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The Biggest Medical Discoveries of the Decade—And How they Impact You

From an HIV pill to face transplants, discover how medicine progressed in the last 10 years.

A new Toy Story movie. A new Taylor Swift album. A new British Prime Minister. There's not a ton of superficial differences between 2010 and today. Yet in the last decade, scientists and doctors have made an incredible amount of discoveries and advances, finding new cures and treatments and tirelessly progressing medicine while researching areas like genes and stem cells. Before the dawn of the new decade, Eat This, Not That! Health asked the country's top doctors to select the most impactful medical discoveries of the last one.


Artificial Intelligence is Taking Over

Medical Scientist Working with CT Brain Scan Images on a Personal Computer in Laboratory. Neurologists in Neurological Research Center Working on a Brain Tumor Cure

"When looking back on the biggest healthcare discoveries of this last decade, it's hard to ignore the impact that artificial intelligence and machine learning are having on the interpretation of medical imaging," says Dr. Alex Trevatt, Plastic Surgery Resident, London, UK, Co-Founder Medibuddy. "Studies have already shown that AI is just as good, if not better than humans at diagnosing conditions such as cancer, and hospitals are slowly starting to incorporate AI technology into their radiology departments. However, it's still early days. There are many people who still have significant reservations about whether computers could, or should be making such important and life changing diagnoses."


You Can Walk and Talk After Surgery, Thanks to Brain Mapping

Woman Wearing Brainwave Scanning Headset Sits in a Chair while Scientist Adjusts the Device, Uses Tablet Computer. In the Modern Brain Study Laboratory Monitors Show EEG Reading and Brain Model. - Image

"Advances in neurosurgery have significantly improved the care that can be provided over the last few decades, allowing for highly trained brain tumor neurosurgeons to more precisely and effectively remove of all types of brain tumors," says Jennifer Moliterno, MD, a Yale Medicine neurosurgeon who leads the Brain Tumors Program. "Experienced brain surgeons are able to 'map' out the function in the brain at the time of surgery, allowing for the patient to still be able to walk or talk, for instance, following the removal of the brain tumor. This is called 'brain mapping.'" 

"In some instances, neurosurgeons can keep patients awake during surgery, ensuring these functions are preserved," continues Moliterno. "While this notion may seem scary, these procedures, when performed in centers by experts that do so regularly and routinely, can be very straightforward with patients quite comfortable during the procedure. In the end, this allows for tumors that may be considered to be 'inoperable' to be successfully removed while patients can maintain neurological function (the ability to walk and talk). Removing as much tumor as safely as possible is important to the patient's quantity and quality of life."


More Faces Have Been Transplanted

Face Transplant Surgery
Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic

Cleveland Clinic performed the world's first face transplant surgery 11 years ago and they have advanced over the last decade. As of August 2018, 40 had been performed around the world. Over the last decade techniques and technologies have seriously advanced—such as surgical rehearsal, 3D printing and virtual reality—helping to optimize the accuracy, aesthetic and functional outcomes of face transplants. 


We've Developed Targeted Cancer Therapies

The dermatologist examines the moles or acne of the patient with a dermatoscope. Prevention of melanoma

Melanoma is one of the deadliest skin cancers because it spreads aggressively, and metastatic melanoma has a poor prognosis, resisting chemotherapy. "Fortunately, the landmark discovery of activating mutations in the cancer gene called BRAF—present in up to half of all melanomas and responsible for unrestrained cell proliferation—has allowed the development of several targeted therapies specifically aimed at suppressing this mode of tumor growth," says Peterson Pierre, MD, board-certified specialist in dermatology and cosmetic dermatology at the Pierre Skin Care Institute in Thousand Oaks, CA. "In addition, advances in immunotherapy—antibodies that are targeted directly at melanoma—have revolutionized the treatment landscape for metastatic, recurrent and late-stage melanoma. Similar discoveries are occurring for many different types of cancer."

RELATED: 30 Things Oncologists Do to Prevent Cancer


HIV Treatment Has Gotten Better

Sign of healthcare medicine campaign holding in female doctor hand

"We are far from over in ending the HIV epidemic with over two million new infections globally and 40,000 new infections in the United States," says Lydia Aoun-Barakat, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist. "In addition, one in seven patients infected with HIV are not aware of their status. But there is hope. Great strides have been made in not only educating the public about prevention but in extending the lives of those who carry HIV infection with effective Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) that are safer and simpler. Now there are 11 different single tablet ART. There is also a one pill a day therapy to treat HIV and one pill a day to prevent HIV. Looking ahead, with increased screening, prevention and treatment in the next ten years, we could eliminate HIV altogether."


The Human Genome Project is Paying Off

Colorful DNA molecule

"Scientists have completed sequencing of the human genome, meaning they have established the order of the more than three billion letters in all the genes that make up our DNA," says Dr. Pierre. "Gene sequencing has helped researchers identify single genes that cause diseases which, in turn, leads to better treatments, such as curing sickle cell disease, building new skin for a patient with a connective tissue disorder, restoring sight in patients with eye diseases, and addressing hemophilia. Scientists are now working on the Human Microbiome Project to better understand the complex bacteria that live in and on our bodies."

