Seventy-five years after Australian pharmacologist Howard Florey began his pioneering work with penicillin, Australians have continued to live longer and healthier lives thanks to medical breakthroughs.
Professor Bob Williamson, from the Australian Academy of Science, says the steady discovery of new drugs and devices has drastically improved our way of life.
“Many of us who are now reaching retirement age remember when we were children the single most dreaded disease of all was polio,” he says.
“Polio now no longer exists, even measles which was a very serious disease just 25 to 30 years ago, has been virtually eliminated by immunisation.
“Nowadays life expectancy keeps going up.”
The average Australian male life expectancy is 79 and 84 for women, according to 2013 Australian Bureau of Statistics data. Experts predict life expectancy figures will continue to grow and death rates fall, thanks in large part to groundbreaking medical advances.
Here, The New Daily highlights 10 medical marvels improving the quality of life.
1. 3D printing
Currently used to print customised medical devices such as splints. Successfully used to save six-month-old Kaiba Gionfriddo’s life in May last year after doctors found he had tracheobronchomalacia, a condition that caused his airways to close and his face to turn blue.
Long-term, doctors hope this technology will be used to print new body parts such as human muscle, bones, nerves and cartilage. ‘Bioprinting’, as it is known, will use donor stem cells to print human tissue and has the potential to spare patients from long waits for organ donation.
2. The bionic eye
Australian researchers are at the forefront of bionic vision innovation. The bionic eye has the potential to return sight to blind and visually impaired people. The technology works by stimulating the perception of light, but has to be tailored to suit each patient.
Three patients have already been implanted with the bionic eye and have reported seeing objects on a screen after the device’s camera was connected to a stimulator.
3. Ex-vivo heart resuscitation
Research by experts at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute shows seemingly dead human hearts can be brought back to life. Using donor blood and a specialised machine, donor hearts can start beating again up to 30 minutes after death.
Doctors had previously ruled out heart donations from patients who had suffered cardiac death. But this new development could dramatically increase the number of hearts available for transplant.
4. Cheaper genome sequencing
Australians will soon be able to use machines that sequence a whole human genome for as little as $1000. The same process cost more than $1 billion a decade ago.
New machines are capable of sequencing about six billion base pairs in a person’s DNA – the key to unlocking mystery genetic illnesses. This will also help doctors tailor more targeted treatments to a patient’s genetic data.
5. Wearable kidneys
Battery-powered artificial kidneys could mean a whole new way of life for people on dialysis. Wearable kidneys are similar to mini-dialysis machines that can be worn like a belt. Human trials have started in the US and kidney experts are hopeful it will be commercialised in five years.
6. Electronic skin
Israeli researchers are developing flexible nanotechnology sensors to integrate into synthetic skin to return the sensations of touch, humidity and temperature to amputees. The electronic skin, or e-skin, would attach to prosthetic limbs and detect multiple sets of data that allow patients to experience simultaneous sensations.
7. Epilepsy implant
Brain implants that detect oncoming seizures could save the lives of thousands of epilepsy patients. The neurostimulator, which has recently been approved for use in the US, reduces life-threatening seizures. Sensors in the implant detect approaching seizures by reading brain activity and sending electrical pulses to switch off faulty signals.
8. HIV and Hepatitis C drug
Australian company Biotron is finding exciting results from clinical trials into an anti-viral drug for patients infected with HIV and Hepatitis C. Latest results released last month show patients were virus-free after six months of treatment with the drug, BIT225. Depending on further trial results, this drug could be a game-changer for more than 24,000 Australians battling HIV and almost 227,000 diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis C.
9. Low radiation CT scanners
These new scanners delivers high definition images without the high levels of radiation found in current CT scanners.
This means radiation is reduced by up to 50 per cent throughout the patient’s body.
10. GPS-based devices
To accurately navigate the site of surgery, doctors are using GPS-based guidance equipment. The robotic systems define the exact location of entry points for patients undergoing spinal and orthopaedic surgery, eliminating the need for multiple X-rays used in traditional surgery techniques.