There are few discoveries as exciting as the ones that save lives. So you can imagine what it feels like to work in medical research. Knowing that you are working towards saving someone’s daughter, someone’s father or wife from a life cut short by disease.
In labs, hospitals and offices all over the world, there are doctors and scientists painstakingly researching treatments that promise to eradicate a disease or help make it manageable. Chances are not all of us will read through dense and linguistically foggy research papers – so, we’ve picked out the exciting therapies most worthy of the hype so you don’t have to.
Let’s discover the medical cures of the future, and meet the doctors and scientists working tirelessly behind the scenes to make them a reality.
Immunotherapy is the next big breakthrough in cancer treatment. In the simplest terms, it is harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system to fight disease.
Our immune systems do amazing things when protecting our bodies. They are highly targeted, so can recognise and attack specific “bad” cells like cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells alone. Our immune system can recognise when it has failed, so if it misses a tumour or doesn’t eradicate it fully, it will re-evaluate and attack again. And if the cancer comes back, the immune system will remember what it is and how to approach it.
Immunotherapy amplifies these abilities, boosting their strength and educating our immune systems in which cells to attack. Doctors have already treated lymphoma and leukemia by using antibodies that attach to certain proteins on cancer cells, enabling the immune system to recognise and destroy the cancerous cells more easily.
Combined with other treatments, like chemo, radiotherapy and surgery, immunotherapy has proven to be very effective. Doctors, such as Prof. Persis Amrolia of UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute for Child Health, are at the forefront of improving the effectiveness of this treatment and making it safer. Prof. Amrolia studies how immunotherapy can improve the success rate of stem cell transplants in cancer patients. Today, he is working towards someday replacing the need for intense, toxic chemotherapy during bone marrow transplants by using antibodies instead.
Researchers are hopeful that immunotherapy will help non-cancer patients too. In 2020 Dr. Aimee Payne conducted human trials with re-engineered immune cells, called T cells, that treat an autoimmune-triggered skin disease called pemphigus. And in 2019, Dr. Jonathan Epstein successfully used re-engineered T cells to repair scar tissue on the hearts of mice, with the hope that one day we could use the immune system to heal human heart conditions.
Gene therapy, currently an experimental area of medical research, aims to allow doctors to treat a disorder by inserting a gene into a patient’s cells instead of using drugs or surgery. Genetic mutations cause more than 10,000 of our diseases, so by correcting faulty genetic information, doctors hope to be able to both cure and prevent disorders we previously considered incurable.
The therapy involves either replacing mutated genes with a healthy copy, deactivating one that is malfunctioning, or introducing an entirely new gene into the body. With the CRISPR technique, we can now edit genes directly rather than having to replace them entirely, which has allowed research to jump further and faster than before.
For example, researchers hope they will be able to treat genetic diseases like sickle cell, which prevents circulation of red blood cells, can damage organs and provoke stroke. Scientists at Bluebird Bio in the US are this year conducting trials to deliver a modified copy of the beta haemoglobin gene into the bloodstream of sickle cell patients.
Personalised medicineMore an approach to medicine than a therapy, personalised medicine (sometimes called precision medicine) is the concept of tailoring treatment to the patient.
At the moment, when you go to the doctor, he will prescribe you the medicine and the dosage that is recommended for most people. But we are all unique with a different genetic makeup and a body that changes as we get older. The one-size-fits-all approach has more or less worked for most of history, but researchers think we can do better.
When treating cancer, this is important, because every cancer has a genetic base that is different in each patient. So, using a personalised approach relies heavily on genetic research. Prof. Carlos Calder and his team at Cancer Research’s Cambridge Institute, are mapping the genetic landscape of breast cancer. So far they have found that what we call breast cancer is actually at least 10 different diseases, which shows how treatment needs to be more personalised in order to be effective.
There you have it – three of the biggest medical marvels on our horizon. With these advances in how we approach the treatment of disease, we can look forward to better management, and even cures. And it is all thanks to the professors, the researchers and the doctors who live to make life better for us all.