Health-related headlines this year - as well as headlines in just about any subject area, for that matter - continued to be dominated by COVID-19. This means that some unrelated major medical breakthroughs didn’t get a lot of time of the spotlight.
‘Tis the season to spread cheer, and so this week, let’s look at five mostly overlooked medical breakthroughs of 2021.
1. A new way to detect more than 50 kinds of cancer
In 2021, the Galleri Test, sometimes called a “liquid biopsy”, became a way to find signs of over 50 forms of cancer. The test involves searching a patient’s blood sample for different cancer DNA fragments. Results are surprisingly precise, able to indicate which organ is affected. Some of the cancers that can be detected are ones that we previously had no way to test for.
The Galleri Test has been fast-tracked for FDA approval, and patients can currently purchase one (albeit at a hefty price) through their doctor.
2. More affordable hearing aids
Several of the health breakthroughs on this Prevention.com list have to do with changes in pricing and policies that make treatments and medical devices more accessible to those who need them. Hearing aids are included on this list. These extremely important devices can dramatically improve lives, but they’re shamefully costly for US patients -- up to thousands of dollars for a single pair.
Luckily, the FDA will soon be changing the current rules that require patients to obtain hearing aids through healthcare providers. This means patients won’t have to pay those fees in addition to the price of hearing aids. On top of this, tech companies are also creating (relatively) affordable devices that can help patients with hearing loss, and legislation may be coming that allows Medicare coverage to include hearing aids.
All of this means a promising future for patients with hearing loss. In the meantime, if you or someone you know need(s) hearing aids now but can’t afford them, this article includes some helpful suggestions and resources.
3. A more effective vaginal yeast infection treatment
Although vaginal yeast infections can usually be cured by over-the-counter treatments available in any pharmacy, some cases are more resistant. Fortunately, this year saw the release of a new type of antifungal treatment called Brexafemme. Part of a new class of antifungals called triterpenoids, Brexafemme blocks an enzyme that lets Candida fungi protect themselves. The treatment works within a few days and stays in patients’ systems for about two weeks, ensuring the infection can’t come back.
This news will be a welcome one for the 1.4 million women who visit the doctor every year due to a vaginal yeast infection.
4. A successful pig kidney transplant in a human
According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 100,000 Americans are currently waiting for a kidney transplant. One way to decrease this number and save lives would be to find a compatible animal source for organs, but this seemed impossible. Then, in October, surgeons at NYU Langone Health in New York City announced that they had successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a human patient.
The patient was in a coma and officially brain-dead, and the operation was authorized by her family before she was taken off of life support. For three days, doctors monitored the transplanted kidney and found that it functioned the way a human one would. The organ wasn’t rejected by the patient’s body because the pig it was sourced from had been genetically altered so that it no longer produced a particular carbohydrate that would cause the human body’s alarm signals to go off.
This type of genetically modified pig is called GalSafe and, with the FDA’s approval, it could be used for anything from food for people who suffer from meat allergies, to organs and skin grafts.
The kidney transplant’s success means that within the next year or so, further tests on patients with end-stage kidney failure might begin. The tests would hopefully determine whether a genetically modified pig kidney could serve as a temporary solution for a patient waiting for a transplant, or even as a solution unto itself, replacing the need for human kidneys.
5. New vaccines in development
This list is supposed to be about medical breakthroughs not involving COVID-19, but this news is exciting enough to still be included. The development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines has scientists researching whether vaccines of this kind could also be created to fight diseases like HIV, rabies, and several different types of cancer.
A nice reminder that hope can come from even the darkest of situations.