RELATED: How To Get The Absolute Best Out of Your Genes


Stem Cell Research Advances

A Liquid Nitrogen bank containing suspension of stem cells

"There certainly has been a lot of potential promise in this area of medicine but also a lot of controversy and with good reason," says Dr. Pierre. "The ability to cure diseases is quite fascinating, but the source of the stem cells raised moral and ethical concerns. Now that we have the ability to transform skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells, the moral dilemma has been somewhat addressed and we can focus on the possibility of regenerative medicine, the ability to grow new tissue to replace damaged or defective ones."


We've Nearly Obliterated Polio

Health worker drops oral polio vaccine into child's mouth for prevention of poliomyelitis

"In 2018, the World Health Organization announced that only 33 people worldwide are now afflicted with polio, an illness that mostly affects children," says Dr. Pierre. "That's quite an improvement over the 350,000 cases reported in 1988. Lots of work, however, remains to be done to completely eradicate the disease."


The HPV Vaccine Works

Close up doctor's hand injecting for vaccination in the shoulder woman patient

Although developed in 2006, the HPV vaccine—which protects against infection with human papillomaviruses (many of which are spread due to sexual contact)—was widely prescribed this past decade.  "It provides safe and effective protection against infections that are responsible for over 30,000 cancers in the U.S. alone each year," says Sangini Sheth, MD, MPH a Yale Medicine Ob/Gyn. "With broad coverage of this vaccine, along with basic screening services, worldwide elimination of cervical cancer is within reach in our lifetimes."


Breast Cancer Treatment Has Advanced

Woman Receiving Radiation Therapy Treatments for Breast Cancer

"The biggest recent developments in my field of surgery and research is the ability to effectively treat breast cancer while also reducing the burden of breast cancer treatment, including more targeted use of radiation, more judicious and targeted use of chemotherapy and lymph node surgery, and emerging non-surgical techniques for treating breast cancer," says Dennis R. Holmes, MD, F.A.C.S., Breast Cancer Surgeon and Researcher.

RELATED: 30 Surprising Things That Affect Whether You May Get Cancer


We Can Determine if We're Likely to Get a Disease

 "One of the biggest medical discoveries, or advancements made in medical research that impact a person's health, is the polygenic risk score," says Christine Pai of 23andMe. "The polygenic score, an algorithm that was successfully applied in empirical research for the first time in 2009, can assess a person's likelihood for developing a disease or condition based on potentially dozens of genetic variants as opposed to one or two."


Fertility Advances via Chromosome Screening

mother holding her 11 days old newborn baby

"The biggest discoveries of the last decade in the field of infertility have revolved around embryo screening for genetic abnormalities, or what we call Comprehensive Chromosome Screening (CCS)," says Thomas Molinaro, MD, a urologist with Reproductive Medicine Associates (RMA), a national fertility network headquartered in New Jersey. "Before this, doctors didn't have a reliable way to test for the genetic makeup of an embryo prior to transferring it into a woman's uterus. Without knowing which embryos were chromosomally normal and would lead to a healthy pregnancy, physicians were forced to transfer many embryos at a time in order to obtain adequate pregnancy rates. This breakthrough has brought the IVF twin rate down, increased IVF birth weights and helped hundreds of thousands of women struggling with infertility have safe pregnancies and healthy babies."


We Now Know How Genes Affect Cognitive Abilities

Doctor consultation with the patient by using digital tablet

"In 2017, the Cognitive Genomics Consortium (COGENT), an international team of scientists, studied the cognitive brain functions of groups of individuals to discover the specific genes that affect cognitive ability," says Brian Wind Ph.D., Clinical Executive at JourneyPure. "These genes can be used to develop more effective treatments for many cognitive and mental health disorders. This research expands prior insights as to how the brain learns, retains information, makes decisions, and functions on a molecular level. By discovering an overlap of personality traits and cognitive abilities, current therapies and treatments can be altered and improved to better understand and treat mental illnesses."


We Can Combat an Opioid Overdose With One Spray

Naloxone Kit distributed by healthcare professionals to users to help combat opioid crisis and reverse the effects of overdose

"Opioid drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death in the USA," says Uzoma Vivian Nriagu, MD, Board Certified Emergency Medicine Doctor at Memorial Village Emergency Room and St. Joseph's Medical Center in Houston, Texas. "In fact, more people die from drug overdoses than car accidents. Intranasal Naloxone is administered quickly and can counter the overdose effects of opioids within minutes. As part of the effort to curb deaths from opioid overdose, Naloxone is now available without a prescription in some states. It is now, as of 2019, available as a generic medication. This intranasal delivery system could reduce thousands of opioid-related deaths and give patients a second chance at sobriety."


