannot develop a resistance to the drug. So far, teixobactin has proven efficient in killing MRSA and several bugs that cause tuberculosis.

Perhaps even more importantly, the team behind the discovery used a new method of growing antibiotics to get these results. They created a “subterranean hotel” where each pod (or “room”) is separated from the rest and contains a single bacterium.

That “hotel” is then placed in soil, allowing many antibiotics to be grown in laboratories that were previously unable to do so. As far as teixobactin is concerned, promising tests on mice are leading to human testing, which should begin in 2017.

9 Doctors Grow Vocal Cords From Scratch


One of the most exciting, futuristic fields of medicine is tissue regeneration. In 2015, the list of regenerated organs added a new entry when doctors at the University of Wisconsin grew human vocal cords from scratch.

Headed by Dr. Nathan Welham, the team bioengineered tissue that mimics the vocal cord mucosa, which represents the flaps that vibrate in the larynx to create human speech. The donated cells came from five human patients and were grown in the lab for two weeks. Then they were attached to larynges using fake windpipes.

The scientists described the sound created by the cords as an “eeee-like sound” like a robotic kazoo. However, this matches the sound that would normally be generated by real human vocal cords in isolation. With the help of additional structures such as a throat or mouth, scientists are confident that the laboratory vocal cords can match the sounds made by real cords.

In the last stage of the experiment, scientists tested if mice engineered with human immune systems would reject the tissue. Fortunately, they did not, and Welham now thinks that vocal cord tissue is immunoprivileged, which means that it doesn’t trigger a reaction from the immune system.

8 Cancer Drug Might Help Parkinson’s Sufferers


Tasigna (aka nilotinib) is an FDA-approved drug that is regularly used to treat people with leukemia. However, a new trial conducted at the Georgetown University Medical Center suggests that Tasigna could be extremely potent in managing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by improving cognition, motor skills, and nonmotor functions.

Fernando Pagan, one of the doctors in charge of the study, thinks that nilotinib therapy might be the first of its kind to reverse cognitive and motor decline in patients with a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s.

The study lasted six months and involved 12 patients who took increasing doses of nilotinib. All 11 test subjects who finished the trial had some benefit from the therapy, with 10 of them reporting significant clinical improvements.

The primary goal of this study was safety—to make sure that the human body could tolerate nilotinib without side effects. The doses used were much smaller than those normally given to leukemia patients.

Although the drug has proven successful, the study was conducted on a small group of people without control or placebo groups. More research is necessary before Tasigna becomes a viable treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

7 World’s First 3-D-Printed Rib Cage


In recent years, 3-D printing had been making headlines by producing exciting innovations in many fields, including medicine. In 2015, doctors at the Salamanca University Hospital in Spain performed the world’s first rib cage transplant using a 3-D-printed chest prosthetic.

The patient was suffering from chest wall sarcoma. To reach the tumors and prevent them from spreading, doctors had to remove sections of his rib cage. A titanium implant to replace those missing pieces already existed.

However, an implant for a large section of the skeleton is made out of multiple components that can come loose over time and create new medical complications. Besides, each person’s skeletal structure is unique, making it complicated to fit the implant perfectly.

Doctors realized that a 3-D printer could be used to make a highly customized titanium structure that would better fit this particular patient. After obtaining high-resolution 3-D CT scans, scientists used the $1.3 million Arcam printer to successfully create an implant with parts of the sternum and rib cage. The surgery to fix the implant inside the body went well, and the patient made a full recovery.

6 Skin Cells Turned Into Brain Cells


The scientists at Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, have had a busy year studying the human brain. They developed a method of turning skin cells into brain cells and have already found several useful applications for this new technique.

For starters, scientists found a way to turn skin samples into old brain cells. This makes it easier for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s specialists to study brain tissue that has suffered the effects of aging. Historically, animal brains were used for research, but there are limits to what we can learn from other species.

More recently, stem cells were turned into brain cells for research. However, these experienced a process of rejuvenation during their conversion and didn’t accurately mimic the brain of an older person.

Once researchers developed the technique for artificially creating brain cells, they specialized in making neurons that produce serotonin. Even though these make up a small fraction of the human brain, they have been linked to major disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and depression.

Until now, neurons developed under laboratory conditions produced a different brain chemical known as glutamate. This new technique should be a real boon for researchers studying mental illness.

5 Male Birth Control Pill


In Japan, scientists at the Osaka University Research Institute for Microbial Diseases have released new research that might lead to a male birth control pill in the near future. They were working with drugs called tacrolimus and cyclosporine A.

Normally, these drugs are administered to organ transplant patients to suppress their immune systems and reduce the chances of their bodies rejecting new organs. This is done by inhibiting the production of an enzyme called calcineurin, which contains PPP3R2 and PPP3CC, two proteins also found in sperm.

