The 9 top health and medicine breakthroughs of 2020

They’re the Best of What’s New.

Despite the upheaval the coronavirus pandemic has brought, uneasy times also set a course for innovation. Pharmaceutical companies have pivoted to vaccine development, while biotechnology laboratories at major corporations and universities have become laser-focused on developing accurate testing devices, including an easy-to-use, fast, reliable, and extremely cheap test for COVID-19; personal protective equipment, like a prototype for a reusable N95 mask; and technologies to ensure people have access to the best possible medical care during trying times. And in spite of these difficult days, better treatments for existing challenges such as myopia, migraines, sleep apnea, and acne have prevailed, helping this year’s top health advances provide the glimmer of hope we all need.

Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 test
The BinaxNOW COVID-19 test displays a positive result within 15 minutes. Abbott Laboratories

Grand Award Winner: BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card rapid antigen test by Abbott Laboratories

A fast, ultra-cheap coronavirus test

Diagnostic tests to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can take days to deliver results. But that limbo time between is crucial. Spotting the novel virus as early as possible can signal infectious people to isolate themselves, and help contact tracers identify and notify anyone they’ve been in close quarters with. Since March, countless new offerings to evaluate the population’s infection rates have hit clinics, but one rises above the rest: Abbott’s BinaxNOW rapid test, which received emergency-use authorization from the FDA in August. It detects COVID in fifteen minutes for around $5 per test—and without the need for specialized lab equipment.

To administer the test, a healthcare worker opens a card—which is about the size of a driver’s license—and adds a few drops of a liquid called a reagent. That solution contains chemicals that react with the SARS-Cov-2 nucleocapsid antigen, which is the most abundant coronavirus protein in infectious individuals. Then, using an included swab, the provider takes a nasal sample, inserts it into the card, and folds the paper. A positive result—displayed as two pink lines on the outside of the card—will become evident in about 15 minutes. The system correctly identifies patients with the novel virus 97.1 percent of the time, on average, and provides an accurate negative test 98.5 percent of the time, making it a reliable and speedy assessment of COVID-19.

Galderma Laboratories, L.P. Aklief
Aklief is the first novel retinoid cream in more than 20 years. Galderma Laboratories, L.P.

Aklief cream by Galderma Laboratories, L.P.

A retinoid acne product that’s easier on your skin

Acne vulgaris (meaning “common”) affects up to 85 percent of teens and young adults in the US, according to a 2013 study in the British Journal of Dermatology. A regularly used group of medications called retinoids help alleviate the condition by binding to retinoic acid receptors (RAR) on the skin’s surface, which in turn stimulate and speed up cell growth, causing old cells to rapidly shed and give way to newer, healthier ones. But this process often leads to dry, irritated skin. Prescription Aklief cream, the first new retinoid product in more than 20 years, selectively targets RAR gamma, the most common retinoic acid receptor on the skin. By only hitting this narrow group, the product may reduce the likelihood of itchiness that has historically made many acne sufferers shy away from retinoids.

CooperVision MiSight® 1 day
MiSight 1 day are the first FDA-approved soft contact lenses that, if worn daily, prevent further vision loss. CooperVision, Inc.

MiSight 1 day by CooperVision, Inc.

Contacts that slow myopia

Myopia, or near-sightedness, occurs when a person’s eyeballs extend too far out of the socket, which makes it difficult for incoming light to focus on the retina. The common condition can get progressively worse as a person ages and that ocular elongation extends. According to a 2015 report from the World Health Organization, the disease could affect 52 percent of the global population by 2050. MiSight 1 day corrective contact lenses are the first to slow the pace in children at the critical ages 8 to 12, when myopia is typically diagnosed and still relatively mild. The daily lenses stall elongation by creating what’s called “myopic defocus;” light that hits the periphery of the retina is redirected to its front, inhibiting the growth that degrades vision over time. In studies, the lenses reduced the progression of myopia by 59 percent over a three-year period.

Allergan USA, Inc. Ubrelvy
Ubrelvy is the first of a new class of medications to treat migraines, with fewer risks than other therapies. Allergan plc

Ubrelvy by Allergan plc

Effective migraine treatment, with fewer risks

For the roughly 37 million Americans who experience migraines, the pounding headaches, light and sound sensitivity, and nausea require fast relief. Conventional therapies, called triptans, work in part by restricting blood flow, but the tactic comes with side effects including neck pain, chest tightening, muscle cramps, and dizziness. Ubrelvy is the first FDA-approved offering in a new class of migraine meds known as gepants, which promise relief without the nasty downsides. The drugs seek to control the activity of a pain-regulating molecule called the calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) whose levels elevate during an attack. Ubrelvy works by blocking CGRP’s ability to bind to its corresponding receptor in the body, effectively stopping a migraine in its tracks.

