8 health and medicine milestones for 2021

In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the headlines and touched the daily lives of many. Scientists around the world collaborate to develop breakthrough vaccines, tests and treatments.

Outside the field of COVID-19, researchers are advancing to solve some of the biggest health problems of our time. The innovations they bring go beyond the previous limitations of diagnostic tests, preventive measures and treatments for a range of diseases.

Looking ahead to 2022, we’ll take a moment to acknowledge some of these breakthroughs.

prevent disease

1. A new era of mRNA technology

Thanks to vaccine makers such as Pfizer and Moderna, RNA therapeutics are in the spotlight in 2021. Facing the pandemic, scientists have developed an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year, far outpacing vaccine development for all previous diseases.

Researchers at Yale University estimate that in the first half of 2021 alone, these vaccines will keep more than 1 million people out of hospital and cut the U.S. death rate in half.

The potential of RNA technology goes far beyond a COVID-19 vaccine. RNA therapies can be used to target certain proteins, reprogram genetic information, control how genes are expressed, and more. mRNA is easy to edit, which means scientists can customize an mRNA vaccine to protect against different COVID-19 variants or something completely different.

Pfizer is working on an mRNA seasonal flu vaccine, while a team at Yale University is developing an RNA vaccine for malaria. Researchers are already testing mRNA technologies for preventing heart disease, neurological disease, rabies, Zika virus, HIV and some cancers.

5 experts explain mRNA vaccines for non-scientists

2. The world’s first malaria vaccine

The World Health Organization (WHO) approved the first malaria vaccine in October, a landmark victory for global public health. The vaccine, called RTS,S or Mosquirix, is also the first vaccine against any parasitic disease.

Mosquirix is ​​36 percent effective in young children, but that’s enough to save tens of thousands of young lives each year. Mosquito-borne diseases are a leading cause of death and illness among young children, especially in resource-poor tropical and subtropical regions.

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“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited childhood malaria vaccine is a breakthrough in science, child health and malaria control,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

3. Blood tests to detect more than 50 types of cancer

While some cancers can be detected with early screening, some cancers are not detected until later, when treatment options are limited. New advances in tests for the early detection of multiple cancers make it possible to detect cancers earlier.

The Galleri test screens blood samples for DNA fragments from more than 50 types of cancer. Of the cancers that can be detected by the test, 45 do not have a recommended screening test.

A “liquid biopsy” indicates whether a sample carries a signal of cancer cells and determines which organ they came from. In a clinical trial of 6,000 people over the age of 50, researchers diagnosed 29 people who didn’t know they had cancer. In more than 96 percent of the samples, Galleri pinpointed the source of the cancer on the first or second attempt.

The Galleri test has not yet been approved by the FDA, although it is available on a doctor’s prescription in 50 states and costs $949.

therapeutic innovation

4. Medical psychedelics hold promise for psychiatric treatment

In 2021, several major studies were published on the potential health and well-being benefits of hallucinogens, including MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin. Psychedelics may help alleviate ailments ranging from substance use disorders to anorexia to major depressive disorder.

Psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, is believed by some researchers to have antidepressant effects and may be as effective as existing antidepressants.

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Last year, institutions such as New York University and the University of California, Berkeley, opened centers devoted to psychedelics. The National Institutes of Health awarded the first federal grant in 50 years to research psychedelic treatments, a sign of wider acceptance of these substances in mainstream medical research.

5. Targeted Radiation Therapy Improves Survival Outcomes in Prostate Cancer Patients

Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers among men in the United States—more than 12 percent of men will be diagnosed at some point in their lives. Metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer is a cancer that progresses despite treatment and low testosterone levels, making it particularly difficult to eradicate.

A new therapy called lutetium-177-PSMA-617 uses a new approach that may improve survival outcomes for people with this cancer. A particular compound targets a protein that is found almost exclusively in prostate cancer cells. The treatment targets cells that carry the protein, where it drives radiation and protects surrounding healthy tissue.

In a study of more than 800 men in 10 countries, the treatment more than doubled the time patients lived without their cancer getting worse. The therapy received priority review status from the FDA, and the agency expects a decision in 2022.

6. Novel device for common cause of maternal death

Postpartum hemorrhage, or excessive bleeding after childbirth, is responsible for more than one-third of childbirth-related maternal deaths worldwide. To stop the bleeding, doctors usually insert a balloon inside the uterus to apply pressure to the wound. The treatment has to be kept for a day, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient for the mother.

Alydia Health’s new device, the Jada System, can stop bleeding in just over three hours. Silicone IUDs consist of thin tubes and collapsible rings that are placed inside the uterus and connected to a low vacuum. Suction helps postpartum constriction and puts pressure on leaking blood vessels.

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In a trial of more than 100 patients, the Jada system controlled postpartum hemorrhage in 94 percent of patients within a median of three minutes, and nearly all participating physicians said the device was easy to use.

reduce medical costs

7. Biosimilar insulins offer affordable alternatives

The FDA approved the first interchangeable biosimilar insulin in August 2021. Semglee, the generic drug is an approximate copy of the popular long-acting insulin Lantus. For the more than 34 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with diabetes, Semglee provides a more cost-effective option for blood sugar control, increasing access to insulin-dependent individuals.

The approval marks another step forward in the development of the U.S. biosimilars market. Advocates say the market will be more competitive and life-saving drugs will become cheaper by adding clinically identical generic options. According to the RAND Corporation, between 2017 and 2026, biosimilars could reduce drug costs by as much as 35% and save the U.S. health system nearly $54 billion in biologics.

8. Say no to out-of-network medical bills

In the United States, millions of people receive unexpected and often staggering bills after receiving medical care. A new law protects patients from being charged out-of-network prices for services they get from in-network health systems. The law, known as the “No Surprise Act,” went into full effect on January 1.

Previously, patients could be charged out-of-network fees if they were cared for by specialists such as anesthesiologists and pathologists, even if they were treated at an in-network hospital. Now, insurers and providers must share the extra cost, rather than pass it on to patients. The law does not cover ground ambulances – a common source of unexpected charges. Still, the No Accidents Act goes one step further than the Affordable Care Act, covering both emergency and non-emergency bills.