Scientists announced major steps forward this year in the development of “liquid biopsies,” methods for analyzing blood samples to find evidence of cancer. Currently being used to detect changes in people with metastatic cancer, liquid biopsies could eventually help diagnose new cancers early, when they’re most treatable.
“Finding tumor DNA in the blood is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Pedram Razavi, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City who led a recent study. The latest tests in development are so comprehensive that doctors don’t even need to know what genetic mutation they’re looking for.
A FAST-ACTING DEPRESSION DRUG
Nearly one-fifth of people suffering from depression get little, if any, relief from prescription drugs. But researchers have discovered that treatment-resistant depression can sometimes be lifted in a matter of hours with ketamine, an intravenous anesthesia drug.
“This could be a bigger game changer than Prozac,” says Anthony Rothschild, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who is studying a nasal-spray version of the drug. Ketamine could be the first drug in 50 years found to affect various neurological pathways to alleviate depression—and it may radically change scientific understanding of how depression works.
Ketamine does have downsides. The powerful effects last only 7 to 10 days, and it’s unclear whether repeated infusions will be safe. The medication can also elevate blood pressure and sometimes trigger hallucinations. Researchers are studying similar drugs that may not have such dire side effects, and some hope a new medicine will be available in the next few years. “It looks more promising every month,” Rothschild says.
EARLIER PANCREATIC CANCER DETECTION
The third-leading cause of cancer death, pancreatic cancer is especially lethal because it’s usually detected only after malignant tumors have spread. But researchers have made a discovery that could finally make early detection easier.
By reverse engineering late-stage cancer cells to their stem-cell state, researchers identified two key proteins that appear in the blood of patients when they initially develop the disease.
“It’s promising, but we have more work to do,” says Ken Zaret, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who conducted the work with Gloria Petersen of Mayo Clinic. If all goes well, the test could be ready within a few years for people at high risk of contracting the disease.
A humble slug has inspired scientists to develop a new superglue that could be an alternative to surgical stitches and staples.
Jianyu Li, now an assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal, helped create the new adhesive after studying the mucus secreted by slugs when they’re startled. Li says the hydrogel, made of biomaterials that replicate the mucus, is strong, nontoxic, flexible, and able to stick to wet surfaces—even those covered in blood. “This could be the next generation of bandages and could also be used for wound healing,” he says.
The material has been tested in animals and was able to seal a hole in a pig’s heart. Next, Li, who developed the glue with colleagues at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, hopes to make it biodegradable so it dissolves after use.
DEEP BRAIN STIMULATION FOR STROKES
Researchers at Cleveland Clinic conducted the first-ever deep brain stimulation therapy in a stroke patient this year, and the patient regained more of her motor function than expected. (1 in 3 americans may have had a mini stroke—here are the symptoms to look out for.)
The therapy, originally scheduled to last 4 months, is ongoing because the patient continues to make progress, says Andre Machado, a neurosurgeon and chair of the clinic’s Neurological Institute, which is conducting the experiment.
“We’re encouraged,” Machado says, adding that there are “strong implications” the therapy will be useful in helping people recover physical function after a stroke leaves them paralyzed or faced with other debilities. Nearly half of the 5.5 million Americans who have had strokes are unable to perform daily activities without assistance.