Since the turn of the century, doctors and researchers across the globe have revolutionized the medical industry with new procedures and treatments for a wide range of conditions. These advancements have not only changed the way doctors treat their patients—they have also opened new doors to a more innovative future for healthcare.
Here are five of the most important medical advancements of the past few decades:
International Human Genome Project
In 1990, the United States Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health spearheaded the initial efforts to complete the Human Genome Project. Through collaborative efforts with a network of researchers across North America, Asia, and Europe, the organizations aimed to discover every human gene and create a full map of the three billion DNA base pairs that complete the entire human genome. Prior to this project, scientists understood little about DNA, with knowledge limited to the discovery of its double helix structure and methods for identifying chemical letter sequences.
After publishing a rough draft of their findings in 2000, the researchers completed the genome map in April 2003. Through the Human Genome Project, scientists have been able to develop new ways of studying the causes of various diseases and have opened doors for further genetic studies. With the project uncovering 1,800 disease genes, researchers have been able to create over 2,000 new genetic tests that analyze an individual’s risk for developing various conditions. In recent years, researchers have leveraged these findings to work on The Cancer Genome Atlas in the hopes of discovering the genetic anomalies in the most common forms of cancer.
Minimally Invasive Surgical Procedures
In an effort to provide better alternatives to traditional surgical procedures, doctors have been pioneering the use of minimally invasive techniques for the past three decades. These procedures allow surgeons to forego the need for standard incisions that typically result in more pain and extensive recovery times for patients. During minimally invasive surgery, surgeons create limited incisions and utilize micro-tools such as cameras and fiber-optic flashlights to deliver the required treatment. This type of procedure not only minimizes the need for stitches, but also dramatically reduces patients’ overall recovery time. As such, this typically means that patients spend less time in the hospital and can return to their daily activities much faster than with standard surgery.
Surgeons can use minimally invasive surgery to treat a wide range of conditions, including urological disorders, lung tumors, and cervical disc hernias. Minimally invasive surgery has served as the foundation for similar treatments, such as as natural orifice surgery, which also reduces the need for standard incisions by entering the body through a natural orifice like the mouth.
Targeted Cancer Therapy
Over the last 16 years, targeted cancer therapy has emerged as an alternative—and sometimes supplemental—treatment to standard chemotherapy practices. Sometimes referred to as “precision medicines” or “molecularly targeted drugs,” these methods employ specialized pharmaceuticals to inhibit the development and spread of cancerous cells within the body. While most traditional chemotherapy treatments kill all rapidly dividing cells, both cancerous and benign, targeted cancer therapies are designed to specifically target tumor cells, blocking their proliferation. More importantly, this type of treatment leverages each patient’s individual genetic makeup to diagnose and manage their particular conditions.
Not all patients are candidates for targeted cancer therapy due to the difference in types of cancer, but there are still drug treatments that can benefit those with certain conditions. For example, in some patients with breast cancer, doctors can target the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER-2) protein to halt tumor growth. Similar FDA-approved drug therapies are being used on lung cancer, soft tissue sarcoma, and leukemia.
Doctors recently pioneered a new method of treatment to benefit those who have severe facial disfiguration. In 2005, surgeons in Amiens, France, completed the world’s first partial facial transplant on a woman who sustained extensive injuries to her face after a dog attack. Since this first revolutionary procedure, facial transplants have been used to help a number of other patients around the globe. After the first near-full transplant took place at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic in 2008, surgeons improved the procedure and successfully completed the world’s first full-facial transplant at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain.
During these surgeries, doctors are able to rebuild patients’ faces using donor parts including scalps, teeth, and ear canals. In some procedures, they have even leveraged 3D printing to provide more substantial changes to the face. Recently, doctors used this technology to help rebuild the face of a woman who had been beaten and doused with industrial strength lye. Using 3D models of the patient’s face and skull, as well as the donor face, doctors were able to restore her facial features and her ability to eat and talk again.
Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART)
During the mid-1990s, doctors estimated that a 20-year-old who was diagnosed with HIV or AIDS would live for fewer than five additional years. Recognizing the importance of prolonging these patients’ lives, researchers developed highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), a method in which different treatments combine into a single “cocktail” drug. This medication not only provides all the treatments that HIV/AIDS patients require, but it also precludes the need for multiple prescriptions. One such drug, STRIBILD, received approval from the FDA in 2013. To create the drug, scientists merged four separate HIV-1 medications into a single pill that patients take once a day to manage the disease.
Even in the face of such challenges as drug resistance, these cocktail drug therapies have helped significantly reduce the number of annual AIDS-related deaths. In the US and the Western world, HAART has successfully increased patient life expectancy after diagnosis from about five years to several decades.