Life Science Coronavirus-free zone: 2020’s most intriguing medical stories
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Coronavirus-free zone: 2020’s most intriguing medical stories

Some scientists made some quiet non-vaccine breakthroughs this year, and no doubt went mad with happiness. Photo: Getty
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As a science writer in 2020, one might wish to never write about COVID-related matters ever again.

Just as you might never want to read about them.

Here are some and intriguing health and medicine stories from the year that seemed all about a virus.

Plenty good things were happening.

January: 50 new cancer drugs discovered overnight  

Drugs routinely prescribed for diabetes, inflammation, alcoholism – and even for treating arthritis in dogs – can also kill cancer cells in the laboratory, according to a study that even caught the researchers by surprise.

The study – in which thousands of already developed drug compounds were systematically analysed for anti-cancer capability – discovered 49 medicines that not only neutralised cancer cells, but left healthy cells unharmed.

Some of these medicines were found to target cells in novel and surprising ways, potentially opening up new lines of attack against tumours. It also suggested “a possible way to accelerate the development of new cancer drugs or repurpose existing drugs to treat cancer drugs”.

Central to this discovery was the relatively new and somewhat exciting Drug Repurposing Hub run by MIT’s Broad Institute.

The Hub is a repository for more than 6000 compounds – many of them on the market or approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – that may prove to be effective in treating conditions not originally targeted by researchers and developers.

“We created the Repurposing Hub to enable researchers to make these kinds of serendipitous discoveries in a more deliberate way,” said founder Dr Steven Corsello, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Clinical Institute.

“In general, though, these kinds of discoveries are accidental.”

Read the full story here.

February: New way to kill bacteria

A new group of antibiotics with a unique approach to attacking bacteria has been discovered, making it a promising clinical candidate in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

Researchers from McMaster University say the newly found corbomycin and the lesser-known complestatin have a “never-before-seen” way to kill bacteria, which is achieved by blocking the function of the bacterial cell wall.

The discovery comes from a family of antibiotics called glycopeptides that are produced by soil bacteria.

The researchers also demonstrated in mice that these new antibiotics can block infections caused by the drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is a group of bacteria that can cause many serious infections.

The findings were published in Nature.

Will we see this research go beyond animal studies? We’ve been fretting on a looming crisis where we lose all ability to treat serious bacterial infections because of antimicrobial resistance.

Meanwhile, funding for research is drying up. It could take a catastrophe even worse than the coronavirus pandemic to prompt major investment into new antibiotic development.

One thing we have learnt from the pandemic is that when global disaster strikes, the seemingly impossible (such as getting a vaccine developed, tested and into people’s arms in less than a year) is suddenly doable.

March: Higher daily step count linked with lower all-cause mortality

A major US study found that the more steps you take each day is associated with a lower risk of dying from all (natural) causes.

Investigators from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Ageing and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the accumulation of steps taken, but not the intensity of stepping, had a strong association with mortality.

In other words, you don’t need to work particularly hard to lengthen your lifespan. You just need to keep moving.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that:

  • Compared with taking 4000 steps per day, “a number considered to be low for adults”, taking 8000 steps per day was associated with a 51 per cent lower risk for all-cause mortality
  • Taking 12,000 steps per day was associated with a 65 per cent lower risk compared with taking 4000 steps.

Read the full study here.

April: Treatment relieves depression in 90 per cent of participants

A new form of magnetic brain stimulation rapidly relieved symptoms of severe depression in 90 per cent of participants in a small study from Stanford University School of Medicine.

The researchers are now conducting a larger, double-blinded trial in which half the participants are receiving fake treatment.

According to a statement from Stanford, the researchers are optimistic the second trial will prove to be similarly effective in treating people “whose condition hasn’t improved with medication, talk therapy or other forms of electromagnetic stimulation”.

The treatment is called Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy, or SAINT.

The researchers reported that the therapy improves on current US FDA-approved protocols by increasing the number of magnetic pulses, speeding up the pace of the treatment and targeting the pulses according to each individual’s neurocircuitry.

