Read through to discover four amazing scientific breakthroughs that may change our lives for the better.
Here at Word Monster we love both science and words (who would’ve thunk it!?). While working in the field of med comms gives us the opportunity to bask within a lyrical bathtub of bubbling hot biology, it also exposes us to a wide array of different clients and products covering all sorts of therapeutic areas.
As such, we like to think we’re quite savvy when it comes to new scientific developments. In particular, big breakthroughs that might just be around the corner to improve our lives for the better.
Occasionally, we may read a news story about a potential cure for disease X or a tantalising new technology for problem Y. However, it will soon quietly wander off from both the headlines and our minds as our busy lives move forward.
So what gives? What happens to these exciting quantum leaps once they hit the headlines? Do they all eventually flounder faster than a hot knife through butter? Perhaps a few… yes. On the flipside, others may be frighteningly close to finding their way into our lives. Some might even be already in use now without you realising!
Because of this, we think it’s important to show you a few exciting new ways science and medicine will likely impact yours and our lives in the future (for the better, of course!). We’ll even throw in a meme or two along the way…
1. PRECISION MEDICINE
We’ll begin with one of the most plausible developments in the field of medicine, precision medicine. According to the Precision Medicine Initiative, it is defined as:1
‘An emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.’
In some regards, this practice is already commonplace and has been for a number of years, albeit limited. For example, matching blood types prior to transfusion to minimise complications. What is really exciting is the huge potential for other therapy areas with the advent of low-cost genome sequencing, where an individual’s DNA is sequenced to examine the exact genetics that may underpin an illness.
A great example is in the field of cancer treatment. Cancers are known to vary wildly by their genetic content, and countless different DNA mutations are known to cause and contribute to the disease. Being able to identify which genes may be “broken” can allow us to identify individual therapies to target those specific “broken” genes (e.g., a specific-gene inhibitor). This only continues to get more useful when cases of drug resistance develop, as healthcare workers can pinpoint exactly why resistance has occurred and decide whether to alter treatment lines.
So when is it coming?
In May 2021, an action plan published by the UK government has pledged to drive efforts in rolling-out whole genome sequencing to patients with a suspected rare diseases and certain cancers in the NHS Genomics Medicine Service, during 2021/2022.2 On top of this NHS England and NHS improvement have committed to sequence a whopping 500,000 genomes by 2023/2024.
In conclusion: it’s here. It’s shiny. And it’s exciting.
2. BACTERIOPHAGE THERAPY
One of the biggest threats to face us as a species is that of antimicrobial resistance. Antibiotics could be considered one of the most successful scientific advancements of the 20th century, and to lose their usefulness would be devastating. A report commissioned by the UK government has already warned of the gigantic risk it poses, potentially throwing us back into the dark ages and causing up to 10 million deaths per year by 2050.3
Developing new drugs is extremely expensive and spectacularly slow. In addition, any approved antimicrobials run the risk of resistance developing, bringing us back to square one. Therefore, innovative new strategies are needed to combat the ever growing resistance crisis.
Conveniently, for the last 100 years, work has quietly been progressing in the field of bacteriophages (often referred to as ‘phages’). These are tiny little viruses that exclusively infect bacteria, latching on to specific molecular structures. After injecting their genetic material inside, they replicate themselves before bursting out of the host cell and moving onto their next victim.
There are loads of fantastic benefits of bacteriophage therapy versus traditional antibiotics, with pros and cons listed in Table 1.
“So why has it taken an entire century to develop something I have never heard of?”, I hear you ask. Well, to simplify the answer: The Cold War. The leading pioneer of phage therapy is located in Tbilisi, Georgia at the Eliava Institute.10 From behind The Iron Curtain in the 1930s, this institute has been developing and manufacturing bacteriophage cocktails for therapeutic use, which can even be bought from pharmacies!11 It also offers personalised tailored phage therapy for individuals with super-resistant infections, where fantastic patient recoveries have been documented.11
Looking at a wider perspective, numerous clinical trials exist that have been or will be conducted with bacteriophages, targeting a variety of infections. If you are interested in some more detail, open table 2.
With all things considered, it is very plausible that bacteriophages could become an integral addition to the antimicrobial arsenal; either as an adjunctive or alternative therapy. As more clinical trials finish and resistance rates continue to worsen, it could be an inevitability that one day you’ll receive a fab phage.
3. 3D Bioprinting/ Regenerative medicine
This next one is particularly interesting to our Senior Medical Writer, Spinnie, and it links nicely to the first breakthrough on precision medicine.
The human body is an awesome piece of machinery. One big lump of cells and tissues all seamlessly formed together to make you, you. Unfortunately, as amazing as it is, things can go wrong. For whatever reason, be it an illness, accident, or an assassination attempt because of your dodgy past involvements with a Latin American crime syndicate, your anatomy can become damaged beyond repair. This is where the field of 3D bioprinting steps in with revolutionary potential.
How does it work?
