The 12 most important health innovations of the year
One might change the way we treat cancer for good.
This article is a segment of 2017’s Best of What’s New list. For the complete tabulation of the year’s most transformative products and discoveries, head right this way.
Aeroform tissue expander system
When a woman undergoes breast reconstruction, surgeons stretch the existing tissue by injecting saline into implanted bladders—a painful process that demands doctor visits, needles, and analgesics. The Aeroform lets women control the process at their own, more-tolerable pace. Patients use a wireless controller to signal a CO2 cartridge to release air that stretches a silicone implant, bit by bit.
CRISPR, the DNA-editing tool, took a deep cut into disease remedy this summer. Oregon Health and Science University researchers became the first in the U.S. to attempt to tweak human embryos’ DNA to fix a genetic disease (a mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart condition). It’s a milestone, but more research is needed before the edited human eggs can grow into babies.
The Willow pump
Breast milk may be the healthiest infant nutrition, but busy moms often don’t have hours to sit tethered to corded pumps to stockpile the sustenance. Willow is a compact, cordless breast pump that fits under a woman’s bra. Instead of flowing into a bottle, the milk fills disposable plastic bags that fit inside the breast-shaped pump. Best of all, the device is quiet enough for a woman to use while on a conference call.
Batten disease is one of a group of rare genetic disorders in which defective enzymes in the brain cause severely impaired neurological functioning. Replacement enzymes had been too big to cross through the brain’s protective membrane. With Brineura, surgeons bypass that hurdle by inserting a port into a child’s head and infusing the enzyme. The technique may be used to treat many similar disorders.
Rapael Smart Glove
After someone has a stroke, a doctor’s main goal is to get the patient walking again, so hand dexterity often takes a back seat. The Rapael Smart Glove helps prioritize it by turning the process into a game. Paired with an Android app, the sensor-laden glove tracks movement as the user practices real-life tasks, like squeezing an orange. The system displays instant range-of-motion feedback, which boosts learning.
Injuries and diseases that affect mobility, like spinal-cord damage and Huntington’s, can make the act of eating a struggle. Motion sensors in the Level signal the utensil end—either a fork or spoon—to rotate, so the entire piece remains horizontal, no matter how the handle shakes.
Philips IntelliSite Pathology for collaborative diagnostics
Pathology is a frustratingly analog branch of medicine. Pathologists must slice, stain, and view tissue samples under a microscope. Sending specimens to second-opinion MDs takes days or weeks. Philips IntelliSite Pathology uses a high-resolution scanner to convert prepared specimens into digital images that are as detailed as those under a scope. This allows doctors to quickly send cases to consulting colleagues.
gammaCore for drug-free headache relief
The vagus nerve is a powerful bundle of fibers. The body’s longest cranial nerve, it weaves itself from the brainstem and down through the abdomen. Stimulating it alters nerve functioning in helpful ways, like stopping cluster headaches, which cause excruciating pain. GammaCore is the first noninvasive vagus stimulator for patient use. The device excites the nerve with electrical pulses to calm the headaches.
SPEAC, an at-home seizure tracker
Managing epileptic seizures requires info on when and how often they occur. That’s hard to acquire because 85 percent of seizures happen at night and the patient must remember the rest. SPEAC is the first non-EEG seizure monitor. It adheres to a person’s bicep and detects changes in muscle activation, which an algorithm analyzes to indicate an episode. The user’s doctor reviews the data and tweaks treatment.
Embrace neonatal MRI
Transporting a premature infant to a basement-dwelling MRI is often not worth the risk of removing a baby from its room, so many doctors forgo scans. The Embrace device sits safely in the NICU. Unlike typical MRIs, the unit encloses its magnetic field within itself. Doctors and staff can stand next to the machine and use metal instruments while it’s running. If needed, they can reach the infant in less than 30 seconds.
My UV Patch
Most people don’t apply ample sunscreen, and even if they do, they often forget to reapply. My UV Patch is a wearable decal that signals when rays are getting through. Photosensitive dyes change from a dark blue to a lighter one with more sunlight. It adheres to the skin for up to five days and is free with related La Roche Posay products.
Innovation of the Year: Cells that kill cancer
Tumors are sly. To survive, the cells bypass our immune systems by retaining similarities to healthy cells. But they also have differences. Over the past decade, researchers have targeted these unique traits to re-enlist the body’s department of defense. Immunotherapies train our own systems to detect those distinct variances. This year, that effort took a huge leap: The FDA approved Kymriah, the first human gene-edited therapy for cancer.
The treatment modifies a patient’s T cells (specialized white blood cells) to add a receptor that locates the malignant ones so the killer T’s can attack them. In trials, 83 percent of patients were in remission after three months. One reason Kymriah works so well is that it’s the most customized method to date: The modified cells are specific to both the patient and their disease. Rubber-stamped to kill a type of leukemia in young people, Kymriah and drugs like it could one day treat many other cancers, changing medicine’s approach to the disease for good.
Best of What’s New was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of Popular Science.