19 of the Biggest 21st Century Medical Advancements (2023)
Originally published August 20, 2019. Updated February 29, 2023.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if no one had to fear a cancer diagnosis? What about knowing that a loved one wouldn’t have to be put on a waiting list for an organ donation?
Every day, scientists and doctors are working hard to make medical advancements. The 21st century is only 23 years old, and we have already had some pretty amazing breakthroughs.
From the completion of the human genome draft to cutting-edge cancer treatments, there are some incredible medical breakthroughs that are changing the way conditions and diseases are treated.
These advancements are in no particular order as each one is important in its own right.
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Medical Breakthrough #1: Artificial Organs
Because of accidents, diseases, and birth defects, there’s a constant need for organ transplants to continue a life. Currently, our only option is organ donation. While this is a great way to correct a problem, it takes either a living donor or a donor who has died to make this possible.
The emotional baggage that comes with accepting an organ from another person is tremendous – not to mention the worrying that takes place wondering if the new organ will be accepted or rejected.
Endless amounts of time and resources are being devoted to growing artificial organs in labs. Progress is being made, although it’s a slow, painstaking process as organs are so complex.
According to Science Museums, there are 7 organs currently being grown in labs with some success:
- Eyes: skin cells from individuals with rare genetic diseases are being used to grow eyecups. This will help scientists isolate disease-causing genes and develop targeted treatment for patients.
- Hearts: pluripotent stem cells (cells that can become several types of cells) are being used to form tissue resembling that of a human heart. In one instance, this tissue actually started beating when it was given an electric shock. That’s some pretty cool stuff!
- Skin: doctors in the United States have developed a way to treat severe burns. By using a thin layer of stem cells taken from the actual patient, they spray them onto the wound which allows the skin to heal evenly and completely. These skin cells are duplicated in the lab before being sprayed onto the patient. This process alleviates the need for painful skin grafts that are very prone to develop serious infections.
- Bone: stem cells taken from bone marrow are being suspended in a collagen gel and then exposed to nanovibrations. This creates a “putty” like substance used to graft bones back together. This putty is typically softer than our bones, but it has been used successfully to heal big bones, making them harder and stronger than before the break.
- Muscles: bundles of muscles are being grown that twitch and respond to electrical stimuli. These muscles are grown from pluripotent stem cells taken from biopsies. Lab grown muscles can be used in the development of new drugs needed to treat muscle conditions and to test the efficiency of treatments prior to the drug use in humans.
- Brains: scientists are using stem cells from children’s milk teeth and reprogramming them into neurons. These organoids closely resemble the early embryonic stages in the brain. The information gathered from this study helps scientists study the genetic mutations that take place in the brain.
- Liver: using stem cells, scientists have grown liver cells that when transplanted into mice, have actually formed their own blood supply and matured into adult liver cells. When tested, these livers showed some normal liver functions. Hopes are that eventually, doctors can transplant fully-functioning lab-grown livers in humans.
Medical Breakthrough #2: HIV Treatments
HIV, or AIDS, treatments have come a long way since the inception of the disease in the 1980s. Originally, treatment consisted of a single regimen that was ineffective because there were many medications taken individually. It was hard for patients to stay on schedule taking so many medications, and the side effects were numerous.
The monotherapies (single drug treatments) also allowed HIV to change or mutate into a form that eventually stopped responding to the individual drugs. In other words, the disease was becoming immune to the treatments available.
In 2006, the FDA approved Atripla which combined three antiretroviral drugs into one which improved the treatment for AIDS. With three drugs being compiled into one, it was easier to stay on schedule, and the side effects were decreased.
Stribild, a medication approved for HIV patients in 2013, combined four HIV antiretroviral medications into one dose, which was even more effective in controlling the symptoms for these patients.
November of 2017 saw a big breakthrough in treating HIV. According to the FDA, Juluca was approved and was the first two-drug single-dose treatment for AIDS patients that were already on an antiretroviral treatment regimen. This was great for those patients, but patients that were not on an antiretroviral treatment already were still out of luck.
In April of 2019, Dovato, a two-drug single-dose treatment for HIV was approved for people who have not been on antiretroviral therapy. This breakthrough now makes it possible for all HIV patients to be on an effective single-dose therapy.
Now, new research is working on ways to deliver medications differently, like a shot that would last several months or even implantable medications that would stop the need to take pills every day.
Medical Breakthrough #3: Functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
Functional MRIs, or fMRIs, are making it possible for doctors and scientists to virtually read minds.
Regular MRIs allow doctors to see how the brain looks, whereas fMRIs allow them to see what the brain does.
Doctors can actually track changes in the brain cells, oxygen levels, blood circulation, and how the neurons function, showing which parts of the brain are involved in specific activities.
By looking at normal, diseased, and injured brains, researchers can assess the brain and spinal cord without invasive procedures or using painful drug injections.
Medical Breakthrough #4: Controlling Heart Disease
Thanks to advancements in the area of cardiovascular health, deaths due to heart disease have dropped significantly over the past 10 years.
If attended to quickly, a person having a heart attack can be successfully treated by busting the blockage that prevents the blood from circulating with t-PA, a genetically engineered tissue plasminogen activator.
