Almost three years into the pandemic, the spotlight isn’t just on COVID medicine anymore. While booster shots and take-home antiviral pills gave us new tools to fight the infectious disease, health researchers and drug makers regained momentum in other crucial areas, like organ transplants, STI prevention, and white-whale therapies for alopecia and HIV. At the same time, AI deepened its role as a diagnostic aid, while mental health services got an accessibility boost across the US. We know the pandemic isn’t over—and other pathogens and illnesses are likely lurking undetected—but the progress we make in medical labs, factories, and care centers can help nurse societies back to health before the next storm hits.
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Grand Award Winner
AuriNova by 3DBio Therapeutics: A replacement ear that’s made from ear cells
About 1,500 people in the US are born each year with absent or underdeveloped external ears. Traditional reconstruction techniques might fix the cosmetic issue, but a new 3D-printed ear transplant, called AuriNovo, offers a living substitute. The implant is made with proteins, hydrogel, and a patient’s own cells, giving it far more flexibility than any constructed with synthetic materials; plus, the procedure is less invasive than, say, transplanting tissue from a patient’s ribs. To build the replacement, a surgeon first takes a sample of an individual’s ear tissue to separate and culture the cartilage-making cells. Then, based on a 3D scan of the fully formed ear on the patient, the part is printed with collagen-based “bio ink” and surgically inserted above the jaw. A 20-year-old woman from Mexico was the first to get the implant this June. 3DBio Therapeutics, the New York-based regenerative medicine company behind AuriNovo, hopes to use the technology to one day create other replacement body parts, like noses, spinal discs, and larger organs.
Paxlovid by Pfizer: The first take-home treatment for COVID-19
COVID therapies have come a long way since the start of the pandemic, and now include several antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibodies. But Pfizer’s Paxlovid was the first oral treatment for the disease to receive emergency authorization from the FDA, meaning it can be obtained with a prescription. It’s also highly effective: Clinical trials show it reduces hospitalization and death from the virus up to 90 percent more than a placebo. The remedy is a combination of two pills: nirmatrelvir, which prevents the novel coronavirus from replicating, and ritonavir, which causes the body to metabolize nirmatrelvir more slowly. The drug does have downsides—it can interact with other medications and sometimes causes a foul aftertaste. Plus, rare cases of rebound COVID symptoms and positive tests have occurred in people following Paxlovid treatment, although research indicates that the latter might be related to the immune system responding to residual viral RNA. Still, it represents a crucial new safeguard for healthcare providers and the public.
EVO Visian Implantable Collamer Lenses by STAAR Surgical: Combining the perks of contacts and laser surgery
Most cases of nearsightedness and astigmatism, which is blurred vision caused by an irregularly shaped cornea, can be fixed with laser eye surgery. But the procedure requires some corneal tissue to be removed and often leaves recipients with lingering dry eyes. EVO ICL provides an alternative with a minimally invasive new way to correct or reduce both conditions. During the approximately hour-long procedure, a flexible collagen-containing lens is implanted between the iris and natural lens. The implant is meant to sit in the eye permanently, but can also be plucked out by an ophthalmologist if needed. In published clinical trial results, close to 88 percent of patients reported 20/20 or better and nearly all achieved 20/32 or better distance vision after six months. The lenses also block some UV rays for added protection.
Olumiant by Eli Lilly and Incyte: Long-term relief for severe alopecia
Eli Lilly and Incyte
More than 300,000 people of all ages in the US live with severe alopecia areata, a condition that causes the immune system to attack hair follicles, leading to patchy baldness on the scalp and elsewhere. Hair loss in the nose and ears can affect patients’ hearing and allergies, and a lack of eyelashes can leave people vulnerable to eye irritation from dust. Olumiant, the first medication to secure the FDA’s approval for severe alopecia, can help hair grow back over the entire body. It belongs to a group of drugs called JAK inhibitors, which block certain inflammation-promoting enzymes. It was originally greenlit by the agency in 2018 to treat some forms of rheumatoid arthritis, but in clinical trials for alopecia, it helped roughly a third of participants to regrow up to 80 percent of their hair by 36 weeks, and nearly half after a year. Other JAK inhibitors in development could provide alternatives for patients who don’t fully respond to Olumiant.
