As we enter the 2020s the world is undergoing some dramatic changes. Some of them are clearly bad news and are happening on a scale that can make us feel helpless, so it’s important not to overlook the positive ones – and where medicine is concerned, there are quite a few of those. We’re currently going through a revolution in how we approach some longstanding medical problems, and innovative treatments which have been in development may become available to the public at large within the next decade, transforming the way we live.
Stem cell implants for type 1 diabetes
A lifelong, chronic condition which can cause significant health problems even when treated, type 1 diabetes is a condition where the body can’t control its blood sugar levels without regular injections of insulin. The root cause is a shortage of beta cells in the pancreas, because they’re killed off after being mistakenly targeted by the immune system. Early attempts to turn stem cells into beta cells had limited potential because the new cells would just be killed off by the immune system as well – but here’s the thing: immune cells are quite big and insulin molecules are comparatively small. A newly designed implant keeps freshly made beta cells inside a tiny cage where immune cells can’t reach them but they can still get nutrients in and insulin out (and when they get old and die, the remains should break down and flush away naturally). If implanted in a minor surgical procedure, this device should last for years and let its owner enjoy far better health.
Cannabinoids for pain relief
Changing attitudes to marijuana and the consequent renewal of avenues of research suppressed since the 1960s have led to a new generation of cannabis-derived products emerging, including some very effective painkillers. What’s interesting about these is that they use different neurological pathways from the analgesics that have been available for medical use to date, so they can potentially help people whose pain other drugs have been unable to treat effectively. They also have very few side effects in most patients. CBD Luxe, a CBD spray which contains the active analgesic compounds but very little tetrahydrocannabinol, doesn’t even have noticeable psychoactive effects so will interfere with your day to day life a lot less than many drugs currently in use. It’s also easy to dose and very fast acting.
Bio-printed organs for transplant
Did you know that 2019 saw the arrival of the first successful 3D printed human pancreas? It’s not yet ready for transplantation but it looks like one of many types of human organ set to become available through this method over the next decade, with 3D printed bladders already in use. The critical thing about these organs is that they can be made using a patient’s own cells so there’s no risk of rejection and no need to take drugs to suppress the immune system after they’ve been implanted. What’s more, rather than being stretched over an inorganic scaffold, cells can now be correctly positioned very quickly using a specialist printer. As scientists overcome the challenges around getting capillary networks to distribute properly through the new cell structures, there’s virtually no limit to the potential offered by this technology.
For as long as humans have used medicine – natural or synthetic – the big problem with it has been side effects. These are particularly difficult to manage where they vary from person to person. What’s more, many medicines are not effective in every patient, and with some types of illness, such as anxiety and depression, patients often have to take several before finding the right one – a process that can go on for months. One major factor in this variation is genetic difference, and now gene mapping is making it much easier to tailor treatments to individual patients without having to use trial and error. Most of the science is already there so all that’s needed is improved infrastructure and training so that doctors know how to use it effectively. This should become widely available in just a few years’ time.
With all of these developments and more in the pipeline, the future is looking much brighter for those unlucky enough to become ill or get seriously injured, and some chronic diseases could be cured altogether. We can look forward to living healthier lives, which will in turn give us an improved capacity for solving our other problems and making our changing world a better one.