We take a look at some of the medical breakthroughs and discoveries of 2015.
A nod to head transplants
One of the most head-turning prospects of 2015 was the incredible idea of a complete head transplant.
In February 2015, Italian neurosurgeon Dr Sergio Canavero said it could be possible to reconnect a severed spinal cord and prevent total immune rejection of a
new head. Later in the year, a 30-year-old Russian man suffering from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease volunteered for the procedure.
Immunologically speaking, it is the body, not the head, which decides whether to accept or reject. A better description may be “body transplant” – the medical reality in question concerns people whose heads are trapped with their completely disabled bodies, and who would opt to have their head transplanted onto a new, healthy (but deceased) donated body.
This medical development has caused much controversy, posing many questions about immortality and the value of human life. Dr Canavero plans to operate late 2017.
The overuse of antibiotics has led to the emergence of drug-resistant strains and superbugs and has, for some time, been a major public
health concern. However, 2015 held a number of breakthroughs and developments, including:
• Scientists discovered antibiotic-resistance genes in the bacteria of a remote South American tribe, suggesting the ability to resist antibiotics was already in the human body long before antibiotic drugs were developed.
• Researchers found concentrated maple syrup extract makes bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics.
• For the first time in 30 years scientists discovered a new antibiotic that could kill serious infections without encountering any detectable resistance, giving hope in the fight against evolving drug- resistant superbugs.
These discoveries challenge long-held scientific beliefs and, with human testing, hold a great promise for treating a range of infections.
There is a long-standing controversy surrounding the causes of autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), however two studies in 2015 added to the body of genetic risks.
• The link between gene mutation and autism – with genetic studies linking about 1,000 genes to autism, scientists published details relating to how mutating one of these genes can lead to the disorder.
• Paternal genetic patterns – a new study identified epigenetic signatures, suggesting some genetic patterns in paternal DNA could be linked to autism in offspring.
Each year brings with it important progress being made into clinical cancer, and 2015 was no exception. These advances identified major trends in cancer prevention and screening, treatment, quality of life, surviourship and tumour biology.
• A groundbreaking treatment for patients uses herpes to combat skin cancer.
• Researchers reveal a new drug delivery device that ‘could transform cancer treatment’, increasing life expectancy for patients with pancreatic, breast and other solid cancer.
• New study finds that a form of permanent radiotherapy may prolong prostate cancer survival, compared with dose-escalated external beam radiotherapy.
• Researchers discover an important clue to how cancer cells ‘disguise themselves as immune cells’ to spread via lymphatic system.
Hair loss and baldness
The following research developments mostly concern male pattern baldness:
• In a new study, researchers may have uncovered a promising – yet surprising – treatment for hair loss: plucking the remaining hairs. Counteractive as it may sound, plucking the remaining hairs may promote more hair to grow.
• A new method of restoring hair growth, using existing drugs that inhibit the Janus kinase (JAK) family of enzymes, may be on the horizon – researchers found rapid and robust growth could be restored by inhibiting a family of enzymes inside hair follicles.
• Researchers uncover novel insights that pave the way for a cure for a rare form of colour
• A bionic eye implant allows a man to see wife and family for first time in a decade.
• In a world first, an 80-year-old man with age-related macular degeneration receives bionic eye implant and has some vision restored.
• Researchers combine a telescopic contact lens with “smart” glasses showing a promise for age-related macular degeneration.
The discussion surrounding drinking coffee never fails to result in numerous research studies. Some of the key developments were:
• Regular daily coffee intake could improve survival for colon cancer
• New study reveals coffee. consumption linked with reduced melanoma risk.
• Study links coffee intake with reduced risk of endometrial cancer.
Dementia and alzheimer’s disease
A report in August found that the occurrence of dementia may be stabilising in Western Europe, but diseases of cognitive decline continue to receive more attention from governments and politicians.
A study shed new light on how stress may raise risk of Alzheimer’s. Based on these findings the team is now investigating a novel Alzheimer’s prevention strategy via the use of an antibody that blocks the release of this stress hormone.
In other Alzheimer’s news it was found:
• Antibody test could detect Alzheimer’s at preventable stage.
• Existing arthritis drug may help in the fight against Alzheimer’s.
• Drug successfully reverses effects of Alzheimer’s in rats.
• Scientists find potential cause of Alzheimer’s in immune system. Promising results from new mouse study suggest there may be a way to halt Alzheimer’s amyloid protein development.
Throughout 2015 several studies have looked at the causes, development and prevention of different mental health conditions.
A new coverage focused on depression in older people, and how it could possibly be preventable.
Researchers behind an October study found that the lack of face-to-face contact almost doubles depression risk for older adults. It was suggested that clinicians should consider encouraging face-to-face social interactions as a preventative strategy for depression.
Intriguing areas of enquiry emerged from the wider scientific effort to pinpoint the causes of mental illness, while understanding the brain and how it becomes ill. Numerous interesting studies were undertaken to reveal intriguing results, including:
• New research claims a correlation with cat ownership is being narrowed down to a link with a higher risk of mental disorder from infection with the microscopic parasite, spread by cats, that causes toxoplasmosis.
• Study found the genetic link between creativity and psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar.
• An analysis of data found psychedelic drug use does not increase risk of developing mental health problems.
Lifestyle effects on health
Lifestyle is predominately one of the focal topics in medical news, concerning the numerous ways our daily routine can impact our health. 2015 saw a number of studies concerning the effects of junk food, specifically the identity of added sugar as a culprit for bad health:
• A review found that sugar and carbs are the obesity culprits, not lack of exercise.
• Research confirmed sugary drinks raise risk of heart attack and heart disease by more than a third.
• A new study found sugary drinks may be responsible for over 184,000 global deaths each year.
• Laboratory tests revealed daily cola raises cancer risk due to caramel colouring.
• In August an infographic went viral, revealing how Coca- Cola affects your body when you drink it.
Throughout 2015 researchers continued to investigate how much sleep we should aim to get each night, suggesting that 6.5 hours could be enough. This figure comes from a study that referred to the average hours of surviving hunter- gatherer societies, to propose what we might have needed before agriculture and industrialization.
Three main medical findings in 2015 focused on what happens when we get too little or too much sleep, linking poor sleep with risks of heart attack and stroke:
• Inadequate sleep linked to early signs of heart disease – people who slept five hours or fewer a day risked artery disease compared to those who got seven hours.
• Poor sleep may raise the risk of heart attack, stroke – individuals with a sleeping disorder had up to 2.6 times higher risk of heart attack and up to times greater risk of stroke.
• Increased risk of high blood pressure in people with insomnia – cardiovascular risk factor was greatly increased in those chronic insomniacs or those with an inability to sleep.
Stress can be due to a combination of factors, and is not always bad. However being continually exposed to things that trigger our flight-or-fight mechanisms can do us harm.
It was found:
• Childhood stress may raise risk for diabetes and heart disease in adulthood.
• Work stress has found to be as damaging to the health as much as second-hand smoke exposure.
• Researchers found that work stress is linked to greater risk of stroke.