While several medical advancements this year demonstrated potential treatment for life-threatening diseases, some were mired in controversies - creating a raging debate among the medical and research fraternity over ethical issues. One such controversy was around a claim by a Chinese researcher of having creating "designer babies".
He Jiankui, Associate Professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, dropped a bombshell on the medical and research world by claiming that he created twin baby girls purportedly using the genome-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, making them resistant to infections and cancers. Many scientists and researchers claimed that the report of the genetically-edited babies was "unverified," but said that if true it would be "monstrous". Altering DNA before or at the time of conception has always been highly controversial because the changes can be inherited and might harm other genes. Scientists would be grappling with this ethical question for long.
In yet another controversial experiment, a team of Chinese scientists successfully cloned a monkey - an advance that promised to boost medical research into human brain disorders. Using a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, created two long-tailed female macaques. However, this also led to fears that it would open the door to human cloning.
But the year also saw surgeons successfully completing benign and revolutionary surgeries. Swiss research institute Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne used a new spinal implant technology to help a paralysed man walk again. The technology, called epidural electrical stimulation, stimulates the spinal cord, as the brain would do naturally.
A baby girl born after the uterus transplant from a 45-year-old brain dead woman also brought cheers to the medical fraternity this year. This medical milestone was the result of efforts by doctors from the Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de Sao Paulo in Brazil. The uterus was removed from the donor and transplanted into the recipient in a surgery that also involved connecting the donor uterus and recipient's veins and arteries, ligament and vaginal canals. The womb transplant, which lasted over 10 hours, took place in September 2016. The baby was born in December 2017, said the report published in the Lancet this year.
The year also saw breakthroughs in reconstructive surgery. A French man became the first person to receive two face transplants. A war veteran from the US, who suffered genital deformity at Afghanistan, received a complete penis and scrotum transplant in a 14-hour-long operation.
In 2018, researchers created an injection that might prevent migraines and are looking into an effective and safe male birth control. They also successfully reversed the formation of amyloid plaques - crucially involved in Alzheimer's disease - in the brains of mice with the neurodegenerative disorder, thus improving their cognitive function.
In another breakthrough, doctors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the US, reported the first ever case of a transgender woman successfully breastfeeding her baby. According to the doctors, the 30-year-old transgender underwent three-and-a-half months of a regimen of domperidone, oestradiol, progesterone, and breast pumping. As a result, she was able to achieve sufficient breast milk volume to be the sole source of nourishment for her child for six weeks. The case, published in the journal Transgender Health, illustrates that in some circumstances, modest but functional lactation can be induced in transgender women. However, the patient had not undergone any gender reassignment surgeries, breast augmentation or vaginoplasty.
Moreover, scientists also discovered a human organ hitherto unknown. The organ named "interstitium" is a series of fluid-filled connective tissues. The purpose of the organ is to absorb shock, protecting internal organs from rupturing due to pressure. Interstitium has been recognised as the 80th human organ.
As advancements in medical research could have a profound impact in the way we live our life, the world will surely keep a close tab on the changes that the new year could usher in, including the increased integration of emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the delivery of healthcare services.
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