Malaria vaccine, double-arm transplant… top medical breakthroughs of 2021

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For almost two years, the world has been so focused on COVID and everything revolving around it — from tests to safety protocol and vaccine distribution — all in a bid to control the spread of the virus.

However, despite the attention on the novel coronavirus, scientists were unrelenting on seeking solutions to other health issues that have bothered mankind for years.

Here are some of the health and medical breakthroughs of 2021.

MALARIA VACCINE

Long before COVID, malaria was — and still is — one of the most deadly diseases on the planet.

But in a welcome announcement on October 6, the World Health Organisation (WHO) endorsed the RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine produced by GlaxoSmithKline under the name Mosquirix, for children in Africa.

This followed a two-year vaccination programme, which involved more than 800,000 children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.

The vaccine is recommended for children from five months of age to around 18 months and is the first malaria vaccine to be recommended for widespread use. It is also the first that has ever been approved for humans.

NEW SICKLE CELL TREATMENT

In 2021, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommended a “revolutionary” drug for sickle cell treatment.

According to the UK National Health Service (NHS), the treatment is the first one developed in over 20 years.

The new drug, known as Crizanlizumab, made by Novartis, is injected into the vein and can be taken alone or alongside standard treatment and regular blood transfusions.

The NHS said the drug will reduce the number of times a sickle cell patient needs to go to the accident and emergency (A&E) unit by “two fifths”.

FIRST SUCCESSFUL DOUBLE-ARM-AND-SHOULDER TRANSPLANT

In January, the world’s first double-arm-and-shoulder transplant was performed in France.

The recipient was Felix Gretarsson of Iceland, who lost both arms in an electrical accident in 1998.

Although doctors said it was uncertain how much mobility Gretarsson will recover following the operation, he has recorded some level of improvement throughout the year, documenting his progress on Instagram.

He can now flex his biceps and pick up objects. Experts expect he will make more advancement in the coming years.

BLOOD TEST FOR EARLY CANCER DETECTION

The test is called the Galleri test, and it is a multi-cancer early detection (MCED) test that screens DNA for more than 50 types of cancer.

It studies the DNA to identify if any of them come from cancer cells and it can then trace the place of origin with high accuracy if a cancer signal is found.

The Galleri test is recommended for use in adults with an elevated risk for cancer, such as those aged 50 or older. It is, however, intended to be used in addition to and not to replace other cancer screening processes.

BLOOD TEST FOR DEPRESSION, BIPOLAR DISORDER

In April, a group of researchers at the Indiana University of School of Medicine in the United States developed a blood test that identifies mood disorders like depression and bipolar.

The study, which was published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, also builds on previous research into the blood indicators that track suicidality as well as pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study described the creation of a test composed of RNA (ribonucleic acid) biomarkers that can distinguish how severe depression is, the risk of developing severe depression in the future, and the risk of future bipolar disorder.

The research took place over four years with about 300 participants, primarily from a patient population at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center, using a four-step approach of discovery, prioritisation, validation, and testing.

GAME CHANGER FOR BREAST CANCER

In June, scientists announced that they had made a breakthrough in the treatment of breast cancer by using a drug named ‘Olaparib’ after chemotherapy.

According to the scientists, their study looked at the use of Olaparib at an early stage of the disease and indicated that using the drug on women following chemotherapy has a significant effect on reducing the risk of inherited breast cancer either returning or spreading.

The trial was conducted with a total of 1,836 patients for a year and results showed that there was a 42 percent overall drop in the risk of cancer returning in those who were given the drug.

It also also showed that after an average of 2.5 years of follow-up, 85.9 percent of patients were cancer-free.

INJECTABLE TREATMENT FOR ADULTS WITH HIV

One major burden persons living with HIV go through is that of the oral antiretroviral pill that needs to be taken daily.

It was therefore welcome news when scientists developed a new HIV treatment using Cabotegravir (also called Vocabria and made by ViiV Healthcare) and Rilpivirine (also called Rekambys and made by Janssen), that can not only be injected, but will be required just every two months, after an initial oral (tablet) lead-in period.

The treatment is only suitable for those who have already achieved undetectable levels of virus in the blood while taking tablets.

Clinical trial results showed that Cabotegravir with Rilpivirine is as effective as oral antiretrovirals at keeping the viral load low.

The treatment was approved by UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in November.

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