Under a ‘typical’ scenario, cells are extracted from an individual (e.g., from fat tissue) and then transformed into stem cells.12 For those of you who have dedicated your childhoods to the pledge of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, stem cells are kind of like Ditto from Pokémon. These guys have the ability to transform into many different cell types under the right conditions.
Meanwhile, a scaffold is printed using fancy space-age sounding bio-inks, such as alginate or poly-lactic-co-glycolic acid.13 The scaffold’s job is to support stem cell adherence, differentiation, and proliferation, akin to the normal extracellular matrix environment.
Finally, both the stem cells and scaffold are combined. Scientists have exploited this bio-technology to do some pretty incredible things.
If this sounds all rather complicated, and instead prefer your explanations through the medium of memes, this helpful diagram may help you understand why this technology is so exciting.
So what are the possibilities?
As the meme above suggests, one of the biggest breakthroughs that could emerge is the ability to grow entire functioning organs. Doing so may bring significant benefits for healthcare bodies and patients globally.
A great example of this is the total removal on the reliance of organ donors. During the financial year to March 2021, in the UK alone, 4,256 were waiting for a transplant.14 Sadly, many of those waiting never receive that crucial lifeline. During the same timeframe, only 2,947 transplants were actually carried out, whilst 474 died waiting and a further 693 were removed from the list.14
Further, the shortage of transplant donors has been a problem even before the COVID-19 pandemic.14 Finally, these figures don’t even consider the % of people who go on to develop transplant rejection, nor the side effects that come with immunosuppressive therapy.
As such, it’s pretty clear to understand the unmet clinical need surrounding organ transplantation.
The great news is that because the transplant ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ are the exact same person, organ rejection and immunosuppressants are no longer posed to be significant challenges. Henceforth, the foundations of a sparkly new era in modern medicine can be laid.
The possibilities are vast, and you could probably think of plenty yourself. Just imagine… Suffered an aortic aneurysm? Here’s a new one. Come back from war and lost a limb? Not a problem! Got a cancerous tumour in your lungs? Let’s throw them away we’ll give you a new pair.
Okay, maybe we’re oversimplifying just how easy it is to grow body parts. Progress is definitely being made though!
Dude, where’s my heart?
To date, researchers are now able to 3D Bioprint a variety of different living tissues and components of organs. Although these aren’t fully fledged functioning body parts ready to raze the organ black market, some impressive feats have already been documented.
Spontaneously contracting heart tissues have been grown, as well as miniature livers that can perform many important organ-specific functions.15 Possibly the snazziest yet – researchers have managed to print and implant neural stem cell constructs into adult zebrafish with brain impairments.15 Amazingly, neurological function was completely restored to normal levels.15
On a more basic level, scientists have successfully been able to engineer customisable cartilage constructs, which can be uniquely shaped to fit the required target.16 Theoretically, this technology could be used basically anywhere cartilage is found in the body. Just to name a few: the nose, knee joints, windpipe and between spinal vertebrae.
To sum things up then. Whether you’re a wannabe Terminator or The King of Pop, you may eventually be hee-hee-ing your way into the clinic, and bidding ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ to a previous existence, ready for the biggest #GlowUp of your life (#SelfCare #NotASpon).
4. NUCLEAR FUSION
Okay so yes this isn’t technically medicine like the first three, but it’s quite possibly the coolest one yet (and both ironically uncool at the same time), therefore it would be fiendish not to include it.
Look up to the sky for me and see if you can spot the sun without looking at it directly. Remember how that blazing ball of fire in the sky is managing to sustain all of life on Earth? Now, imagine if you could shrink that sun into a box that is no larger than half the size of a football pitch. This is exactly what physicists around the world have been trying to accomplish for the last 80 years.
What’s the point of this? Well, traditional nuclear power works by a process called nuclear fission. This is just a fancy way of saying ‘splitting atoms’. Here, atoms of heavy weight (e.g. uranium) are ripped apart, creating massive amounts of exploitable energy. Unfortunately, it also requires radioactive material (which is finite), creates radioactive waste as a biproduct and is rather explode-y (throwback to Chernobyl and Fukushima).
Better alternatives are needed. Open the floor to nuclear fusion.
Unsurprisingly, nuclearfusion involves the exact opposite: sticking atoms together. More specifically, isotopes (different forms of the same element) of hydrogen that can be much more easily sourced from reserves such as seawater would offer practically unlimited fuel supplies. Due to the absence of heavy atoms, much less radioactive waste is produced.
Alongside massive amounts energy, non-toxic helium gas is the only other major biproduct.18
Cue joyous cries of children holding balloons at birthday parties everywhere.
Why is it so difficult to achieve?
Two major problems exist before fusion energy can begin to power the world. We’re admittedly not physicists, so rudimentary explanations are given along with the help of another meme.
Here’s the first problem. As mentioned above, fusion describes the joining of two atoms. Atoms have positively charged cores, which naturally want to repel one another if pushed too close together (kinda also similar to how like poles of two magnets causes them to repel). This is known as electrostatic repulsion. The problem is these atom cores REALLY don’t want to be fused together. A massive energy barrier exists to stop this from happening, which can only be overcome by even more massive amounts of heat and pressure. In essence, we need to recreate equivalent of The Sun here on Earth.
