Five advances in medicine that will boggle the mind

Issued by IPASA

The world would look very different without many of the drugs we have come to take for granted – antibiotics, anti-malarials and antiretrovirals come to mind. But there are still many diseases for which we have not yet found cures. Just think of all the forms of cancer that persist despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as one example.

“Big pharma is constantly looking for new ways to treat a plethora of diseases,” says Dr Konji Sebati, CEO of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association South Africa (Ipasa). “And there are some exciting innovations in drug development either currently in clinical trials or set to move from the laboratory to trial stage very soon.”


One in the eye

Instead of having to remember your twice-daily eye drops, future eye treatment could see you popping in a dissolving “contact lens” in the morning, and not having to think about whatever ails your eye for the rest of the day.

Researchers already have detailed plans for a drug-dispersal polymer about one-20th the thickness of a contact lens that sits in your eye and dissolves over time. It’s called a nanowafer drug delivery system, and it’s made of polyvinyl alcohol resin with tiny, drug-laden reservoirs. It dissolves slowly, maintaining a high concentration of medication in the tear film, and clinical trials are set to begin in a year or so.


Under your skin

Instead of popping pills, why not pop them under your skin? Implantable drug-eluting devices (also referred to as implantable drug delivery systems) aren’t just for hormone replacement therapy during menopause. They have several advantages over other drug delivery methods.

For example, they can provide localised, site-specific drug delivery, which is especially important in applications such as cardiology and oncology. Imagine chemotherapy that only targets the cancer cells instead of weakening your whole system and making you feel absolutely awful. These medications will instead go straight to the source of the problem and treat only that.

Also, any doctor will tell you that patient compliance is a big challenge in treating patients – if you implant the medicine, compliance is no longer a problem.


Boost immunity, shrink cancer

One of the problems with cancer is that it’s invisible to your immune system. This is thanks to a protein called PD-L1 that sits on the surface of cancer cells, providing a kind of invisibility cloak. That protein allows cancer cells to grow unhindered until they cause harm to you, the patient.

Researchers are now looking at drugs that will bind to that protein, block it and allow your immune system to “see” cancer cells and destroy them – working with your body instead of against it.


Microscopic meds

One of the biggest challenges in modern medicine, paradoxically, is that people are living longer. They’re also ageing better – so they want to stay active, healthy and useful, but often have to cope with diseases such as diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

Enter nanomedicine, where researchers are working on delivering medical care on the atomic and molecular scale by developing targeted nanopharmaceuticals and nanodiagnostics technologies, biomaterials for implants and regenerative medicine, and intelligent prostheses with neural interfaces that can provide sensing and be actuated by brain activity.


Hope floats

Conventional drugs go into your digestive system, are absorbed into your bloodstream and do their work from there, but they have limitations. For example, once they’re absorbed, you need to keep topping up the dosage – and even those in sustained-release form show variation in how they are delivered.

Now researchers are developing drugs that float in your gastrointestinal tract for a prolonged, more predictable time, which means your body has better access to the medication, and for longer. These gastro-retentive drug delivery systems are suitable for a number of drugs, including substances that need to work in the stomach: antibiotics such as metronidazole used for the eradication of Helicobacter pylori, the bug responsible for stomach ulcers; or drugs that have a narrow absorption window in the stomach or the upper part of the small intestine.

“There are some truly exciting innovations out there,” says Sebati. “Technology is advancing at a rapid rate and its application in the area of pharmaceuticals means there is hope for some great breakthroughs in the years and months ahead.”