Plaque in the blood vessels can then be opened using a stent which is put into the artery. The damaged artery is then replaced with a new vessel through a procedure referred to as bypass surgery.
These advancements have dramatically increased the survival rate of heart patients.
Another innovation is the use of smart watches to monitor your heart’s rhythm. One patient with heart failure was diagnosed after her Apple watch noticed her heart rate was irregular. This allowed her to catch the disease in its early stages.
Medical Breakthrough #5: Targeted Therapy in Cancer Treatment
Until recently, chemotherapy and radiation therapy were the only choices for treating cancer patients. These therapies not only attack cancerous cells, but they also attack the healthy cells which causes a new set of problems.
When given the option of these types of treatment or none at all, the chance of killing the cancer usually outweighs the result of having the cancer, so the side effects are expected and are dealt with as they come.
Within the past 10 years, targeted cancer therapies, including immunotherapy, stem cell-based therapies, and nanocarrier-based therapies, have been developed that will work in one of two ways:
- Interfering with the spread of cancer by blocking the cells that are involved in the tumor growth
- Identifying and killing the deadly cancer cells
Either way, they target the cancerous cells and attack them but leave the healthy cells alone.
Researchers are focusing their energy on targeted therapies, and more than 25 drugs have been approved by the FDA for this purpose.
These targeted therapy drugs will allow treatments to be individualized based on each individual’s tumor molecular makeup. This type of treatment does away with the side effects caused by chemo and radiation, which is great news for those affected by this disease.
Medical Breakthrough #6: Cyberknife
The cyberknife has opened up a whole new wave of treating patients. Surgeries that are not possible through conventional methods might be possible with the cyberknife because of the minimally invasive techniques it employs.
The cyberknife uses a combination of robotics and imaging to attack cancerous and non-cancerous tumors. Using intense precision, it kills tumors with high doses of radiation.
Benefits of cyberknife technology include:
- No incisions
- Minimally invasive
- Less downtime after surgery
- Less opportunity for infection
- More effective than conventional surgery
Medical Breakthrough #7: Bionic Prosthetics
People who have lost limbs or are born without them now have the opportunity to replace that missing piece of their body with a fully functional device.
Bionic limbs such as hands, arms, feet, and legs can be positioned through the use of an app on the iPad or a computer.
3-D computer models use socket designs to make these limbs useful and feel as real as possible.
Imagine the happiness a little boy feels when he gets to run again with the use of a bionic leg, or the joy a young girl feels when she does her own make-up and hair for prom with the use of her bionic hand.
Medical Breakthrough #8: Nanomedicine
The application of nanotechnology in medicine is an innovative use of nanomaterials. These nano (tiny) biosensors and nanoparticles make it possible to perform a corrective procedure right in the affected molecules.
Progress in this area has been quick with almost 130 drugs developed around the world.
When using nanomedicine, it is possible to target areas of infection or diseased areas without harming the surrounding tissue.
Medical Breakthrough #9: 3-D Printed Body Parts
The shortage of organs is a major health crisis; over the past 10 years, the number of people who need a transplant has doubled, but the number of available organs has stayed the same.
Originating at the turn of the 21st century, it was found that living cells could be sprayed through inkjet printers without being harmed in any way.
Today, different cell types are combined with polymers and sprayed through various printheads. According to Reader’s Digest, the polymers help the cell structure keep its shape making it possible to spray layers upon layers that bind together and grow into living, functional tissues.
Body parts that have been successfully printed include:
- Bionic eye
- Antibacterial tooth
- Bionic Ear
- Elastic bone
Scientists have taken printed muscles and ears and planted them into animals which unified with their hosts. They have actually implanted printed ovaries into mice who conceived and gave birth with these artificial organs.
In 2014, the company Organovo offered the first commercially available 3D-bioprinted human livers and kidneys!
While this technology has a long way to go, researchers are very optimistic about the timeline and the major cost savings that would come with it.
It is exciting to think of the possibilities that 3-D printing can offer for the human race.
Medical Breakthrough #10: Laparoscopic Surgery
Laparoscopic surgery has become as much of a normal procedure as conventional surgery. This minimally invasive surgery is done through one or more small incisions using small tubes and tiny cameras and instruments.
Benefits of laparoscopic surgery include:
- Less pain
- Shorter hospital stays
- Fewer complications
- Shorter recovery time
- Smaller scars
Although this procedure was developed in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 21st century that it was perfected and began being used in many surgical specialties.
The use of laparoscopic surgery has opened the door to minimally invasive surgeries allowing patients that might not be able to withstand a conventional procedure the opportunity to obtain a cure.
Medical Breakthrough #11: New Class of Antibiotics
We are facing a major global health threat with the large increase in bacterial resistance against our current antibiotics.
It has been 30 years since a new class of antibiotics has been discovered. As we grow and evolve, we tend to develop a resistance to what we have been given over the years.
Oxepanoprolinamides is a new class of antibiotics that is being developed to combat multidrug-resistant bacterial pathogens that are currently being used.
Iboxamycin, one of the compounds in this new class, can kill drug-resistant bacteria.
