One looks to the future with hopeful anticipation. Every New Year moves mankind closer to the brink of amazing breakthroughs in prolonging life and eradicating disease. Life expectancy improves progressively with time. Here are a few eye-openers.
1. Addressing Alzheimer’s
Could this be too good to be true? In time, we will know. What we do know for certain is that scientists are working on the making the impossible possible.
In the field of longevity, a major concern is age-related illness.
While Alzheimer’s seemed to have been an irreversible disease, now it appears that there are reasons to think otherwise. In the field of prevention, there is the possibility that it could be caused by multiple medical procedures such as blood transfusions and the use of mercury and other heavy metals in dental work.
In Australia, a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical treatment is under study by a team of scientists using ultrasound technology. The therapy breaks down neurotoxic amyloid plaque in the brain, which contributes to memory loss in Alzheimer’s-afflicted patients. These damaging plaques disrupt the neurofibrils in the brain by causing them to tangle up. The result is the disruption of the brain’s ability to process information.
Another study also determined that somehow, the key lies in the brain’s defense mechanism. The brain’s response to plaque is to stop the production of new proteins, thereby preventing self-repair. Studies on mice have been encouraging, with memory function restored to 75 percent.
By 2017, once proven safe, there could be human trials.
Futuristic as it may sound, like some sci-fi movie, the field of prosthetics is rapidly developing. Before, it allowed patients to walk with stability. Today, prosthetic limbs can outperform their human counterparts. But the big news, still under research, is that soon, there could be “smart skin,” which will imitate the feeling of touch. There are now prosthetics limbs which can be linked directly to the brain while allowing the user to use their minds.
The real thing
3. Limb replacement through transplant
Beyond prosthetics, there is the choice of the real thing. Wounded in the Iraq war, Brendan Marrocco received a double arm transplant through a 13-hour surgery. It was a success. Soon, once complications can be overcome, expect the possibility of successful leg transplants. In 2011, a man in Valencia received a leg transplant, but because of complications from another illness, he was forced to have the legs removed.
Through stem cell research, experts at Harvard have finally found a way to create insulin-producing cells. Its significance has been compared to the significance of the development of antibiotics. These transplanted cells will require the consumption of immunosuppressive drugs or antirejection medication. For Type 1 diabetes (known as juvenile diabetes), the wait is anywhere from three to 20 years.
5. Retinal replacement
In Australia, researchers are still in the process of developing a retinal prosthesis that can be implanted in the brain. The device is for patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a common form of blindness. Another developing technology is called Virtual Retinal Display for cataract patients with the use of lasers.
6. Organ cloning
This life-saving treatment may not be an impossibility.
Through tissue engineering (still in the lab stage), scientists may be able to grow a brand new organ from the patient’s own cells. Thus, the problem of finding a good match for organ donation or replacement will be eliminated.
7. Lab-created organs
At the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, a complete thymus gland was made from lab-created cells. Testing is being done with mice. The procedure took fibroblast cells from the embryo of a mouse and reprogrammed them in the lab to produce fully-functioning thymus cells.
This discovery will directly impact people who have immune disorders.
8. HIV to cure leukemia
In the case of Emily Whitehead, a 5-year old-stricken with leukemia, doctors used an extreme method to try to save her life. After her first round of chemo therapy, she contracted an infection. This was stopped in order to address the problem.
The experimental treatment involved the extraction of white blood cells from the patient, which were genetically reprogrammed in the lab using a modified HIV virus. The cells were re-injected into the little girl in the hope that the treatment would attack the cancer cells. The cells attacked Emily’s body and she was sent to intensive care. Then a drug for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis was given to her so that the immune system would stop attacking itself. She survived her ordeal.