This time a year ago, news about a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan began circulating. What would soon become a cataclysmic pandemic — and the year’s defining public health event — was, at the time, hardly a blip on the radar here in the United States.
But in the following weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the globe, it pushed with it the boundaries of medical innovation. The world’s researchers have spent much of the past year laser-focused on developing a Covid-19 vaccine, which, now that it’s here, doesn’t send us straight back to 2019, but does bring hope of the pandemic’s end and a return to normal life. In the meantime, laboratories have been busy bringing rapid diagnostic tests to the market to help slow the virus’ spread and medical professionals have been studying the potential long-term health effects that Covid-19 could have on survivors.
Still, amid these extraordinary times, medical professionals have remained committed to making advances in the research and treatment of other significant global health problems, from depression to heart disease, that are overshadowed by a pandemic but still pressing. They’ve pioneered a new treatment for kids with dangerous peanut allergies and are developing a blood test that could detect Alzheimer’s disease before it destroys the brain.
Here’s a look at 10 major medical breakthroughs from the past year, and what they could mean for you and your family.
A peanut allergy treatment gets FDA approval
Peanuts are one of the most common food allergies, affecting an estimated 1.6 million children in the United States, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics. Now, a new immunotherapy treatment can help protect children with peanut allergies from life-threatening anaphylactic reactions should they be exposed to the allergen. This medical advance comes as a welcome relief to parents who worry their children could end up in the hospital if they unknowingly eat a snack at school that contains peanuts or a dish at a restaurant that’s been cross-contaminated. University of Chicago Medicine was part of a landmark clinical trial that led to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Palforzia, which is manufactured by Aimmune Therapeutics. While not a cure altogether for peanut allergies, the treatment gives kids exposure to a miniscule amount of peanut protein every day, which could help reduce their sensitivity to peanuts over time. “The patients I treated have universally expressed relief that they no longer have to live in constant fear that one wrong bite of something with peanuts will result in an emergency injection of epinephrine,” Christina Ciaccio, MD, MSc, UChicago Medicine associate professor of pediatrics and medicine and the site’s principal investigator, said in a news release. If your child has a peanut allergy, learn more about the treatment.
An affordable rapid COVID-19 test becomes available
As the vaccine rollout has been slower than anticipated, rapid testing to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 remains paramount at a time when children are returning to in-person learning, essential employees continuing to work and those in retirement communities await their vaccinations. Several rapid tests have been developed in recent months, but one that particularly stands out is Chicago-based Abbott Labs’ BinaxNOW, which got emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration over the summer. Abbot’s antigen test manages to be both quick and affordable: For $5 a test, it can deliver results within 15 minutes, and doesn’t require special lab equipment. The BinaxNOW rapid tests have been distributed through the Department of Health and Human Services to entities including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, historically black colleges and universities. Next, organizations like schools, workplaces and pharmacies can buy and use the tests. “We’ve intentionally developed the most comprehensive Covid testing portfolio and the most advanced family of rapid tests to have the greatest impact we can,” said Robert B. Ford, president and chief executive officer, Abbott in a news release.
A new blood test could predict Alzheimer’s
Using a blood test, medical professionals may soon be able to detect Alzheimer’s disease prior to its onset or in those who are beginning to show signs of dementia, a breakthrough that would allow for earlier treatments. This new approach is lauded by medical professionals because it could be less invasive and costly than current brain imaging and spinal fluid tests. A process that destroys the brain and slows memory involves two proteins: beta-amyloid and tau. Beta-amyloid clumps into plaques, which, over time, build up between brain cells. Abnormal tau can accumulate inside brain cells, forming tangles. Dr. Adam Boxer from the University of California, San Francisco led a team that investigated whether a new blood testing technique called Simoa could measure the concentrations of tau to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. “The considerable time and resources required for screening research participants with PET scans and spinal taps slow the pace of enrollment for Alzheimer’s disease treatment studies,” said National Institute on Aging’s Director Dr. Richard J. Hodes in a press statement. “The development of a blood test would enable us to rapidly screen a much larger and more diverse group of volunteers who wish to enroll in studies.” While there isn’t yet a cure for Alzheimer’s, the blood test could allow doctors to begin treating the disease up to 20 years before signs of cognitive decline appear.
