Given all the attention paid to a certain virus and the efforts to deal with it, you’d be forgiven if you had missed some of the remarkable achievements that took place over the past year.
For example, doctors at NYU Langone Health in New York City attached a kidney grown in a genetically modified pig (altered to reduce the risk of rejection) to a patient and it continued to work properly for 54 hours. Given the desperate need for organs, this could revolutionize organ transplants by dramatically increasing availability.
In other advances: it is estimated that in 2021, more than 24,000 Canadian men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer and 4,500 will die from it. Once the cancer spreads (metastasizes) the chances for survival drop dramatically. A new treatment may change those odds. It combines a compound that hones in on a protein found in prostate cancer cells with radiation. This “smart bomb” radiopharmaceutical carries the treatment directly to the cancer itself and opens the door to targeted treatment for other cancers. Fingers crossed that it continues to meet with success as it goes through the approval process.
Sickle cell disease is a genetic disorder in which an improperly made protein inside the red blood cells deforms their round shape into a crescent (or sickle) that gets caught in the blood vessels, blocking the flow, and therefore causing pain and damage. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital used a modified virus to switch off the damaged gene allowing the patients to make normal red blood cells and to lead normal lives.
Previously, someone who damaged their anterior cruciate ligament (or ACL, a key stabilizer of the knee) needed a graft to repair it. A new approach inserts a protein-based sponge prepped with the patient’s own blood between the torn ends of the ACL and allows the ligament to heal itself. No graft needed.
Weight loss is difficult. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, strokes, cancers, and also interferes with daily activities. Semaglutide is an approved medication used in type 2 diabetes. Studies showed that a different dose of this injectable medication could help obese patients lose as much as 15 per cent of their body weight. The long-term effects need more study, but this could provide us with a new way to treat obesity.
This past year has also seen ground-breaking research in the use of previously banned substances such as ecstasy (MDMA) and psilocybin to help people with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
All in all, this has been quite the year. Surgeries, treatments, and diagnoses have been delayed as resources were shifted to cope with COVID-19. It may take years to regain the ground that we’ve lost on those fronts, but thankfully medical research has not stopped. The next few weeks will be difficult, but you know what to do to stay safe. Limit your contacts, say no to those who aren’t vaccinated, wear your mask, maintain a safe distance, wash your hands and when you are indoors with others, do all you can to improve ventilation.
Get vaccinated! A Happy, healthy New Year to everyone!
Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at McGill Medical School as well as an Attending Physician in the Emergency Department of the McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.