In an effort to improve our quality of life, research on new medical therapies is key. And thanks to modern technology and talented researchers, advances are being made every day.

Many groundbreaking treatments throughout our history were considered unrealistic at the outset, such as Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. Yet these discoveries turned out to be some of the most effective options in managing certain conditions.

Today, researchers like Eric Carnes, Melinda Diver, and Paul Nestadt are pioneering new forms of treatment for different conditions. Read on to find out how they’re making a difference.

Eric Carnes

Eric Carnes has been passionate about saving people since high school.

Paired with losing a loved one to cancer and the realization that effective, long-term solutions to complex health problems require interdisciplinary teams of researchers, Carnes went on to study chemical engineering at the University of New Mexico. His studies focused on materials science and engineering, as well as cell biology and biochemistry.

Now a research associate professor in the Office of Research and Economic Development at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Carnes studies the interactions between biological systems, such as cancer cells and bacteria, and nonbiological materials. These materials include nanoparticles that are 100,000 times smaller than anything the human eye can see.

He then engineers these materials to interact with biological systems for various biomedical and biosecurity applications, such as reducing the side effects of chemotherapy and reducing the dosage needed to beat drug-resistant infections.

“I’ve used nanoparticles loaded with chemotherapy drugs to kill cancer cells while sparing ‘normal’ cells. This is critical to increasing long-term survival rates in cancer patients, while also reducing the horrible side effects of chemotherapy,” Carnes explains.

“In another application, I used similar nanoparticles to deliver antibiotics to organs that bacteria like anthrax and plague infect — mainly the lungs, liver, spleen, and lymph nodes. The aim is to treat drug-resistant infections at lower antibiotic doses,” he says.

As for what he hopes the future of medicine holds, Carnes believes that if we’re to continue to combat complex health issues — from chronic pain to the Zika virus — a personalized approach must be adapted. Something, he says, his own research is helping bring about.

“My research is contributing to making personalized medicine a reality by providing materials that can easily alter the inherent properties of personalized drug ‘cocktails,’” he adds.

Melinda Diver

For Melinda Diver, the fact that about 80 die every day in the United States from an opioid overdose is, in part, what drives her research at the University of California at San Francisco.

“My research is motivated by the critical need for the development of new chronic pain-relief medications. Chronic pain causes enormous human suffering and places large challenges on society and our healthcare system. [Yet] despite the rising concerns about the safety of opioids, [they] remain the first line of treatment for the estimated one-third of people living with chronic pain,” she explains.

Diver’s current research looks at how people detect and respond to changes in their surrounding environment. More specifically, temperature changes.

“Temperature changes are detected by our sensory system,” explains Diver. “More precisely, temperature sensation is mediated by the action of a group of proteins called transient receptor potential (TRP) channels, [which] reside inside of our cells,” Diver says.

These channels act as a gate, she explains. When a person encounters a thermal signal — like a hot pan or cold snow — TRP channels relay this information about the outside world to the inside of our cells. The cells then relay the message to our brain.

Diver adds that, because our sensory system can also recognize and respond to pain signals, it might be possible to treat pain through altering the function of TRP channels.

While Diver does acknowledge that there’s limited knowledge of how we detect changes in temperature, including those that cause pain, she remains positive that her research will change this.

“I hope to discover the details as to how our ‘temperature sensors’ work, thereby providing the knowledge necessary to develop a new, nonopioid, chronic pain drug that targets TRP channels.”

Paul Nestadt

“I became a psychiatrist because mental illness is both incompletely understood and dangerously stigmatized. [Moreover], I focused on suicide because the stakes are too high to ignore it,” says Paul Nestadt, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychiatric epidemiology program in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Also serving as a supervising psychiatrist for the Anxiety Clinic in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Nestadt works with esketamine to address the roots of suicidal thinking. He hopes this work won’t only prevent death by suicide, but alleviate suffering.

“Unfortunately, most readers will have known someone who attempted or died by suicide. In the vast majority of cases, suicide is in part the result of a psychiatric illness, usually depression, which could have been treated. In the fog of depression, treatment seems impossible, embarrassing, or unreachable, but in fact, major depression is eminently treatable using both pharmacologic and psychotherapeutic strategies,” Nestadt says.

“I am regularly inspired by the successes and by my patients in general, as well as the senior clinicians that continue to teach me every day,” he adds.

Nestadt is currently involved in a large study with Janssen Pharmaceuticals. This research, he explains, has already begun to show that esketamine, when “inhaled through the nose in a controlled setting, can rapidly alleviate depressive symptoms, including some established measures of suicidality.”

“It is not yet clear the best way to sustain the effects, but the concept has clearly been proven,” he adds.

Nestadt acknowledges that, in his lifetime, there have been very few advances in the treatment of depression and suicidality. Though there have been a number of medications developed, including lithium, Prozac, and Celexa, ketamine is one of the most “novel mechanisms being developed to treat depression and more directly to treat suicidality,” he adds.

This development couldn’t have come at a better time. “Suicide rates have been rising throughout the 21st century, now reaching 13.4 deaths per 100K per year in the United States. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young Americans and overall is one of the only top 10 causes of death in the United States to be increasing, rather than decreasing in rate,” Nestadt says.

It’s his hope that the future of health will be one with an increase in resources available for both the prevention and treatment of mental health conditions.

“I’d like to think that my own research into the epidemiology of suicide can contribute to this progress by providing greater understanding of the roots and pathways to suicide, and hence more appropriately targeted interventions,” he admits.