AIR Recon DL by GE Healthcare: Sharper MRIs in half the time
Laying motionless for an hour or longer in a magnetic scanner can be a claustrophobic and sometimes nauseating experience. A next-level neural network by GE Healthcare reduces the stress on patients, while filtering out visual noise from movement or faulty processing. The software combs through raw radio-wave data from MRI machines and turns the most accurate bits into high-resolution 3D images. Originally, the AI-reconstructed images had to be stitched together—but the updated tech, which received FDA approval this September, delivers in one go. The speedy precision can cut exam times in half, help hospitals and clinics serve more patients, and possibly improve the rate of diagnosis by giving radiologists a much cleaner view of tissues, bones, masses, and more.
ONE Male Condom by ONE: Latex that works for anal sex
At first glance this condom isn’t all that different from those by other brands. It’s made from natural latex, comes in three thicknesses, and has a wide range of sizes for best fit. But the contraceptive is the first to also be clinically tested for STI protection during anal sex—and has proven to be extremely effective. In studies involving 252 male-male couples and 252 male-female couples, the condoms had a less than 2-percent chance of breakage, slippage, discomfort, and adverse events (which included urinary tract infections and bacteria and viruses spread during sex). With such a healthy showing, the company earned the FDA nod to label the product as “safe for anal sex.” With widespread availability, there’s hope that the condom can help beat back a record rise in chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and other STIs.
Bivalent COVID-19 vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech: A one-shot-fits-all approach
Ringo Chiu, AFP via Getty Images
One of the niftiest features of mRNA vaccines such as Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID shots is that they can be tweaked and scaled up quickly to keep up with an ever-changing virus. This August, the FDA authorized the first bivalent COVID boosters, modified with new genetic data to target both the original version of SARS-CoV-2 and the Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5. Just how much added protection the bivalent shots offer against the latest versions of COVID remains to be seen, although in early results, the Pfizer-BioNTech booster increased antibodies against the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants by up to 11 times, while the Moderna booster did so by up to 15 times. Experts anticipate that the bivalent COVID vaccines, which are available to all adults and children ages 5 and older in the US, could save thousands of lives if the virus surges again this winter.
Umbilical cord blood transplant for HIV by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Weill Cornell Medicine: The right cells for viral resistance
There are now three official cases of patients in long-term HIV remission—but this one might be the most promising for the millions around the world living with the virus. In 2017, an unidentified American received a blood transplant packed with genes that were resistant to the pathogen behind AIDS. More than four years later, her doctors at Weill Cornell Medicine confirmed that the procedure at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center had indeed made her free of the disease. The miraculous sample was specifically taken from a relative’s umbilical cord blood cells, which were still in the process of maturing and specializing, making it easier for the transplant to take. Previous attempts to cure the disease depended on bone marrow donations that carry a mutated gene only known in Northern Europeans. This alternative treatment makes transplants more accessible for patients from other ethnic backgrounds, so their bodies can fight HIV in the long run as well.
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by SAMSHA: Streamlining the call for help
When you have a general emergency, you might call 911. But for people experiencing a mental crisis, the number has been a lot less intuitive. This July, however, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, run by the US Department of Health and Human Services since 2005, fully switched over to a three-digit code that’s easy to punch in: 988. The shortcut was years in the making, but required major collaboration with the Federal Communication Commission to connect every phone service provider to the alternative number. Since it went live, officials have reported shorter hold times and a 45-percent increase in use compared to August 2021, including on a specialized veteran hotline. The service shakeup also came with $177 million for states and tribes to support the transition in different ways, like alleviating surcharges, setting up call centers, and integrating crisis relief with existing or new emergency responses.
eCoin Peripheral Neurostimulator by Valencia Technologies: A discreet implant for bladder control
Pads, vaginal seals, and skin patches can be a burden for anyone who has to deal with urinary incontinence on a daily basis. A new electrode device, about as small as a nickel and implanted above the ankle, nips the issue in the bud in a more private and convenient way. Incontinence typically occurs when the muscles in and around the bladder contract too often or too much. To prevent leaks and constant trips to the toilet, the eCoin sends low-key shocks through the tibial nerve, targeting the pelvic organs and relaxing the bladder wall. A doctor can control the intensity of the pulses with a remote, making the device more customizable for a broad range of patients. Neurostimulators have become a vanguard treatment for different nervous system conditions, including chronic back pain and even paralysis—but few are so adaptable as this.