Eli Lilly Lyumjev
Lyumjev is a quick and effective insulin drug that helps people with diabetes manage post-mealtime glucose spikes. Eli Lilly and Company

Lyumjev by Eli Lilly and Company

Lightning-fast insulin

Many people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes rely on insulin to stabilize spikes in blood-sugar that hit after meals, and failure to control those glucose jumps increases the risk of other ailments, including heart disease, kidney failure, and nerve damage. Conventional insulin injections have fairly narrow windows in which they can be taken to work properly, but patients can take Lyumjev anytime within 20 minutes of starting a meal. That’s because the new insulin formulation contains a drug called treprostinil, which dilates blood vessels to speed up absorption, and sodium citrate, which drops the time it takes for the dose to work to as little as 13 minutes—less than half the time of other drugs.

The ScanWatch from Withings helps alert you to potential risk for sleep apnea. Withings

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ScanWatch by Withings

A smartwatch to help detect sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which the muscles that keep our airways open relax during slumber, narrowing or stopping flow and causing periodic gaps in breathing. Pulmonologists estimate that some 80 percent of moderate to severe apnea goes undiagnosed. The new ScanWatch from Withings is an early-warning system that can signal when a trip to the doctor for a full-blown sleep study might be in order. The wearable, which is currently awaiting FDA approval, uses a motion sensor, O2 sensor, and a heart rate monitor to detect the breathing disturbances and dips in oxygen saturation levels that might indicate interrupted nighttime airflow.

iMASC Face mask
Researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital created a face mask that works as well as N95s, but can be sterilized and reused. Traverso et al

iMASC by MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital

A reusable, N95-quality mask

At the onset of the pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) was in critically short supply, forcing healthcare professionals to reuse vital items like N95 masks. Without a standardized method for reusing and cleaning PPE, the CDC recommended that essential workers rotate their masks every five days, storing them in breathable paper bags in between, resulting in reduced efficacy. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in July published designs for a prototype face mask that could be as effective as an N95, but that can be sterilized and reused. The device, called the Injection Molded Autoclavable, Scalable, Conformable (iMASC) system, is made primarily of durable silicone rubber, and features a slot for single or double replaceable N95 filters. The researchers successfully tested sterilizing the mask with high-pressure steam, as well as with bleach and alcohol soaks. The team plans to further improve their design to better fit various face shapes, especially smaller ones, before taking it to market.

MedWand
The MedWand is a portable device that can help make virtual doctor’s visits more robust. MedWand Solutions, Inc.

MedWand by MedWand Solutions, Inc.

The next best thing to your doctor

Telehealth has long had the potential to transform healthcare for people living in rural areas or those who can’t physically get to the doc, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more critical. MedWand, a clinical-grade diagnostic kit, allows your doctor to gather info that typically requires an in-person visit. About the size of a small coffee mug, the USB-connected setup gives a physician real-time access to data from 10 examination tools, including a stethoscope, an otoscope (for the ears), an ophthalmoscope (for the back of the eyes), and a dermatoscope (for skin lesions)—as well as a thermometer, a pulse oximeter (for monitoring heart rate and blood oxygen levels), and an ECG sensor. The device is pending FDA clearance and should be available once cleared.

HeartHero
A purse-sized AED that can be used anytime, anywhere. HeartHero

Elliot by HeartHero

A truly portable defibrillator

Quick access to an automated external defibrillator (AED) can increase a person’s chances of surviving sudden cardiac arrest. Since 2004, stadiums and gyms have increasingly been equipped with these smaller-than-hospital-grade devices, but only about 20 percent of incidents happen in public places. HeartHero’s device, currently in queue for FDA and other regulatory approval, is a purse-sized and easy-to-use AED that weighs just 1.3 pounds, and is meant to be kept inside the homes of those at high risk of heart attacks. With the conductive pads on a person’s chest (as directed by voice-commanded instructions), the machine reads their heart rhythm to determine whether a shock is the right course; if it is, it provides the appropriate amount of charge and then rereads the rhythm to determine if more attempts are necessary.