The year 2013 was chock-full of advances in healthcare. From diagnostic tools that fit in your pocket to a flurry of breakthroughs in HIV research, 2013 was an eventful year—and the stage is set for even greater leaps in 2014 and beyond. The Healthline team chose these innovations as some of 2013's most exciting.
Bee Venom Nanoparticles Attack HIV
Like the stingers from a thousand angry bees, a toxin isolated from bee venom is able to poke holes in the protective coating of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. When attached to nanoparticles with a special bumper, the toxin melittin can kill the virus, while leaving healthy human cells intact. More work is needed, but the Washington University researchers say a vaginal cream with the bee venom nanoparticles could serve as a low-cost method of blocking infection.
“The implications are phenomenal—from preventing the spread of HIV where there's high rates of infection to treating existing infections,” said Tracy Stickler, Healthline's editorial director.
HIV Virus Used to Treat Genetic Disorders in Children
Researchers from Italy put HIV’s highly effective infection mechanism to good use in treating children with genetic disorders. After collecting stem cells from the children’s bone marrow, researchers used HIV—stripped of its harmful genetic information—to squirrel a corrected copy of a defective gene into the children's cells. The modified cells were then re-injected into the young patients.
“Instead of trying to stamp out HIV, the researchers found a way to use it as a cure. So far they've successfully—and safely—treated six children with life-threatening conditions," said Aaron Moncivaiz, a production editor at Healthline.
Rapid Blood Test Parses Viral and Bacterial Infections
Patients with cold- and flu-like symptoms may never wonder again if their illness is viral or bacterial, thanks to a rapid and highly accurate blood test developed by researchers at Duke University. With results available in 12 hours, the test uses a genetic fingerprint that the body expresses when it’s sick to identify the culprit. Researchers hope to help doctors focus their treatment even more by paring down the turnaround time to as little as one hour.
“The new test can quickly determine if an illness is caused by a virus or bacteria, which could prevent the over-prescription of antibiotics and even potentially detect global pandemics,” Moncivaiz said.
Fast, Cheap Paper Test Detects Pancreatic Cancer
A rapid and inexpensive test, created last year by then-15-year-old Jack Andraka, could one day enable earlier detection of pancreatic cancer. The test, which is still under development, uses carbon nanotubes laced with an antibody that reacts to a protein—mesothelin—found in the blood of people with pancreatic cancer.
Embedding the antibody in nanotubes allowed Andraka to create a paper sensor strip that costs only three cents, but is 90 percent accurate.
Rachael Maier, managing editor of Healthline.com, nominated this innovation.
Optogenetics Activates Brain Cells with Light
One of the hottest techniques in science this year, optogenetics lets researchers target specific areas of the brain more closely than ever before. Inserting a light-activated gene into a specific type of neuron in the brain allows scientists to turn those cells on—or off—with the flick of a light switch.
“Optogenetics is hot right now, even though a lot of people aren’t 100 percent sure what it’s good for yet. This breakthrough is shining a new light on the mysteries of the brain and will surely lead to exciting treatment innovations,” said Charles Purdy, Healthline's managing editor of products.
Detecting Lung Cancer with Just a Cough
Detecting lung cancer earlier could be as easy as coughing at the doctor’s office, thanks to an automated 3D cell imaging system. The Cell-CT platform uses more than 800 physical characteristics to identify lung cancer cells collected from sputum samples. In early testing, the system identified more than nine in 10 cases of lung cancer, with virtually no false positive results.
Charles Purdy also nominated this innovation.
Vaccinations Without Needles Are on the Horizon
With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers at King’s College London have developed a needle-free way to deliver vaccine directly into the skin. The technology consists of a disc-shaped microneedle array—very tiny projections made of sugar mixed with the vaccine. When the disc is pressed against the skin, the microneedles dissolve to deliver the vaccine.
"It seems like it may revolutionize bringing vaccine to masses of people who suffer from diseases that are preventable, but current methods don't seem to reach," said Justin Beaver, a production assistant at Healthline. "Also, for people who continuously need to blood test or inject for conditions like diabetes, this could also make day-to-day life a lot easier."
Miniaturized Blood Tests Arrive in Silicon Valley
Though much of its work is shrouded in secrecy, Palo Alto company Theranos is still stirring up the consumer health testing market. The company’s latest device opens the door to miniaturized technology—like microneedles and nanotubes—which allow medical tests to be run using only a few drops of blood. Theranos currently operates its own wellness centers and is partnering with Walgreens pharmacy to expand nationwide.
“There’s very little written about Theranos, but it will have very far-reaching positive implications,” said David Kopp, Healthline's executive vice president and general manager for media.
Detect Bad Breath with Your Smartphone
“Siri, how does my breath smell?” may be the words you hear before your next party. A San Francisco startup has developed a computer chip that works with tiny sensors to digitize the sense of smell and taste. While detecting bad breath is socially advantageous, the company sees other applications for its technology, such as detecting low blood sugar and high blood alcohol with just an exhale.
Tracy Rosecrans, Healthline's director of marketing, nominated this innovation.
Doctors Fight Infections with Stool Transplants
Also known as a human stool transplant, fecal microbiota transplantation is providing doctors with a new tool to treat aggressive Clostridium difficile infections. The method builds on growing research that shows how important the microorganisms living on and inside the body are for human health.
While many people feel squeamish at the thought of receiving a stool transplant, colonizing your intestines with a dose of healthy bacteria holds promise as a treatment for other inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Shawn Radcliffe, a Healthline contributor, nominated this innovation.