Now that the end is nigh for 2017, I think we’d all agree that the last twelve months have had more than their fair share of memorable moments. We’ve seen Donald Trump begin his reign of power, Kim Jong Un shoot off his shiny new intercontinental missiles, the Grenfell tower block burn down in the UK, and the bell ring for round one of the political bout that is Brexit. It’s hard to remain upbeat with a steady trickle of terrorist atrocities, a never-ending migrant crisis, and Middle East conflicts that show no sign of ending. There has, however, been a lot of good news that has slipped under the radar. This blog post is about my choice of what didn’t get the publicity it deserved. Not everyone will agree, and I’d be interested to know what other people would choose (feel free to comment below).
Get ready to say ‘bye bye’ to some very nasty diseases
The past year has witnessed some incredible advances developments that look set to revolutionise our lives for ever – and in a very good way. My pick of this year’s most important medical breakthroughs came in the form of a new type of medical treatment called gene therapy. 2017 has seen the coming of age of a new gene editing technology that has been the talk of science town. Called CRISPR (pronounced ‘crisper’), this is an innovation that lets lab workers precisely write to and edit a person’s genetic code. It’s getting so accurate that next-generation ‘CRISPR 2.0’ (which debuted in October) has made it possible to snip and chop just as you would correct a spelling mistake on a word processor.
With this emerging therapy, it is quite possible that conditions like haemophilia and sickle cell disease will go the way of smallpox and be eradicated from planet Earth. The source of the problem – the faulty DNA code – will be fixed with a bit of genetic jiggery-pokery. Back in March, a French teenager was apparently cured of sickle cell disease with a gene therapy. It was causing him agonising ‘sickle cell crises’ in his limbs and abdomen, each bout lasting up to a week. His internal organs were also slowly failing. Now the 14-year-old boy has been “given his life back” – the genetic error he was born with has been erased.
In November, gene therapy was used for the first time in a 44-year-old man afflicted with Hunter’s Syndrome – a hereditary condition causing stunted growth, low IQ, and progressive disability. And just last week the USA drug approval authority (the FDA) gave the all-clear for gene therapy to treat a rare form of blindness. The countdown has now begun until we create ‘cures’ for the evilest of degenerative diseases, like Huntingdon’s disease and Motor Neurone disease.
It doesn’t stop with the hereditary conditions that you are born with. Researchers have realised that Type 1 Diabetes could also be consigned to the history books with these advances – they have been devised a way to genetically program the liver to produce the insulin that the body lacks. For people with diabetes, this should mean no more daily injections and finger-prick sugar tests.
CRISPR also means that we we have a serious chance of healing many types of cancer – or at least keeping them at bay better than ever before. A fantastical new cancer treatment, called CAR-T therapy, sees doctors taking a big slug of a person’s blood, extracting a sample of their immune cells, then genetically programming them to attack their cancer. These super-powered infection-fighters are injected back into the blood so that they set about killing the cancer as if it were a virus. A few days ago, research results showed that it worked against lymphoma (a cancer of the blood) and right now it is being piloted in brain tumours and a host of other cancers.
As exciting as they are, none of these advances have the shock and awe of a Harvey Weinstein sex scandal, so don’t sell papers or get the clicks. Neither do they usually arrive in ‘Eureka!’ apple-dropping breakthrough moments, but from the slow drip-drip-drip of steady progress from countless researchers chipping away at the rockface. It’s going to take patience –many years – until the investment pays out. But these good news stories will probably go on to effect all of our lives, and is certainly a far better bet than any bitcoin.Follow @realdoctorstu
Fireworks image credit: chensiyuan via Wikimedia