Beyond the COVID-19 Vaccine

Alzheimer’s disease shown on MRI.

New Medical Innovations You May Have Missed

By Taylor Smith

2020 will surely be remembered as a year that rocked the medical, political, social, economic, and cultural world as we know it. While schools, colleges, and traditional work environments were dramatically altered, families around the world were unable to gather to celebrate holidays or visit loved ones.

Of course, all this upheaval and change was incredibly distracting and understandably dominated news headlines. What people may have missed were the medical breakthroughs and advances that occurred beyond the COVID-19 vaccine. Medical researchers and scientific labs took no breaks in 2020. As a result, the past year saw radical improvements in the treatment of heart health, cancer, diabetes, and more.

At the 2020 Medical Innovation Summit, the Cleveland Clinic released its own list of the modern medical breakthroughs of the past year. Leading the list is a novel drug for primary-progressive multiple sclerosis (MS). The FDA-approved therapeutic monoclonal antibody is the first and only MS treatment for the primary-progressive population of patients. In addition, a new universal hepatitis C treatment is proven to be 90 percent effective for hepatitis C genotypes 1-6, which can serve a broader scope of hepatitis C patients. Thirdly, two PARP inhibitors have been found to greatly delay the progression of prostate cancer in men. Approved in May 2020, the PARP inhibitors have shown promise for treating women’s cancers, as well.

An occupational therapy instructor provides training exercises for multiple sclerosis patients at a health center.

An inherited life-threatening disorder that damages the lungs and digestive system, cystic fibrosis (CF) is a progressive, genetic disease that limits the ability to breathe over time and causes persistent lung infections. Most commonly diagnosed in childhood, CF can now be treated with a new combination drug that is estimated to help 90 percent of individuals living with CF (trikafta.com).

In addition, migraine management has also significantly evolved over the past year with the introduction of new biologics that help in preventing migraines in the first place. Designed to target CGRP, the protein known for causing migraines, these new treatment options, as noted on mayoclinic.org, are well-suited for chronic migraine sufferers and have the potential to change lives. Previous migraine treatments were typically multipurpose drugs such as antidepressants, Botox, and antiseizure medications that were shown to reduce the number of migraine days per month but were not universally successful in preventing the onset of migraines. In contrast, these new drugs work by blocking the activity of calcitonin gene-related pepitide (CGRP) molecule, which increases during the onset of a migraine, thereby introducing a new league of migraine treatment in 2021.

Alzheimer’s is a well-known disease that is estimated to afflict more than 5 million people in the United States (alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures). The same research predicts that 76 million people worldwide will receive a diagnosis of some form of dementia by 2030. Amazingly, a blood test developed by C2N Diagnostics (c2ndiagnostics.com) in St. Louis, Missouri, may have the ability to determine the likelihood of a patient developing Alzheimer’s. Launched in October 2020, the PrecivityAD blood test for the detection of Alzheimer’s disease pathology is the first of its kind to be cleared for international use even before the onset of significant symptoms. In effect, PrecivityAD analyzes the proteins in a person’s bloodstream to determine the likelihood that they will develop Alzheimer’s. The test is designed for men and women ages 60 and older with early signs of cognitive impairment or a family history of cognitive impairment. C2N hopes to develop blood tests to address early detection of a variety of neurological disorders. As stated on the company’s website, additional blood tests could be used to measure “the concentration and metabolism of CNS-derived biomolecules using sensitive stable isotope labeling” to provide novel insights into normal and abnormal workings of the brain.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease wherein the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are wrongly detected as foreign bodies and are destroyed by the immune system. Currently, the standard treatment of this disease is through constant monitoring of glucose levels and regular insulin injections. However, even with the most vigilant attention to diet, lifestyle, medication, and exercise, type 1 sufferers can experience episodes of extremely low blood sugar (known as hypoglycemia), which can be life threatening.

Novo Nordisk, a leader in diabetes treatment, is working to create a technology to essentially cure type 1 diabetes (novonordisk.com/disease-areas/type-1-diabetes.html), thereby eliminating the cycle of daily injections and fatal complications. The pharmaceutical company is aiming to transform stem cells into “insulin-producing cells that can be transplanted into the pancreas to recover normal insulin production.” In animal studies, these transformed cells successfully cured mice with type 1 diabetes. The company is also working on developing “glucose sensitive insulins that will eliminate hypoglycemic events. This would be the next big breakthrough in type 1 diabetes care. We share this ambition with many partners in the diabetes research community and work closely with them towards a common goal — eliminating hypoglycemia.”

The MyCareLink Heart mobile app allows patients living with a pacemaker to easily view select data.

With the progression of overall technology comes the advancement of medical and diagnostic treatments. This has been especially proven when it comes to the medical community’s understanding of heart health, stroke prevention, and pacemakers. In fact, 2020 brought the development of “smart” pacemakers that work in sync with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Smartphones and mobile apps can now be used to transmit heart health data to a medical provider, increasing the ease and efficiency of remote monitoring. In the past, wireless pacemaker transmission usually involved lots of medical monitoring equipment that was kept in a patient’s home. The clunky equipment would transmit secure data to a physician’s office but did not necessarily diminish the need for in-person visits. Now, in a time of social distancing, making your smartphone work in tandem with your heart health holds bright promises for the future.

Another technological advancement having a direct impact on human health is the vacuum-induced tamponade device, which acts as a minimally invasive and life-saving tool for clinicians to use in the case of postpartum hemorrhage (PPH). This devastating complication of childbirth is characterized by excessive bleeding after having a baby. According to clevelandclinic.org, “PPH affects anywhere from one to five in every 100 women who give birth.”

In physical terms, if the uterus does not contract strongly enough after delivery of a baby and the placenta, the blood vessels in the region where the placenta was attached remain open and the mother can quickly bleed to death. The new tamponade device creates negative pressure inside the uterus, causing the cavity to collapse and bleeding to stop abruptly. The device is designed in the shape of a teardrop. Once the soft silicone ring is placed inside the uterus, gentle compression ensues, mimicking the contraction after a safe childbirth.

As noted on clevelandclinic.org, “In a clinical trial of one such company’s product, hemorrhage was controlled within two minutes with no recurrence and very little blood loss after treatment initiation in all women involved.”

This new device has the potential to be very promising for birthing complications in developing countries where birthing resources are often few and far between. The international nonprofit organization Every Mother Counts (everymothercounts.org) notes that “more than 800 women die every day from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.” That’s essentially one woman every two minutes. The promise of technological innovations such as the tamponade device could save millions of lives.

Ampoules of coronavirus vaccine.

Notwithstanding all these new advancements, arguably the top medical innovation of 2021 will be the continued rollout and distribution of coronavirus vaccines and their use to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 now and in the future. The next step will likely be the search for an antiviral medication like Tamiflu, that will reduce the duration and severity of COVID cases going forward. Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson could face steep competition in the race for an antiviral vaccine as the COVID-19 strain continues to change and evolve over time.

The ultimate hope is that these medical marvels will once and for all put an end to life under a pandemic and continue to improve the quality of life for patients everywhere.