A ‘smart ring’ could signal if you’re developing Covid-19
A $300 smart ring designed to optimize sleep also has potential to help detect Covid-19 symptoms early on, and the wearable tech is getting snapped up by everyone from Prince Harry to the NBA. The Oura Ring is a wearable sensor that measures several metrics like sleep and heart rate. But because it’s continuously monitoring the wearer’s temperature, too, it has the potential to flag early illnesses like Covid-19, and do so more efficiently than a thermometer, according to a study led by UC San Francisco and UC San Diego researchers. “The hope is that people infected with Covid will be able to prepare and isolate sooner, call their doctor sooner, notify any folks they’ve been in contact with sooner, and not spread the virus,” said Ashley Mason, PhD, assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and faculty at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, in a news release. While the Oura ring, which is available for purchase here, won’t ping you if it notices early signs of Covid-19, you can use it to track any deviations in your temperature.
Magnetic stimulation shows promising results for depression treatment
Depressed people — TMS works. (transcranial magnetic stimulation)
Here’s the next stage of it. Please share.https://t.co/smIfJ1tcpB
— Neal Brennan (@nealbrennan) April 7, 2020
A novel magnetic brain stimulation treatment for depression from Stanford University has shown promising results, and researchers are optimistic that, going forward, it could be effective in treating people whose condition hasn’t improved with medications, talk therapy or other forms of electromagnetic stimulation. In a small study from Stanford University School of Medicine, the new form of magnetic brain stimulation relieved symptoms of severe depression in 90 percent of participants. The results were published online April 6 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Clinical trials are currently on hold for the treatment, which is called Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy, or SAINT. The only side effects of this new therapy were fatigue and some discomfort during the treatment. “There’s never been a therapy for treatment-resistant depression that’s broken 55% remission rates in open-label testing,” said Nolan Williams, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a senior author of the study, in a news release.
A new approach for lowering cholesterol
Nearly 40 percent of adults in the United States have high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition can lead to serious health problems, like heart attacks and strokes. Now, there’s a new treatment that, if approved by the FDA, could help people lower their LDL (i.e. bad) cholesterol levels by up to 25 percent. Bempedoic acid treatments are among the top medical advances of 2020 recognized by the Cleveland Clinic. Currently, many people rely on statins to help manage their LDL cholesterol levels, but these drugs can have adverse side effects in some people who report experiencing muscle pain. Like statins, bempedoic acid blocks a key enzyme that’s used to make cholesterol. But unlike statins, it doesn’t accumulate in the muscles.
A more convenient breast pump hits the market
Breast pumps have been long overdue for an update. With tubes and cords keeping new moms tethered to one spot for 20 minutes or so at a time as they pump, these noisy devices are notably restrictive. Enter a new generation of wearable breast pumps that allow multitasking moms to pump-on-the-go. Willow, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company, harnessed its technology that creates a continuous suction similar to a baby’s latch to create a spill-proof mobile pump that fits in the bra. The company debuted its most advanced, third-generation pump ($500) at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last year.
Covid-19 can cause irreversible lung damage
Lung damage can persist even after recovery from Covid-19, researchers from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago discovered in a first-of-its-kind study that was published in Science Translational Medicine. The researchers found that the coronavirus can destroy the fundamental framework of the lungs in some patients, making lung transplantation the only option. Researchers explain that when the framework of lungs are destroyed, the progenitor cells — which are necessary for healing — have no place to go, and the lungs develop large holes that can harbor infections. “Think of it this way: after an earthquake, if the basic structure of a building survives, it can still be refurbished. However, if it is levelled, the only option is replacement,” says Ankit Bharat, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, and the principal investigator of the study. Northwestern Medicine in June 2020 performed the first known double-lung transplant on a Covid-19 patient in the United States, and has performed several since. Researchers are hopeful that new treatments will be developed to prevent permanent lung damage and that information from this study will allow for more patients to receive lung transplants.
A quick treatment for migraines
The majority of people who suffer from debilitating migraines say the intense headaches interfere with their education, careers and social activities. While migraine sufferers have long had access to preventive medications, a new oral medication — Ubrelvy by Allergan — directly blocks a protein that’s believed to play a major role in migraine attacks. The treatment can significantly ease migraine symptoms within a couple of hours, even if the severe headache has already started.
Strawberries are great for brain health
We’ll end on a sweet note. Not only are strawberries tasty, but they’re also great brain food, according to researchers from Rush University Medical Center who have developed and studied The Mind Diet. The diet, which focuses on foods that prevent mental decline, is a regular on U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Diets” list. (It landed at No. 6 spot this year on the list). Researchers have long espoused the benefits of blueberries for helping ward off mental decline, but they’re now intrigued with the role strawberries can play, too. Of the 925 participants who were followed for nearly two decades in the Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP), those who ate strawberries more than once a week were 32 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia than those who didn’t eat them, according to the Rush team. Puja Agarwal, a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at Rush University, is investigating pelargonidin, a pigment found naturally in strawberries, to better understand the connection between strawberries and the lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. The Mind Diet’s emphasis is on eating “brain-healthy food groups,” which include green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.
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Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.