July 13, 2016

Health Breakthroughs for HIV, Alzheimer's, Depression and More

By Chelsea Follett
Stem cell mass production is now possible

An innovative technique may help scale up stem cell creation to large-scale industrial production while keeping down costs. Demand for stem cells is high among medical researchers, particularly in fields like tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and disease modeling, but current production methods are relatively slow and costly. The new technique grows stem cells from an extremely common protein called “inter-alpha inhibitor,” found at high concentrations in human blood. As one of the researchers explained, “It is the first stem cell culture method that does not require a pre-treated biological substrate for attachment, and therefore, is more cost and time-efficient and paves the way for easier and cheaper large-scale production.”

HIV treatment also slows the virus’s spread

A landmark study shows that antiretroviral therapy not only extends the lifespans of those living with HIV, but it also dramatically reduces the likelihood of transmitting the virus to a partner during unprotected intercourse. Past studies have suggested this might be the case, but were often quite limited, and seldom included gay men, a high risk group. The new study tracked 888 couples, a third of whom were gay men, for an average of 1.3 years. Over the course of the study, researchers observed absolutely no cases of transmission to uninfected partners among consistent users of antiretroviral therapy. This means it is possible to treat infected individuals while simultaneously slowing the spread of the virus.

Early Alzheimer’s diagnosis in sight

In a major breakthrough, researchers have found a way to detect Alzheimer’s Disease before the onset of symptoms in mice. The difficulty of diagnosing Alzheimer’s early, before patients show neurological signs, has been a roadblock to the development of effective treatment. The new technology lets researchers look into the eyes’ retinas to view changes in brain structure indicative of the presence of Alzheimer’s. As one of the breakthrough study’s authors put it, “The retina of the eye is not just ‘connected’ to the brain—it is part of the central nervous system,” and changes in the retina closely reflect changes in the brain, but are far easier to observe externally. Human tests of the diagnostic tool will begin later this month.

Emergency department mortality rates plummet over 15 years

A new report published in the journal Health Affairs states that from 1997 to 2011
emergency departments in the United States have experienced a 48% reduction in adult deaths. Nationwide emergency department mortality rates have dropped from 1.48 per thousand in 1997 to 0.77 per thousand in 2011, and two-thirds of the deaths that did occur stemmed from those who were already in cardiopulmonary arrest, unconscious or dead on arrival. The authors note that changes and positive developments in pre-hospital, emergency and palliative care could all be factors. Whatever the cause, we can all agree that the result represents medical progress.

Targeted gene therapy could treat depression

A new gene therapy may help those living with depression, or “Major Depressive Disorder,” a widespread condition for which few treatment options exist. In fact, when researchers once tried to directly target brain cells in one treatment approach, they risked damaging the patient’s heart. Now, however, thanks to a recent development in neuro-pharmacology, doctors have found that they can use small molecules to carry out direct targeting of cells without incurring any of the previous risks. As a result, a whole new frontier of treatment options is starting to open up for sufferers of depression, and researchers are still exploring just how far the implications of this discovery can take us.