The year 2013 brought lots of big developments in health and medicine.
Scientists recovered DNA from the bones of a human who lived 400,000 years ago.
President Barack Obama announced a major initiative to unlock the mysteries of the human brain, and similar efforts are underway in Europe, Israel, Australia and China. Sequestration hit U.S. medical research hard, but we still saw major breakthroughs in the use of gene therapy to treat cancer.
So are you ready to open up the fortune cookies and tell us what 2014 will bring?
If nothing else, I sure hope we'll see a cure for wanting to stay in bed in the morning instead of getting up and working out.
Dr. Prescott prescribes
Yeah, I wouldn't hold your breath on that one. But — the room darkens and eerie music begins to play — for 2014, I see:
1. The rise of the 3-D printer
Sure, you've heard all about “printing” a working gun or a pair of distinctive high heels. But big — and, I'd argue, more important — strides are also being made in using this technology to print human organs. Using a coating of adult stem cells to reduce the chance of rejection, we'll soon be treating sick patients by transplanting printed skin (easiest) and blood vessels (harder). And in the not-too-distant future, we should be able to save lives by replacing diseased organs with printed stomachs and bladders and, ultimately, hearts, livers and kidneys.
2. Gut check
Inside each of us are roughly 100 trillion bacteria. Ewww. Put another way, for every human cell residing within us, there are roughly 10 resident microbes. So while we may think of ourselves as human, we're really 90 percent germs, most which live in our gut. Through initiatives like the Human Microbiome Project, scientists will make great leaps in understanding how microbes shape our health — and how we can shape them to make ourselves healthier.
3. Gene therapy
In 2013, researchers showed that genetically modifying the T cells of people with acute leukemia caused total or partial disease remission in more than half of those treated. Studies showed similarly positive results in patients suffering from rare illnesses like “bubble boy” disease. Most importantly, with no evidence of major side effects (in the 1990s, several patients receiving gene therapy died), repairing damaged genes is poised to become a viable treatment option for certain cancers and other life-threatening conditions.
4. Precision medicine
Scientists can now determine your entire genetic makeup in less than one day and for a price of $1,000. The next big step in the rapidly evolving field of precision medicine will be to understand how to apply this information to lengthen lives and improve health outcomes. With major initiatives at academic medical centers and medical research institutes worldwide (including the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation), expect major advances in using genetic information to identify patients who can benefit from a particular drug or course of treatment. Think of it as the difference between buying a suit off the rack and having one custom-made for you.
5. Remote health monitoring devices
Millions of Americans are already tracking daily activity levels through wearable technology like the Fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand. The next phase will move from counting the number of steps we take to monitoring physiological data like our blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol. Combine this with apps that can move this data wirelessly to the exam room, and we'll soon see a whole new world of virtual house calls and medical care.
Crystal ball or no, I can say one thing with certainty: The new year will be filled with exciting new developments in medicine. Have a happy and healthy 2014!
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF's senior vice president and general counsel.