Greatest Medical Breakthroughs of the last 50 years
By: Sharon Tulli
The continual evolution in technological developments, especially over the last half-decade, has dramatically improved and facilitated numerous areas of our lives, whether it be in our education, healthcare, time management, our social lives and various others: technology has undeniably enhanced the quality of our lives. In the healthcare system, these advances have especially enabled scientists to overcome long-existing obstacles within the medical world and have therefore paved the way for better healthcare and ameliorated life standards in comparison to when technology was less sophisticated. Although this might seem like evident and obvious information, have you ever wondered how far-reaching developments have made a notable impact on life-changing medical discoveries?
In Vitro Fertilisation
With a success rate of about 50%, IVF is one of the most famed kinds of Assisted reproductive technology, also known as ART. This procedure allows for the implantation of an embryo deriving from an egg cell that is artificially fertilised outside of the woman’s uterus via medical means.
Doctors first deliver some medications that cause egg cells to be secreted. These are then mixed with sperm in a lab in order for fertilisation to take place. These are then implanted into the woman’s uterus.
Firstly attempted in 1878 by the prominent embryologist Samuel Leopold Schenk, he aimed to perform this experiment by working with the egg cells of rabbits and guinea pigs. The next improvement was achieved in 1951 by Colin Russell Austin and Min Chueh Chang when they uncovered that sperm cells must first undergo some maturing phases before gaining the ability to fertilise. This enabled the scientists to implement IVF to impregnate a rabbit nearly a decade after the paramount discovery was made. IVF was successfully used in humans when in 1981, the first baby was born via IVF due to the intensive research of scientists Robert Edwards and Georgeanna and Howard Jones.
Stem Cell Therapies
Stem cells are undifferentiated cell types that possess the ability to differentiate into myriads of distinct cells. Originating most commonly from the bone marrow, these cells can also be found in the umbilical cord, adipose tissue, placental tissue and several other places.
Forming the basis of human organs and tissues, these cells can proliferate and convert into just about any cell type in the body to replace damaged or ageing cells. Nowadays, stem cells are used in regenerative medicine for treating certain conditions including diabetes, heart conditions and some others precisely because of their unique differentiation abilities.
The progenitor of this ultimate use of stem cells in treating certain diseases, oncologist Georges Mathé laid the foundation for this in 1958 when a bone marrow transplant was given to a group of nuclear researchers who were exposed to radiation. Subsequently, the milestone in stem cell research was once again achieved by Mathé when he cured a case of leukaemia by a bone marrow transfusion into the patient in 1963, leaving the scientific community in utter awe.
Ever since, hematopoietic stem cell transfusions have bloomed and have thus served multiple purposes such as aiding cancer patients in generating new blood cells after these have been destroyed by chemotherapy and curing some previously incurable diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
The full potential of this ultimate remedy has still not been unveiled by the scientific community yet, and it is said that with further research, stem cells could ultimately lead to revolutionary discoveries within the medical world.
Magnetic resonance imaging
Magnetic Resonance Imaging, commonly known as an MRI, is a non-invasive, highly employed method used for creating imagings of inner body structures to create diagnoses including those for brain tumours, strokes, multiple sclerosis, dementia, and several others.
The founder of this famed technique, Isidor Isaac Rabi, began what would be an extremely lengthy journey in 1931 when he adopted the issue of determining the nuclear spin of sodium, which was considerably smaller than that of the electron. The nuclear spin can be simply defined as the “sensitivity of the nucleus to the effects of external magnetic fields”.
Now laying the foundations for MRI, Rabi refined his molecular beam procedure, enabling him to obtain highly precise values of the nuclear spins of various atoms including those of hydrogen and deuterium. Rabi studied how the position of magnetic moments is linked to the direction of the magnetic field with a frequency that is reliant on its strength and on the atom’s magnetic moment, which is referred to as “the measure of the object's tendency to align with a magnetic field”. This enabled him to predict that the magnetic moment of the nucleus could be turned over if they took up energy from an electromagnetic wave of the correct frequency. They would subsequently emit back this energy, causing them to retreat to their lower energy position.
Calling this method the “molecular beam magnetic resonance”, Rabi and his team would ultimately ameliorate this procedure, which would enable them to spot the chain of resonances in a variety of molecules. In turn, this would lead to the production of detailed data of molecular structures and to the identification of specific atoms and molecules.
In 1944, Rabi won the Nobel prize “for his resonance method for recording the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei.” Decades later, the molecular beam magnetic resonance would evolve into the imaging procedure that is nowadays used in diagnosis. Finally, the first MRI of a human subject was taken in 1977, and these machines became available on the market as soon as in the 1980s.
Decoding of the Human Genome
Finally, the last revolutionary discovery on the list, to say the least, is the deciphering of the human genome. Set in motion in 1990 and finalised in 2003, an accomplished group of international researchers founded the prominent Human Genome Project, which managed to unveil approximately 92% of the genetic code sequence, accounting for an astounding 3 billion bases of DNA that constitute the entire human genome.
At the time, with the technology available known as “short-read” technologies, hundreds of thousands of DNA sequences were processed simultaneously and were then assembled by computers. Nonetheless, due to their high susceptibility to error, several blank spaces in the genome sequences remained. This issue was later resolved with the development of the latest DNA sequencing computers, which possess the ability to process prolonged sequences including those consisting of 20,000 letters with the highest precision. Even more surprising, another can read up to 1 million letters, albeit with lower accuracy.
All in all, around a staggering 200 million letters belonging to the genetic code were added to the genome. The remaining 8% was finally obtained in 2022 owing to the greatest technological advancements, which therefore resulted in the attainment of the full-length genome. You might ponder how any of this could be worth the hard work and the strains. Well, it turns out that through their striking discovery, researchers have not only gained the latest information on mutations and their disease-causing mechanisms, but they have also acquired the weapons for developing more powerful and effective methods to improve human health.
As the director of NHGRI Dr. Eric Green said, “This foundational information will strengthen the many ongoing efforts to understand all the functional nuances of the human genome, which in turn will empower genetic studies of human disease,”
Although the job is not even nearly done and a long road ahead is still awaiting the scientists, it is highly likely that years of intensive research will produce a beneficial outcome and will lead to game-changing discoveries within the medical field.
As Dr. Adam Phillippy, consortium co-chair whose group characterised the project at NHGRI mentioned, “Truly finishing the human genome sequence was like putting on a new pair of glasses…now that we can clearly see everything, we are one step closer to understanding what it all means.”