The Most Life-Changing Medical Breakthroughs of the Past Year

Humans can do incredible things, and this is especially evident in the medical field. From discovering antibiotics and X-rays to developing anesthesia and organ transplants, healthcare has come a long way in the last few centuries. So, what does the future hold? Here are the most life-changing medical innovations of the past year.

1. Regenerating body parts

Scientist in the lab
Scientist in the lab | SeventyFour/Stock/Getty Images Plus

We can thank Ohio State University for body parts of the future. Researchers at OSU’s Wexner Medical Center and College of Engineering developed a noninvasive technology, called tissue nanotransfection, that can reprogram skin cells to repair blood vessels, nerve cells, and organs.

Dr. Chandan Sen, co-leader of the study, explained “This is difficult to imagine, but it is achievable, successfully working about 98 percent of the time. With this technology, we can convert skin cells into elements of any organ with just one touch.” So far, tests have only been completed on animals. However, clinical trials on humans are underway.

2. Surgical superglue thanks to slugs

European slug
A brown slug | Mario Krpan/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Repairing organs and healing wounds require a strong yet flexible adhesive. It can’t damage organs or allow leaks. The European slug may have solved this problem. Harvard scientists found that the brown slug secretes a flexible, strong mucus when frightened. Researchers replicated this with a non-toxic hydrogel; now they’re trying to make it biodegradable — an adhesive that would change medical procedures forever.

3. Zika vaccine on the horizon

zika virus vaccine
Virologist showing zika virus vaccine | Motortion/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When most people hear “Zika,” they think of infants with brain damage. Spread by mosquitoes and sexual contact, this horrible virus faces a new opponent in an investigational vaccine, according to three clinical trials. Over 90% of the study participants developed an immune response to the Zika virus. Called ZPICV, this vaccine is far from final clearance. However, one researcher, Sarah George, M.D., explained, “I’m happy to see our work help make progress toward a vaccine against Zika.”

4. Saving your spine with a 3D-printed implant

Image of a spine x-ray
Spine x-ray | ChooChin/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Soon, surgeons will use 3D-printed spinal implants to reduce back pain and shorten recovery time from spinal surgeries. Osseus Fusion Systems recently received FDA clearance for this medical device. It also hopes to release other 3D-printed devices soon. Printed from a titanium material, the spinal implants allow “spine tissue to grow through the implant” and fixate better. This allows for accelerated healing and better bone growth.

5. A world without cavities

Cavity filling
A dentist drills into a cavity. | anatoliy_gleb/iStock/Getty Images

Drill-less tooth repair would certainly make the world a better place. Researchers in London found an Alzheimer’s drug, tideglusib, that stimulates stem cells within teeth. This can create dentine, the material that gets eroded away by tooth decay. So, basically, teeth may be able to repair themselves someday, making fillings a thing of the past.

6. Faster recovery from strokes

A brain MRI
A brain MRI | utah778/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Stroke is the third leading cause of death and the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S. In 2018, Cleveland Clinic researchers led the first-ever deep brain stimulation in a stroke victim, hoping to improve motor function — and it worked. “She could move her arm within a few weeks in a way she had not been able to move since the stroke,” explained neurosurgeon Andre Machado, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of Cleveland Clinic’s Neurological Institute. Since therapy, this patient has regained function of her left arm.

Testing is ongoing with additional patients. But researchers hope this deep-brain therapy will help people recover from stroke-related paralysis.

7. Rewriting your DNA to prevent disease

In a lab, scientists study DNA.
Scientists study DNA. | gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A recent study revealed that editing human embryos may be able to prevent diseases like Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s, and cystic fibrosis. The scientists behind this research repaired dozens of embryos, fixing a common heart disease that can lead to death later in life, reports the New York Times. The current federal ban on trials involving genetically modified embryos may cause further research to stall, at least in the U.S.

8. A shot to kill your migraines

Woman with a migraine
Migraines are no joke. | seb_ra/iStock/Getty Images Plus

May 2018 marked a major milestone for migraine-sufferers; a first-ever injectable drug called Aimovig was cleared by the FDA after three clinical trials. With the ability to reduce migraine episodes by 2.5 days, the drug is administered once a month to block a molecule implicated in migraines.

9. Liquid biopsies

Female scientist with a blood test
Scientist with a blood test | Jovanmandic/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Biopsies have saved countless lives as it detects cancer sooner than other methods. However, scientists are making strides toward a less invasive type of biopsy: the liquid kind. Researchers at Johns Hopkins created a blood test that screen for several kinds of cancer by testing for specific proteins and DNA markers. Research has a long way to go. However, this is a significant advancement in the quest to detect cancer early and often.

10. ‘Smart’ contact lenses

Woman inserting contact lens
Contacts will do more than help you see. | julief514/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The race to create a “smart lens” is on. A team at Purdue University created a contact lens that monitors blood glucose levels, which can help diabetics. Microsoft, Google, and many universities and researchers around the world are working on their own lens-based projects. For example, in Lithuania, the Kaunas University of Technology is creating a dissolvable lens that can “deliver drugs” to the eyes of those suffering from glaucoma.

Experts predict that smart contact lenses will eventually detect cancer and track hormones. Purdue expects its lenses to be available in five years.

11. A quicker treatment for depression

Man holds pill
Ketamine to treat depression | PsarevaOlga/iStock/Getty Images Plus

About 30% of those diagnosed with depression don’t respond to treatments like antidepressants and therapy, according to the CDC. However, an anesthetic drug, ketamine, may be able to remedy depression for those who are resistant to those therapies. UC San Diego Health’s Dr. Alexander Papp explains, “The speediness of ketamine in producing an antidepressant effect occurs because this drug bypasses the traditional serotonin route.”

12. Addicts can rebuild their brains

Inside a brain research lab
An EEG reading of a brain | gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Addicts create a chemical imbalance as they abuse drugs, making it harder to quit. But researchers at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston designed a “series of small molecule therapeutics” that decrease drug-seeking behaviors by restoring serotonin receptors. Its only been tested on mice. But this advancement could work for humans someday and help with health issues like depression, obesity, and schizophrenia.

13. Artificial ovaries

Ovarian follicles under a microscope
Ovarian follicles under a microscope | Dr_Microbe/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Danish scientists have grown cancer-free ovarian follicles using healthcare technology — an “exciting” advancement in fertility preservation. This could help women receiving chemotherapy to conceive in the future. They won’t have to reintroduce cancer cells by transplanting potentially malignant ovaries back into their bodies. Although only tested on mice, this treatment could replace IVF and hormone replacement therapy.

14. Detect disease with your voice

Doctor using an iPad
Voice recordings could detect disease someday. | PRImageFactory/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A Mayo Clinic study found a connection between heart disease and more than 10 vocal features, marking one way that auditory advancements will change healthcare. Another example: A five-year study is collecting voice samples from veterans. The researchers hope to analyze vocal cues for signs of “invisible injuries” like PTSD and depression, reports the MIT Technology Review.

15. Specialized healthcare apps

A man learning how to monitor his heart rate on an app
A heart-rate monitoring app | DragonImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus

At least 93% of doctors believe health-focused mobile apps can improve their patients’ well-being, according to Productivity Bytes. And your app options will only expand. You can save money on prescriptions with GoodRx, learn first-aid with Red Cross First Aid, and get a diagnosis with Doctor on Demand. Another app, Autism & Beyond, helps parents assess for autism by gauging a child’s expressions and reactions to stimuli.

Controversy exists within the healthcare app world; an app can’t replace a doctor after all. But technology will continue to educate users.