Good news in medicine you may have missed due to COVID-19

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published April 1, 2020

Key Takeaways

While the sad and worrisome coronavirus pandemic dominates the national news and the global psyche, some good healthcare news—not about coronavirus—has hardly seen the light of day. In case you missed this news, or if you’re looking for something positive and hopeful to read about, here are eight encouraging news stories that show that medical progress continues, even during the darkest times.  

CRISPR used in vivo for the first time ever

Physician researchers at Oregon Health & Science University’s Casey Eye Institute, Portland, OR, performed an in vivo CRISPR gene-editing procedure to treat a patient with Leber congenital amaurosis 10, a rare inherited form of blindness. This marks the first time ever that the gene-editing technology has been used within the body. It’s also significant because it’s the first potential treatment for this condition, which causes blindness at birth or within the first decade of life. For this procedure, the researchers used CRISPR to repair mutations in the CEP290 gene that cause congenital blindness. Besides this disease, in vivo gene editing could enable treatments for a much wider range of diseases, the researchers said.

Music soothes the savage breast...after heart attack

After suffering a heart attack, patients with angina who listened to 30 minutes of music each day had less pain and anxiety—and fewer risks for subsequent heart conditions—than similar patients who didn’t listen to music. In a 7-year study, researchers in Serbia showed that music therapy plus standard medical treatment reduced anxiety, pain sensation, and pain distress by one-third and reduced angina symptoms by about one-quarter compared with standard treatment alone. Patients who listened to music also had significantly lower rates of subsequent cardiac events, including lower rates of heart failure, heart attack, coronary artery bypass graft surgery, and cardiac death.

A second patient has been cured of HIV

A patient with HIV appears to be cured after undergoing a stem cell transplant, researchers reported. The so-called “London patient” has been off antivirals for years now, with no detectable copies of the virus in his system. (His doctors had hesitated for months to call him cured.) While struggling with HIV, the London patient had developed Hodgkin lymphoma and underwent hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Importantly, the stem cells came from a donor who carries a mutation that impedes the ability of HIV to attach to cell receptors. Although this transplant isn’t viable as a widespread HIV cure, it shows that a cure is possible, the researchers said. This is the second patient cured of HIV-1; the first, the “Berlin patient,” was reported in 2009, also after receiving stem cells bearing the same mutation. 

New ‘game-changing’ antiviral is spun from sugar

Researchers reported that they have successfully engineered a new molecule, a modified sugar that has broad-spectrum antiviral properties. The researchers say the antiviral shows promise against multiple viruses, including herpes simplex, respiratory syncytial virus, hepatitis C, HIV, and Zika virus, as well as newly prevalent viral infections such as COVID-19. The modified sugar molecule takes a different approach than current antivirals, which work only by inhibiting virus growth. The new antiviral disrupts the outer shell of a virus, destroying the infectious particle on contact. This virucidal approach also defends against drug resistance and is non-toxic to humans. The researchers call it a “game-changer” because it can break down multiple viruses and even resistant viruses. 

Optimism after stroke may speed up recovery

Being optimistic after a stroke could lead to a faster recovery and reduced disability, according to researchers. In a small study, stroke survivors who were optimistic had lower inflammation levels, reduced stroke severity, and less initial physical disability after 3 months compared with less optimistic survivors. “Mental health does affect recovery after a stroke,” said the study’s first author. So, “boosting morale may be an ideal way to improve mental health and recovery after a stroke.”

Melanoma deaths drop to historic lows

Deaths from metastatic melanoma in whites (who account for almost all cases) plunged nearly 18% between 2013 and 2016, according to researchers. “This recent, multiyear decline is the largest and most sustained improvement in melanoma mortality ever observed and is unprecedented in cancer medicine,” they wrote in the American Journal of Public Health. From 1986 to 2013, melanoma mortality rates had increased by 7.5%. But, in 2011, the FDA approved 10 new treatments for metastatic melanoma, including immune checkpoint inhibitors and drugs that target the BRAF gene. These were adopted quickly, which explains the precipitous drop in deaths, the researchers concluded.

New blood test detects more than 50 types of cancer

A new blood test detects more than 50 types of cancer as well as their location within the body with a high degree of accuracy, according to an international team of researchers. The results suggest that this test could be a feasible way to screen people for the early detection of a wide variety of cancers, particularly some dangerous cancers that lack standard screening methods. The test uses targeted methylation analysis of circulating cell-free DNA, and has an overall specificity of 99.3% and a sensitivity of 67.3% (in an assay of 12 common cancer types). When cancer was detected, the test correctly identified (with > 90% accuracy) the organ or tissue where the cancer originated. The test will now be further validated in a multicenter clinical trial. 

Rub-a-dub-dub, heart disease sinks in a tub

Want to lower your risk for heart disease? Take a bath. In an observational study that included more than 30,000 middle-aged adults in Japan, researchers found that taking regular baths was linked to a lower risk of death from heart disease and stroke. And bathing more often lowered risks even further. After adjusting for confounding factors, the researchers found that a daily hot bath was associated with a 28% lower overall risk of cardiovascular disease and a 26% lower overall risk of stroke compared with once- or twice-weekly baths or no bath at all. Also, the hotter, the better—overall cardiovascular disease risk lowered in warm water but lowered even further in hot water. The researchers found that frequent bathing was associated with a lower risk of hypertension, which they speculated could mediate the risks of cardiovascular disease. 

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