This new development still has a long way to go, but researchers say this new class looks very promising.
Medical Breakthrough #12: Completion of the Human Genome Draft
The human genome is all the genes that make up our DNA. In 2013, scientists completed the first ever draft that sequenced the human genome.
Information from DNA is used to develop new ways to treat, cure, or even prevent thousands of diseases affecting humankind.
Gene sequencing has already helped researchers identify single genes that cause diseases, enabling them to create treatments. This gene therapy is a huge step toward biomedical advancements.
The hope held by the medical community and the public is that the human genome draft sequencing will allow scientists and researchers to develop treatments or even cures for all diseases.
Medical Breakthrough #13: Hemgenix
With the completion of the human genome draft, drug companies have been able to work on new gene therapies that could treat and even eliminate certain health conditions.
Hemgenix is a new, one-time infusion for those with hemophilia B. This IV infusion, approved by the FDA in November 2022, consists of a viral vector carrying a gene for clotting Factor IX. The gene is expressed in the liver to producer Factor IX protein, which increases blood levels of Factor IX and effectively limits bleeding episodes associated with hemophilia B.
The drug costs $3.5 million per use, though experts say it’s less expensive than the lifelong costs associated with having hemophilia B (around $20 million).
Medical Breakthrough #14: Lab-Grown Blood (RESTORE Trial)
For years, scientists have been working on growing organs in the lab. But recently human volunteers received the first-ever transfusion of red blood cells grown in a lab!
These volunteers were part of a randomized controlled clinical trial called RESTORE. They only received about 1-2 teaspoons of blood, but so far, all volunteers are still in good health.
These blood cells were grown from donor stem cells, and if this innovation proves safe and effective, manufactured blood cells could completely transform treatments for those with blood disorders like sickle cell and rare blood types.
Medical Breakthrough #15: Aduhelm
Another exciting drug to come onto the market recently is Aduhelm, an Alzheimer’s treatment. Aduhelm attaches to and reduces amyloid plaques, a buildup of proteins in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease.
We still don’t know if amyloid plaques cause Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment, but researchers do know that those with Alzheimer’s tend to have a buildup of these proteins.
Results from trials showed very minimal improvement, but more trials are being done to further study the effectiveness of this new treatment.
While there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the FDA-approval of Aduhelm, it’s still the first Alzheimer’s drug to be approved in the last two decades, an exciting step forward.
Read more about Aduhelm: Does Medicare Cover Aduhelm, the New Alzheimer’s Drug?
Medical Breakthrough #16: ctDNA
There are so many exciting advancements in the cancer research space, including ctDNA.
Circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), makes monitoring the entire cancer journey possible.
ctDNA are small pieces of DNA that are released into a person’s blood by tumor cells as they die. A blood sample can look for and measure the amount of ctDNA and identify specific mutations in that DNA.
This exciting advancement can help diagnose some types of cancer, and it can also help plan treatment more effectively.
Medical Breakthrough #17: Virtual Reality (VR)
If you think of video games when you hear the term Virtual Reality (VR), think again!
Over 200 hospitals in the United States are now using VR to help patients in a number of ways, including:
- To help patients visualize and understand their treatment plans
- To distract children who are excessively nervous about blood tests, flu shots, or other routine procedures
- To manage pain through distraction
- To immerse a patient in a peaceful environment to improve breathing and relaxation
- To allow stroke patients to practice and relearn daily activities
The advancements of VR in healthcare is exciting, and the use cases are only continuing to expand.
Medical Breakthrough #18: mRNA Vaccines
In 2021, the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer BioNTech was the first mRNA product to be approved by the FDA.
This exciting technology has taken vaccine development to a new level. These vaccines contain messenger RNA (mRNA), which is a genetic blueprint that tells the body how to produce a protein. That protein triggers the immune system to generate the exact antibodies and immune cells needed to destroy a particular bacteria or virus.
mRNA is much easier to produce in a lab, which means new vaccines can be created in a fraction of the time.
Pfizer and BioNTech are currently working on developing a shingles vaccine using mRNA technology, which would improve tolerability and scalability of the vaccine.
Medical Breakthrough #19: A More Effective Parkinson’s Medication
A new medication for Parkinson’s called ND0612 (a liquid levodopa/carbidopa) may be approved by the FDA soon!
Its Phase III trial just had positive results at easing symptoms like tremors, slowness, and stiffness.
This liquid medication is infused continuously under the skin using a pump, allowing 24-hour-a-day treatment for consistent symptom relief. This is much more effective than a pill, which is a mainstay treatment.
NeuroDerm, which is developing ND0612, plans to file for FDA approval this year (2023).
Medical Advancements Will Continue!
Throughout times, scientists have spent immeasurable hours and resources hunting for medical advancements that will save the lives of the people. When they encounter breakthroughs like the ones of the 21st century, we can see how important their work is for everyone.
Scientific research is a slow but necessary process. Although some of these breakthroughs aren’t immediately usable, we can see where they will become relevant as scientists and researchers continue their work.
Treating and even curing diseases through scientific breakthroughs to improve the quality of life is on the rise; what a great time to be alive!
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