The researchers studied mice and discovered that the ones unable to reproduce had low amounts of PPP3CC, suggesting that the absence of this protein could cause infertility. Upon closer study, the scientists concluded that the protein was responsible for giving the sperm cell enough flexibility and force to penetrate the membrane of the female egg.

A test performed on normal, healthy mice confirmed their findings. It only took tacrolimus and cyclosporine A four and five days, respectively, to make the mice infertile. Their fertility returned to normal one week after taking the drugs. More importantly, calcineurin is not a hormone, so targeting it should not affect a person’s sex drive.

Despite promising results, a male birth control pill is still years away, if it comes at all. Around 80 percent of studies on mice are not applicable to humans. However, researchers remain hopeful because the effect on human fertility has already been reported. Also, similar drugs have already undergone clinical trials and are used on humans.

4 DNA Printing


The technology of 3-D printing has created a unique, new industry—one that prints and sells DNA. Although the term “printing” is widely used because it has commercial appeal, it doesn’t accurately describe what is happening.

As the CEO at Cambrian Genomics explains, the process is more akin to a high-tech version of “spell-checking” than printing. Millions of pieces of DNA on tiny metal beads are scanned by a computer that selects the ones necessary to make the desired DNA sequence. Afterward, a laser fires at the right beads and places the DNA in a tray to form the strand requested by the client.

Companies like Cambrian see a near future where people will be able to use computer software to assemble new organisms just for fun. Understandably, this has some people worried about the ethical and practical implications of such power in the hands of your average Joe, let alone someone intent on using it maliciously.

For now, DNA printing is considered a boon for the medical field. Drug manufacturers and research companies are the primary clients of organizations such as Cambrian.

Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden went one step further and constructed DNA strands in the shape of a bunny. DNA origami, as they call it, might seem like just a cool party trick, but it could also have medical applications as a new, more effective drug delivery method. The process could be used to make more resistant structures that won’t break down in the human body.

3 Nanobots Work In Living Creature


In early 2015, the field of robotics scored a big victory when a team of researchers from the University of California in San Diego announced that they had conducted the first successful tests in which nanobots were used to perform a task inside a living creature.

The creatures in question were lab mice. After being implanted inside the animals, the micromachines traveled to the stomachs of the mice and delivered their payloads—small flakes of gold. At the end of the procedure, the mice had no damage in their stomach linings, showing that it is safe for animals to ingest these microscopic nanobots.

Subsequent investigations revealed that more gold flakes stayed in the stomach by using this method than by simply ingesting them. This suggests that nanobots could become a more effective drug delivery method in the future.

The motors on the machines are made of zinc. When they come into contact with acids in the body, a chemical reaction occurs that generates hydrogen bubbles and propels the nanobots. After a while, the motors simply dissolve in the stomach acid.

Although this procedure was a decade in the making, it wasn’t until 2015 that it was carried out successfully on animals instead of cell cultures in petri dishes. In the future, nanorobots could be used to detect and even treat a wide array of diseases by attacking individual cells.

2 Injectable Brain Nano Implant


A team at Harvard developed a brain implant that promises to treat a host of maladies ranging from neurodegenerative diseases to paralysis. The implant consists of an electronic device made of scaffolds which can be connected to various machines after being inserted into the brain. It could then be used to monitor neural activity, stimulate tissue, and promote neuron regeneration.

The electronic mesh is made of conductive polymer threads that have either transistors or nanoscale electrodes attached at their intersections. Flexible and soft to mimic brain tissue, the mesh consists mostly of empty space to allow cells to arrange themselves easily around it.

As of early 2016, the Harvard team is still conducting tests to see how safe the procedure is. So far, two mice have had devices made from 16 electrical components implanted in their brains. These devices have successfully monitored and stimulated individual neurons.

1 THC-Producing Yeast


For years, marijuana has been used to treat symptoms brought on by HIV or chemotherapy. Alternatively, there are pills that use the synthetic version of marijuana’s main psychoactive compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (aka THC).

Now biochemists at the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany have announced that they engineered a new strain of yeast capable of producing THC. Furthermore, they also have unpublished data on a yeast strain that produces cannabidiol, another active compound of marijuana.

Marijuana has several molecular compounds of interest to researchers. Therefore, an efficient, reliable method of generating the desired molecule in large quantities would be a huge boon for the medical world. However, at the moment, growing the plant is still the most effective method. Up to 30 percent of the dry weight of a modern marijuana strain can be THC.

Even so, Dortmund researchers are hopeful that this might change in the future. At the moment, the yeast is based on precursor molecules instead of the preferred alternative of simple sugars. This leads to small amounts of THC created with every batch.

However, further research might refine the process to the point where biochemists can maximize THC production and scale it up for industrial purposes. This would please medical researchers and European regulators, who are looking for a new way of manufacturing THC without cultivating marijuana.

Radu is into science and weird history. Share the knowledge on Twitter, or check out his website.

fact checked by Jamie Frater