The 19 Biggest Medical Advances of 2019

From pills with sensors to drugs traveling on sound waves, these are the biggest medical advancements we saw in 2019.

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When it comes to medical advances, what we've seen in 2019 might seem like it's straight out of science fiction. A synthetic skin that allows robots to "feel"? Medicine tailored to match your individual genes? Pill boxes smart enough to keep tabs on whether or not you're taking your medication? But these are not just ideas from the minds of authors and Hollywood movie-makers; they are real scientific advancements that are about to change the world. Read on for more of the biggest medical advances of 2019 that will help us all stay healthy in 2020 and beyond. Prepare to be amazed!

1
A new tool for brain surgery made it safer and more precise.

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In brain surgery, instrumentation is very important. Currently, in about nine percent of neurosurgeries, the retractor—a tool used to help surgeons access the brain—causes accidental damage, like brain swelling, hemorrhage, or brain infarction. But recently, a team of undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins University developed a new retractor that'll make brain surgery all the more effective and safe.

The students, who are in the biomedical engineering program at the university, call their invention Radiex. It holds back cortical tissue with a new rounded design that better distributes the stress. Not only that, but the point of entry into the head can be smaller and the retractor can be adjusted during surgery. The invention won top honors at a competition held by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and FDA approval may be coming soon.

2
There are ultrasound machines that can link up to your smartphone.

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Ultrasound machines are becoming cheaper, smaller, and more connected, including a new version that will be connected to smartphones. Butterfly Health's newest version, which received $250 million in funding, will cost less than $2,000. "Making it possible to store, document, and review studies from a mobile phone, by the bedside, is a huge step forward," Rachel Liu, assistant professor in the emergency medicine department at Yale, said in a statement.

But ultrasound machines aren't the only shrinking tech: Aided by emerging portable magnet technology, MRI machines may soon shrink enough to be handheld!

3
A new algorithm can help predict pancreatic cancer.

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Pancreatic cancer is often found too late to be operable, but a new algorithm being developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine may help doctors find it earlier. The algorithm, which is nicknamed Felix, will be programmed to understand how healthy pancreatic tissue differs from tumors or other abnormalities. "Felix has a better than 90 percent accuracy picking up tumors on CT scans," Elliot Fishman, MD, a researcher on the project, said in a statement. The hope is that Felix can find the cancer early by analyzing data from other routine exams and scans. A similar algorithm called "TREWS"—which stands for Targeted, Real-Time Early Warning System—may also help identify life-threatening sepsis earlier.

4
There's a way to make faster and smarter vaccines.

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Over the last few years, we've has seen sudden booms in devastating diseases worldwide, including Zika in Brazil and Ebola across northern Africa. But since the development of vaccines traditionally can take years or decades, and they are often developed in isolation, researchers are looking for smarter ways to quickly develop cures.

In a study published in the journal Vaccines in June, researchers from the Indian Institute of Science in India and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York describe new ways that vaccines can be developed by analyzing and better understanding global data on diseases. Essentially, they are suggesting that we use mathematical models to find vaccines rather than trial-and-error testing.

5
There are specific medical devices made for individual patients, courtesy of 3D printers.

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Advances in 3D printing technology have allowed doctors to develop internal and external prosthetics that more closely match the exact bodies of patients, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The technology was used by the clinic in a recent full face transplant, but it has also been used to customize more traditional procedures to patients' bodies. In a statement, the clinic said that they have used 3D printing in "external prosthetics, cranial/orthopedic implants, and customized airway stents for diseases narrowing the airway." Regulation of 3D printed medical devices is still being established, but the FDA has approved some 3D printed objects for many uses, including surgical instruments and dental implants.

6
A holographic, 3D navigation system can help with surgery.

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At the ProMedica Innovations Summit held in Toledo, Ohio, in November, the company showed off MediView XR, a system that helps doctors through surgery with holograms and 3D guidance. Think of it as a navigation system for your organs. The surgeons can see 3D versions of your internal structures and their instruments in real-time. "The three-dimensional perception and spatial understanding helps not only target and treat the tissue, but avoid other critical structures like blood vessels," said Jeff Yanof, the co-inventor of the device, referring to it as a "mini GPS" for your body.

7
Robots can "feel," thanks to artificial nervous systems and synthetic skin.

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The human body has tactile senses, but now robots can experience similar feelings, according to new research from the National University of Singapore. In a July study published in Science Robotics, researchers revealed that the synthetic skins are electronic, which means they have sensors that relay sensory information. Those "skins" are paired with artificial nervous systems, which can interpret the data that comes in from the sensors.

"Humans use our sense of touch to accomplish almost every daily task, such as picking up a cup of coffee or making a handshake," one of the study's co-authors, Benjamin Tee, said in a statement. "Similarly, robots need to have a sense of touch in order to interact better with humans." The technology could be used for robots who are working disaster relief or even packing boxes in warehouse, according to the study.

8
There's a Band-Aid-like wearable that can communicate with machines.

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Small metallic patches on human skin can now contain enough electronic processing power so that they can be used to communicate with machines. These human-machine interfaces, as reported in the journal Science Advances, use membranes made up of microscopic semiconductors, which are essentially computers in a Band-Aid.

The process is complicated, but at its core, the wearables detect movements or other actions from the wearers, and those in turn enable machines to perform specific tasks. According to the research, the wearables are "ultrathin, mechanically-imperceptible, and stretchable."