Before undergoing the therapy, all 21 study participants were severely depressed, according to several diagnostic tests for depression.

Afterward, 19 scored within the non-depressed range.

Although all of the participants had suicidal thoughts before the therapy, none of them reported having suicidal thoughts after treatment.

All 21 participants had previously not experienced improvements with medications, FDA-approved transcranial magnetic stimulation or electroconvulsive therapy.

The only side effects of the therapy were fatigue and some discomfort during treatment.

The results were published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

May: There really is a ‘thin gene’  

As the rest of the world packed on the pudding during mandated lockdowns, about one per cent of the population remained rail thin, no matter how many comfort cakes they ate – or how little exercise they did.

We tend to say about such people: They must have good genes.

And it seems to be true.

Body shape is a genetic lottery. A single gene seems to keep some people as thin as rakes. Photo: Getty

Researchers from the University of British Columbia identified “a gene linked to thinness that may play a role in resisting weight gain in these metabolically healthy, thin people”.

The scientists found that thin people have a variant of what’s known as the ALK gene.

It’s this variant of the gene that provides a resistance to weight gain, no matter what diet you’re on, a finding suggested by follow-up experiments with mice and flies.

Read the full story here.

June: Experimental pill may prevent anaphylactic shock

US researchers say that anaphylactic shock – a potentially lethal reaction to food and drug allergens, such as peanut butter and penicillin – could be prevented by taking “a pill” they have developed.

That is, if experimental work with human cells and animal models is repeated in clinical trials.

Is this just another wonderful experiment with mice?

The research – from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University – found that a type of drug called BTK inhibitors are “successful in suppressing allergic reactions” in laboratory conditions.

What this means: The drugs were tested on human cells and modified mice. But the study is supported by previous research in the real world, with two small human trials.

In these trials, cancer patients with allergies took the BTK inhibitor Ibrutinib as part of their treatment. In both cases, the patient enjoyed a vastly diminished response to allergens.

In the first trial, the patients “were allergic to airborne allergens such as cat dander and ragweed pollen”.

They saw their allergic skin test reactivity reduced by 80 to 90 per cent within one week of receiving the treatment.

The researchers point to a subsequent study that “showed the same thing happened to food allergy skin test reactions when healthy adults with food allergy took the drug for just a few days.”

These were pilot studies, “but the findings were consistent”.

Read the full story here.

July: Breakthrough Alzheimer’s blood test  

A new and inexpensive blood test for Alzheimer’s disease is almost 100 per cent accurate, outperforming magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and existing blood tests.

The test was able to discern Alzheimer’s from other forms of dementia, and in people showing no symptoms.

In persons at known genetic risk, the test “may be able to detect the disease as early as 20 years before the onset of cognitive impairment”.

These are the findings of a large international study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and simultaneously presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

The researchers describe their findings as “profound”.

Scientists not involved in the study are equally enthusiastic, describing the test as “exciting” and “amazing”.

Read the full story here.

August: Memory in ageing not ‘worse’ but ‘different’

A study of volunteers aged 18 to 88 suggests that our memory declines over time, not via a series of holes, but more as a blurring at the edges.

What emerges, the researchers say, is a more nuanced understanding of how our memory holds itself together as we age.

The study was led by Dr Zachariah Reagh, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St Louis – and he took a new route to investigating what happens to our memory over time.

Instead of submitting to a quiz-like format of regular memory tests for cognitive decline, the participants watched a movie – a shortened version of the film, Bang! You’re Dead – while their brain activity was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The brain scans found that the older people participants processed the movie differently to the younger folk – and in different parts of the brain.

Where the youngsters kept track of the details, the older participants were more taking in the gist of the plot.

“An interesting conclusion one could draw is maybe healthy older adults aren’t ‘missing the picture’. It’s not that the info isn’t getting in, it’s just it’s getting in differently,” said Dr Reagh in a statement.

To read the full story, see here.