The second challenge is to ensure that nuclear fusion can be self-sustained. Self-sustainability essentially means that the energy released from one fusion reaction is sufficient to cause another fusion event, and that subsequent reaction can then go on to provoke an additional one, and so and so forth… for a prolonged period of time. The tipping point where self-sustainability is achieved is also known as ignition.
The Wide Open Field For A >100% Yield
The quest for fusion-fuelled power stations has been a global mission. Hurdle number 1, recreating The Sun on Earth to force atom cores together, has been possible for a while now. The 2nd challenge of reaching self-sustainability, on the other hand, has unfortunately been more arduous.
Both public and private organizations have been researching over the years, with top spot in the energy yield leader board switching hands countless times. It’s been proper hot competition 🥵
One of the latest step forwards, was achieved in August last year by the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California. Here, researchers reportedly reached the very threshold of fusion ignition.19
Perhaps the largest throw of the dice, is an international collaboration between China, the EU, India, Japan, South Korea and the United Status – under a project titled ITER.20 Here, a fusion reactor is currently being assembled in the south of France which will become the largest of its kind in the world. Due to be switched on in 2025, it will also be the first to produce a net energy gain by 2035.20
To wrap things up then, using the immortal words of Chris Martin:
‘Fusion’s got a higher power,
It’s got me singing every second, dancing any hour’
Okay maybe that isn’t a direct quote from him, but we should be all be eager to welcome such a transformative new era in electricity generation during the coming decades.
- The Precision Medicine Initiative. National Institutes of Health. Available at: https://www.nih.gov/sites/default/files/research-training/initiatives/pmi/pmi-infographic.pdf [Accessed 20th November 2021].
- Office for Life Sciences. Genome UK 2021 to 2022 implementation plan. Department of Health and Social Care. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/genome-uk-2021-to-2022-implementation-plan/genome-uk-2021-to-2022-implementation-plan [Accessed 15th October 2021].
- O’Neill J. Review on Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling a crisis for the health and wealth of Nations. London; 2014. Available at: https://amr-review.org/Publications.html [Accessed 1st November 2020].
- Clokie MR, et al. Phages in nature. Bacteriophage. 2011 Jan;1(1):31–45.
- Koskella B, Meaden S. Understanding bacteriophage specificity in natural microbial communities. Viruses. 2013;5(3):806–23.
- Lin DM, Koskella B, Lin HC. Phage therapy: an alternative to antibiotics in the age of multi-drug resistance. World J Gastrointest Pharmacol Ther. 2017;8(3):162–73.
- Yang Y, et al. Development of a bacteriophage cocktail to constrain the emergence of phage-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Front Microbiol. 2020;11:327.
- Chan BK et al. Phage selection restores antibiotic sensitivity in MDR Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Sci Rep. 2016;6:26717.
- German GJ, Misra R. The TolC protein of Escherichia coli serves as a cell-surface receptor for the newly characterized TLS bacteriophage. J Mol Biol. 2001;308(4):579–85
- Myelnikov D. An alternative cure: the adoption and survival of bacteriophage therapy in the USSR, 1922-1955. J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2018;73(4):385–411.
- Kutateladze M. Experience of the Eliava institute in bacteriophage therapy. Virol Sin. 2015;30(1):80–1.
- Ong CS, et al. 3D bioprinting using stem cells. Pediatr Res. 2018;83,(1-2):223–231.
- Tarassoli SP, et al. Candidate Bioinks for Extrusion 3D Bioprinting—A Systematic Review of the Literature. Front In Bioeng Biotech. 2021;9:616753.
- NHS UK. Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation Activity Report 2020/21. Available at: https://nhsbtdbe.blob.core.windows.net/umbraco-assets-corp/23461/activity-report-2020-2021.pdf [Accessed 10th November 2021].
- Song D, et al. Progress of 3D Bioprinting in Organ Manufacturing. Polymers (Basel). 2021;13(18):3178.
- Hsieh F, Lin H, Hsu S. 3D bioprinting of neural stem cell-laden thermoresponsive biodegradable polyurethane hydrogel and potential in central nervous system repair. Biomaterials. 2015;71:48-57.
- Lan X, et al. Bioprinting of human nasoseptal chondrocytes‐laden collagen hydrogel for cartilage tissue engineering. The FASEB Journal. 2021;35(3):e21191.
- ITER. Tritium Breeding. Available at: https://www.iter.org/mach/TritiumBreeding [Accessed 10th January 2022].
- National Ignition Facility. NIF Experiment Puts Researchers at Threshold of Fusion Ignition. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Available at: https://lasers.llnl.gov/news/nif-experiment-puts-researchers-threshold-fusion-ignition [Accessed 20th January 2022].
- ITER. What is ITER? Available at: https://www.iter.org/proj/inafewlines [Accessed 25th January 2022].