9
Drugs can be introduced to the brain via sound waves.

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One of the hardest passageways for medicine traveling through the body is the blood-brain barrier, which keeps our central nervous systems free of intruding pathogens—until now, that is. Research reported by Massachusetts General Hospital explained how sound waves from focused ultrasound (FUS) can essentially open a small door for medicine to walk through. Ultrasounds use a frequency that's at the farthest edge of what our ears can hear. When they are unfocused, that can be damaging. But when focused and used in short bursts, they may be able to push specific pills through the blood-brain barrier by making the pills pulse.

10
There are pill boxes that keep tabs on you and your medications.

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At Johns Hopkins Medical Center, researchers are testing pill boxes that record when patients take their medications and can include electronic records that detail when prescriptions were filled by pharmacists. That means that doctors will be better able to see whether specific patients are following orders, which will eventually help them better prescribe medications. According to the World Economic Forum, researchers are also experimenting with pills that contain sensors that transmit data to smartphones via a patch on patients' arms.

11
A blood test could detect breast cancer five years before symptoms appear.

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In November 2019, researchers at the University of Nottingham unveiled a blood test that could potentially detect breast cancer up to five years before symptoms appear. At the National Cancer Research Institute's annual conference in the U.K., the scientists explained that the test looks for autoantibodies in the blood that the body produces in response to cancer cells.

"We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood," Daniyah Alfattani, a PhD student who worked on the study, said in a statement. While more work needs to be done, Alfattani and her team estimate that the test might become available in about four to five years.

12
A possible drug for Alzheimer's could reduce cognitive decline.

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On Oct. 22, Boston-based research lab Biogen announced they would be seeking FDA approval for a drug that fights Alzheimer's disease. "With such a devastating disease that affects tens of millions worldwide, today's announcement is truly heartening in the fight against Alzheimer's," Michel Vounatsos, CEO at Biogen, said in a statement.

Studies on the drug, an antibody called Aducanumab, were initially shelved in March after early research predicted poor outcomes. But when the researchers reevaluated the data from 2,066 patients who had a full 18 months of treatment, they found that Aducanumab may actually be the first therapy to reduce cognitive decline.

13
Smartphone-linked inhalers reduced patients hospital trips.

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For people suffering from chronic respiratory issues, inhalers save lives. And Propeller Health, a tech company based in Madison, Wisconsin, now produces an inhaler that is linked via a sensor to a smartphone app, where breathing data can be tracked, analyzed, and shared with your doctors or care providers. In June 2019, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic released the first study of the technology in The Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare. After tracking the use of the inhaler in participants for a year, the study found that the number of hospital trips per patient dropped from 3.4 trips per year to 2.2.

14
Gene-editing technology got more advanced.

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What if doctors could take a strand of DNA, locate invading viruses, and essentially "cut out" any infected strands? That's the promise of the technology called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR for short. Though it's still in the early stages of development, the technology can modify DNA by adding, deleting, or changing it, which may help scientists correct genetic mutations and battle diseases.

15
Depression can be diagnosed via cellphone usage.

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Mountain View, California, is home to many major tech companies, including Google. But there are also many tech startups there, including Mindstrong, a company that uses new technology to continuously monitor smartphone use to measure the user's mood and other mental health characteristics—without collecting specific user data like texts or geolocation, according to a report. After observing patterns that may seem symptomatic of depression or other mental health issues, the technology can connect users with licensed health care providers. The key to the technology is that it's objective and ongoing, so any diagnosis is based on fact.

16
Missing or mutated genes can be replaced in a patient's blood or bone marrow.

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Diseases like sickle cell are being battled through new uses of gene therapy. The "therapy" is a technical and experimental process where stem cells are removed from a patient's blood or bone marrow and new genes are added to the cells before they are replaced in the body. For sickle cell, this would mean adding in a gene that anyone with the disease is lacking, or replacing a mutated gene with a healthy copy, according to the U.S. National Library of Science. Once the cells are reintroduced, the genes should boost the production of anti-disease genes.

17
Science may have busted peanut allergies.

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Details of a pilot program led by Stanford Medicine were published in the journal JCI Insight in November, proving that there may be a cure for peanut allergies, or at least, a way to make them less severe. Early tests were done on 20 participants who had severe peanut allergies: 15 were injected with etokimab, an antibody that counteracts allergic reactions in immune systems, and 5 others were given a placebo. Of those who received the antibody, 73 percent were able to eat one peanut 15 days later. "We were surprised how long the effects of the treatment lasted," Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and of pediatrics at Stanford, said in a statement. She notes that the results, which are still in their early stages, could have far-reaching benefits to battle other food allergies as well.

18
The telehealth boom continued.

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The days of needing in-person meetings with doctors may be numbered. According to the study called Telemedicine Market Size, Share, and Forecast 2019-2026 published in November, the industry is expected to be worth $113.1 billion in the next five years alone. According to the American Hospital Association, 76 percent of U.S. hospitals now use some form of telehealth, including videoconferencing with doctors and remote monitoring of health data.

19
Medicine can be based on genes, making it more precise than ever.

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We all have different genetic makeups and proteins, so it makes sense that medicine would eventually be tailored to better interact with our individual bodies. The growing field of precision or personalized medicine does just that, and also takes into account a patients' lifestyle, environment, and other factors.

This new direction in science is a natural extension of the mapping of the human genome, which was completed in 2003. As the cost of personal gene mapping drops to below $1,000—the initial "draft" of the genome was estimated at $300 million, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute—getting your genes mapped may soon become standard medical procedure.

Adam Shalvey
Adam Shalvey is a writer based in Rhode Island. Read more
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