Technology has helped scientists, researchers and doctors make some incredible medical breakthroughs. Here are just some of the developments that will soon be transforming our health – and life – as we know it…
1. More robot-assisted surgeries
We’ll see more trailblazing in robotic surgery over the coming years… not unlike the world’s first ‘robot’ operation inside the eye. It was performed by a remotely controlled robot guided by a team of University of Oxford surgeons two years ago.
In South Africa, the first-ever robot-assisted surgery was for a prostatectomy at The Urology Hospital in Pretoria in October 2013. That opened the door for robot-assisted surgery on local shores, which has since been used in other SA hospitals to remove a cancerous kidney, perform hip replacements and, most recently, do knee replacements.
But, don’t fear, the surgeon is still in control! They use a console to relay their hand movements to the tiny robotic instruments in the patient’s body. As these instruments are so small, ops are less invasive, helping speed up recovery.
2. New solution for cholesterol
Fresh hope is on the horizon for those with raised LDL cholesterol.
A 2011 SA study noted only 52 to 60% of patients on traditional cholesterol-lowering drugs reached a healthy level of LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. Trials abroad show that patients on statin therapy who were also put on a new class of drugs (PCSK9 inhibitors) had raised LDL cholesterol levels reduced by 59% more than patients on statins alone.
How does it work? PCSK9 proteins in the liver destroy receptors that transport LDL cholesterol (LDL-C) from blood to the liver to be broken down. By blocking PCSK9, the drug regulates LDL-C’s uptake out of blood.
“These drugs will benefit anyone born with high cholesterol, and also offer hope to those who’ve already had a stroke or heart attack and still have high cholesterol levels,” says Dr Robert Cramb, chemical pathologist.
While the drug has been approved for use in some countries abroad, the PCSK9 inhibitors evolocumab and alirocumab are still in the process of registration in SA.
3. The pill-sized pacemaker
Pacemakers have been around since the late 1950s, and are a vital way to fix a patient’s life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms. Current statistics estimate that, every year, around 700 000 people worldwide have a pacemaker fitted.
It’s an invasive procedure done under local anaesthetic, where the matchbox-sized electrical device is implanted under the skin of the chest and connected by wires to the heart to regulate its beats. But, with this, there’s always a risk of infection.
That’s why the miniature wireless pacemaker is such a breakthrough. “With no wires, there’s less chance of infection,” says the British Heart Foundation’s Dr Mike Knapton. “And surgery (under local anaesthetic) is minimally invasive, as the tiny pill-sized device is implanted into the heart via the femoral vein using a catheter.” Worldwide, clinical trials are underway; hopefully, this product should soon become the norm.
4. A ‘magnet’ to trap blood infections
If you ever suffer an infection of the blood, one new technology – magnetic blood filtration – may revolutionise the way you’re treated.
The MediSieve therapy – invented by Dr George Frodsham, a University College London biochemical engineer, to help treat malaria – works similarly to dialysis. It circulates a patient’s blood through an external loop, filters it, then returns the healthy blood to the body. Malaria-infected blood cells, which are ‘magnetic’, are captured by a magnetic filter within the loop. Testing posits it could remove 90% of a child’s malaria infection in up to three-and-a-half hours, buying the patient time for drugs to work effectively. Human trials are underway and, all being well, we’ll soon see it used alongside, or even instead of, current drug treatments for severe or drug-resistant malaria – and other serious blood diseases thereafter.
5. App to detect early signs of cancer
Pancreatic cancer, according to the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition, has the lowest survival rate among major types of cancer. One reason for this is that patients often don’t show symptoms in the early stages, and are only diagnosed when the disease is advanced and difficult to treat.
Though not all patients display it, jaundice is a pancreatic-cancer red-flag, causing skin and whites of eyes to yellow. Jaundice is a result of a build-up of bilirubin, which the liver excretes through the bile duct into the small intestine in the form of bile. The build-up may be due to cancer obstructing the bile duct.
University of Washington researchers have created an app, called BiliScreen, to screen for jaundice in earlier stages, before it becomes visible to the naked eye. The app allows you to take a selfie and then, using digital algorithms, it examines your eyes in the photo to estimate your bilirubin levels. High levels show jaundice, which, in turn, could indicate pancreatic cancer. Results from a study published early in 2017 found that the app alone was able to detect jaundice with 89,7% accuracy; and with 96,8% accuracy when the app was used alongside an accessory (special glasses, or a box headset) to reduce meddling effects of external lighting.
Developers are refining the app so you won’t need accessories, and approval for its use as a pre-screening tool may take a few more years.
6. Could we edit out disease?
DNA manipulation sounds scarily sci-fi, but its power to do good should outweigh your fears. Known as gene therapy, it involves introducing new DNA with ‘functional genes’ into a patient’s body to correct or kill off a disease-causing mutated gene.
“Advances in DNA-editing tech have meant that scientists are now beginning to unlock the potential of this technique in cancer treatment, such as turning a patient’s own cells into cancer-seeking weapons,” says Cancer Research UK’s Dr Justine Alford. “Although gene therapy is still experimental, clinical trials are starting to show encouraging results.”