In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic grabbed headlines and touched many people’s daily lives. Scientists around the globe collaborated to create groundbreaking vaccines, tests, and treatments.
Beyond the arena of COVID-19, researchers forged ahead, chipping away at some of the biggest health issues of our time. They brought about innovations that transcended the prior limits of diagnostic tests, preventative measures, and treatments for an array of maladies.
As we look ahead in 2022, we shall take a moment to acknowledge some of these breakthroughs.
1. A New Era of mRNA Technology
RNA therapeutics entered the spotlight in 2021 thanks to vaccine makers like Pfizer and Moderna. In the face of the pandemic, scientists formulated the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year, far outpacing vaccine development for all prior diseases.
Researchers from Yale University estimated the vaccines kept more than a million people out of the hospital and cut the U.S. death rate in half in the first half of 2021 alone.
The potential for RNA technology extends far beyond COVID-19 vaccines. RNA therapeutics can be used to target certain proteins, reprogram genetic information, control how genes are expressed, and more. mRNA is easy to edit, meaning scientists can tailor one mRNA vaccine to protect against different COVID-19 variants or something completely different.
Pfizer is working on an mRNA seasonal flu shot, while a team at Yale created an RNA vaccine for malaria. Researchers are already testing the mRNA technology on preventing heart diseases, neurological diseases, rabies, Zika, HIV, and certain cancers.
2. The World’s First Malaria Vaccine
The World Health Organization (WHO) approved the first malaria vaccine in October, a landmark victory for global public health. The vaccine, called RTS,S or Mosquirix, is also the first vaccine to target any parasitic disease.
Mosquirix is 36% effective in young children, but that could be enough to save tens of thousands of young lives every year. The mosquito-borne disease is a leading cause of death and illness among young children, especially in resource-poor tropical and subtropical regions.
“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health, and malaria control,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
3. A Blood Test to Detect More Than 50 Cancers
While some cancers can be caught with early screening, others have been difficult to detect until later stages, when treatment options are limited. New developments in multi-cancer early detection tests make it possible to catch cancer early on.
The Galleri Test screens blood samples for DNA fragments from more than 50 types of cancer. Of the cancers that can be detected by the test, 45 don’t have a recommended screening test available.
The “liquid biopsy” indicates if a sample carries the signal for cancerous cells and pinpoints which organ they originate from. In a clinical trial of 6,000 people over 50 years old, researchers diagnosed 29 people who didn’t know they had cancer. In more than 96% of those samples, Galleri accurately located the source of the cancer on the first or second try.
The Galleri Test hasn’t yet received FDA approval, though it’s available in 50 states for $949 with a doctor’s prescription.
4. Medical Psychedelics Hold Promise for Psychiatric Treatment
In 2021, several major studies were published on the potential mental and physical health benefits of psychedelic agents including MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin. Psychedelics may help to alleviate maladies from substance use disorders to anorexia to major depressive disorder.
Psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been heralded by some researchers for its antidepressant effects, and may be as effective as existing antidepressants.
Last year, institutions like New York University and University of California Berkeley opened centers dedicated to studying psychedelics. The National Institutes of Health awarded the first federal grant in 50 years to study psychedelic treatments, indicating greater acceptance of the substances into mainstream medical research.
5. Targeted Radiation Therapy Improves Survival Outcomes for Prostate Cancer Patients
Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers among U.S. men—more than 12% of men will be diagnosed at some point in their life. Metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer is a form of the cancer that progresses despite treatment and low levels of testosterone, making it particularly difficult to eliminate.
A new treatment named lutetium-177-PSMA-617 uses a novel approach shown to improve survival outcomes for people with this form of the cancer. A special compound targets a protein found almost exclusively in prostate cancer cells. The treatment can target cells carrying that protein, driving radiation there and sparing surrounding healthy tissue.
In a study of more than 800 men in 10 countries, the treatment more than doubled how long patients lived without their cancer worsening. The treatment received FDA priority review status and the agency is expected to a decision in 2022.
6. Novel Device for a Common Cause of Maternal Death
Postpartum hemorrhaging, excessive bleeding after childbirth, causes more than one-third of childbirth-related maternal deaths worldwide. To stop the bleeding, doctors commonly insert a balloon into the uterus to apply pressure to the wound. The treatment must remain in place for a day, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient for mothers.
The Jada System, a new device by Alydia Health, can stop the bleeding in just over three hours. The silicone intrauterine device consists of a thin tube and collapsible loop, which is placed in the uterus and attached to a low-level vacuum. The suction aids post-birth contractions and puts pressure on leaking blood vessels.
In a trial of more than 100 patients, the Jada system controlled postpartum hemorrhages in 94% of patients in a median of three minutes, and nearly all participating physicians said the device was easy to use.
Lowering Medical Costs
7. Biosimilar Insulin Offers Affordable Alternative
The FDA approved the first interchangeable biosimilar insulin in August 2021. Semglee, the generic drug is a near copy of the popular long-lasting insulin, Lantus. For the more than 34 million people diagnosed with diabetes in the U.S., Semglee offers a more cost-effective glycemic control option, increasing access for those who depend on insulin.
The approval marks a step further in the growth of the U.S. biosimilars market. Advocates say that by increasing access to clinically identical generic drug options, there will be more competition in the market and life-saving medications will become less expensive. Biosimilars could drive drug costs down by up to 35% and save the U.S. health system near $54 billion in biologics between 2017 and 2026, according to the RAND Corporation.
8. Say No to Surprise Out-of-Network Medical Bills
Millions of people in the U.S. have received unexpected and often staggering bills after receiving medical care. A new law shields patients from being charged out-of-network prices for services received from in-network health systems. The law, known as the No Surprises Act, went into full effect on January 1.
Previously, patients could be charged out-of-network costs if they received care from specialists like anesthesiologists and pathologists, even when treated at an in-network hospital. Now, insurers and providers must divvy up the extra costs, rather than pass them on to the patient. The law excludes ground ambulances–a common source of surprise billing. Still, the No Surprises Act goes further than the Affordable Care Act has, by covering emergency as well as non-emergency billing.