September: Diabetes treatment lasts longer, works better

Melbourne researchers have developed a longer-lasting and more effective treatment for type-2 diabetes that needs only be taken once a week or even once a month.

It’s certainly the case if you’re a mouse, on which the new treatment was successfully tested.

Humans will have to wait at least five years before the treatment appears in their bathroom cupboards.

Not all type-2 diabetes patients are obviously fat. But their livers are. The drug worked better than the standard treatment to reduce the problem in mice. Photo: Getty

But there is a genuine breakthrough here, because the treatment is derived from a curious protein produced by the liver that wasn’t known to exist until about five years ago.

Implicit in the new research is that boosting the production by the liver of this protein, SMOC1 (pronounced ‘smoke one’), may work as a strategy to control errant blood sugar levels, although the researchers aren’t pursuing that strategy.

Instead they’ve engineered a long-lasting version of SMOC1 to be trialled by a pharmaceutical company. Talks are pending.

Lead author of the new study and University of Melbourne senior research fellow Dr Magdalene Montgomery said: “We discovered SMOC1 as a protein that was secreted by the liver when blood glucose levels are high, suggesting that SMOC1 might play a role in blood glucose control. This turned out to be true.”

The protein’s initial discovery was in mouse liver cells. The researchers found that SMOC1 was released when liver cells accumulated excess fat.

But then SMOC1 levels were found to decline in the blood of people who were insulin resistant or pre-diabetic.

Further testing, in diabetic mice, suggested that SMOC1 was more effective at improving blood glucose control than Metformin, the medication most commonly prescribed to new patients.

It was also found to reduce fatty liver and the high blood cholesterol levels that commonly plague type-2 diabetes patients.

Read the full story here.

October: Exercising one good arm helps the injured one 

Research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has revealed that training one arm can improve strength and decrease muscle loss in the other arm – without even moving it.

According to a statement from ECU, the findings “could help to address the muscle wastage and loss of strength often experienced in an immobilised arm, such as after injury, by using eccentric exercise on the opposing arm”.

In eccentric exercises, the contracting muscle is lengthening, such as when lowering a dumbbell in bicep curls, sitting on a chair slowly or walking downstairs.

Previous research has shown these exercises are more effective at growing muscle than concentric exercises, in which muscles are shortening such as when lifting a dumbbell or walking up stairs.

Read more from ECU.

November: Two bio-markers for ageing reversed in human study

Israeli researchers claimed a world first by using a form of hyperbaric oxygen therapy – best known as a treatment for decompression sickness – to reverse two key “biological hallmarks” of ageing, in a small study of pensioners.

A small study saw an apparent reversal of two biological markers of ageing. Is a cure for ageing on the way? You should live so long. Photo: Getty

The study, “part of a comprehensive research program targeting ageing as a reversible disease”, found that daily exposures to high concentrations of oxygen reversed telomere length shortening and accumulation of senescent cells.

This potentially means that real-life, age-related damage at cellular and molecular levels have been reversed. The researchers say they have achieved “the Holy Grail” by reversing telomere shortening.

Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA – the long double helix molecule that contains our unique genetic code.

These caps protect our chromosomes, and are often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces.

Read the full story here.

December: Cheese and red wine are good for the mind 

Exciting research from Iowa State University found that cheese protects against age-related cognitive problems and drinking red wine is related to improvements in cognitive function.

Cheese protects against age-related cognitive problems and red wine is associated with improvements in cognitive function. Photo: Getty

The study is a first-of-its-kind, large-scale analysis that connects specific foods to later-in-life cognitive acuity.

These are four of the most significant findings from the study:

  • Cheese, by far, was shown to be the most protective food against age-related cognitive problems, even late into life
  • The daily consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, was related to improvements in cognitive function
  • Weekly consumption of lamb, but not other red meats, was shown to improve long-term cognitive prowess
  • Excessive consumption of salt is bad, but only individuals already at risk for Alzheimer’s disease may need to watch their intake to avoid cognitive problems over time.

Read the study here.

In a certain party mood, one might conclude this is science at its best.

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