7 major medical breakthroughs of 2016
Published Saturday, December 24, 2016 8:27AM EST
The world’s first baby with DNA from three people was born this year. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Researchers in Canada and around the globe made a number of significant discoveries over the past year that will undoubtedly change the way we understand and treat human bodies and minds. From yet another DNA innovation to the discovery of new genes, here are seven of the most important medical breakthroughs of the year:
1. First three-parent baby
The world’s first baby with DNA from three people was born this year, thanks to a controversial technique. Scientists announced in the fall that the baby was born to Jordanian parents earlier in 2016.
The mother carries DNA that could have given her child Leigh syndrome, a severe and usually deadly neurological disorder. Scientists removed some of the mother's DNA from an egg, and left the disease-causing DNA behind. The healthy DNA was slipped into a donor's egg, which was then fertilized with the father’s sperm. As a result, the baby inherited DNA from both parents and the egg donor.
2. Successful Ebola vaccine
Final test results have confirmed that an experimental Ebola vaccine, developed by the Canadian government in a Winnipeg laboratory, is highly effective. The publication of those results is a major milestone that could help prevent the spread of Ebola outbreaks in the future.
3. AIDS 'patient zero' story debunked
For more than three decades, a French-Canadian flight attendant was believed to be the source of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in North America. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine in 1984 dubbed Gaetan Dugas “patient zero” in the growing epidemic, suggesting that he brought the deadly virus to this continent.
But a new study published in 2016 debunked that theory by concluding that Dugas’ blood sample contained a strain of HIV that had already been circulating within U.S. borders, as far back as 1970. The scientific exoneration of Dugas came 32 years after his death.
4. ALS gene discovery
Some criticized the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze as just another social media fad, but researchers announced this year that money raised from the campaign helped fund the discovery of a new gene linked to the disease.
The gene, identified as NEK1, has been found to contribute to hereditary Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. The gene is associated with three per cent of all ALS cases, according to the ALS Association.
5. Gene mutation linked to multiple sclerosis
Scientists at the University of British Columbia found a genetic link to multiple sclerosis, marking a breakthrough that could one day allow doctors to identify and treat the disease before symptoms surface.
The direct genetic link, which was long thought not to exist, was identified in two Canadian families where several members have a fast-acting form of MS that cannot be treated. Seven out of ten members of those families who carried the mutation developed the disease.
6. Study pinpoints genetic conditions behind intellectual disabilities
With a genetic screening study, researchers in British Columbia were able to identify the genetic underpinning of certain intellectual disabilities in children.
Researchers were able to diagnose 68 per cent of the 41 families in the study with a precise, underlying genetic condition, and offer targeted treatments to the children in more than 40 per cent of cases. One parent called the discovery a life-saver.
7. Cancer's 'Achilles heel'
An international team of researchers believes an important discovery has been made about the genetics of cancer tumours. The researchers said the discovery could offer a new way to deliver customized cancer-killing therapies.
Scientists discovered that even as tumours mutate, they still produce distinct “flags,” or antigens, which appear on the surface of all the tumour’s cells. Finding these unique flags within a tumour is the equivalent of finding the cancer’s "Achilles heel,” and could help improve existing immunotherapy treatments used to fight various types of cancer, researchers said.