Diabetes is Becoming More Manageable

a hand of a young woman showing the reader after scanning the sensor of the glucose monitoring system

"Wearable continuous glucose monitors for Type 1 diabetes, and pairing these with insulin pumps have been huge advances over the last decade in treating diabetes," says Dave Lehman, MD, Senior Medical Director of Otolaryngology at Modernizing Medicine. "These technologies have revolutionized diabetes management and open the door for a technologic near 'cure' with the possibility of a non-invasive artificial pancreas. For example, pairing a monitor and pump with AI to help manage diabetes with little to no user input."

Medications have gotten more effective, too. "Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death, with 422 million people suffering from diabetes across the world. In the last decade, the field of endocrinology has revolutionized with new type 2 diabetes medications such as liraglutide, dulaglutide, and semaglutide," says Anis Rehman, MD, ABIM, Board-Certified in Internal Medicine. "These medications help with not only controlling diabetes, but also reducing heart attacks, strokes, and deaths. Newly approved diabetes medications, such as canagliflozin, empagliflozin, and dapagliflozin have fundamentally changed diabetes treatment. These medications, besides improving diabetes control, also reduce heart attacks, protect kidneys, and reduce hospital admissions from heart failure."


We've Improved the Visibility of Invisible Illnesses

Occupational therapy instructor provides training exercises for multiple sclerosis patients at health center

"Some of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the last decade have revolved around the movement to make invisible illnesses—like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and diabetes—visible and treatable," says Bruce Bebo, Ph.D., executive vice president of research for the National MS Society. "For example, a recent study funded by the National MS Society found there are nearly one million people living with multiple sclerosis in the US alone, more than double the previous estimate of 400,000. We also discovered women are two to three times more likely to have MS than men, and states in the Northeast tend to have rates of MS than in the South. For a disease that didn't have a single medication available until 1993, these recent findings are a big deal and get us closer to a cure."


The Mind-Gut Relationship is Better Known

Male And Female Scientists Using Microscopes In Laboratory

"Heading the list of the most incredible discoveries of the decade is the unassailable importance of gut health and its link to overall health," says Laura McGevna, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Burlington, VT. "Gut health is associated with numerous skin conditions such as rosacea, acne, and psoriasis just to name a few. It likely contributes to the appearance of aging and to longevity itself. We have been searching for the holy grail for at least the entirety of modern-day, and it may have been within us the entire time."


You Can Get a Personalized Hearing Aid

Businessman attending office conference using bluetooth hearing aid
Courtesy of Signia

"The hearing aid has come a long way in the past decade, being smaller, more technologically advanced, and more aesthetically pleasing than earlier versions," says Eric Branda AuD, Ph.D., Director, Research Audiology at Signia. "Today's hearing aids are Bluetooth enabled, allowing them to connect to the wearer's smartphone to make adjustments, while directly streaming music and TV sound at the right volume for each wearer. With lithium-ion rechargeability, they offer a reliable, more convenient alternative to the disposable batteries of the past. And advanced processing technology and functionality inside the devices deliver a more personalized hearing experience tailored to the wearer's exact needs."


The iPhone Revolutionized Personal Health

an Comparing Activity App and check on Apple Watch and iPhone before running working out

"The iPhone fundamentally changed medical care and health and wellness attention. Smartphones with their apps allow physicians and other professionals to access information such as medical journal articles, text books, formulas, etc. in real-time," says Stephen C Schimpff, MD, MACP. "Gone are thick books on the desk already out of date. And for all of us apps that measure our steps, take our pulse, collect an electrocardiograph (that can be sent wirelessly to our physician) along with apps for food choices and meditational aid and abet healthy living."


Doctors Can Now Do Minimally-Invasive Procedures

Interventional cardiology. Male surgeon doctor with coronary monitor in operating room

"Some of the biggest developments in the last decade that have impacted people's heath are the advancements of image-guided minimally invasive procedures that are performed by doctors known as Interventional Radiologists," says Raj Ayyagari, MD, a Yale Medicine interventional radiologist. "With these methods we can cure liver and kidney cancers, shrink enlarged prostates that cause urine blockage (BPH) or uterine fibroids that cause bleeding or pain. We can stop emergency bleeding. We can create blood vessel access for dialysis. We can treat painful spine fractures. We can unblock vessels clogged with clots (known as DVT or deep vein thrombosis) and suck clots out of peoples' lungs (known as PE or pulmonary embolism)."

How do they do it? "We can do this all through a tiny pinhole in the skin, and enter any blood vessel and navigate to any organ in the body—and without the need for general anesthesia, without incisions with stitches and scars, and patients can usually go home the same day! There is a saying about Interventional Radiology – 'it's like surgery, only magic!'"

And it doesn't end there. "Perhaps the biggest question to answer in the next decade will be about how we can use our minimally invasive procedural technology to treat even more common disease processes that afflict tens of millions of people," he says. "Image-guided treatments are currently in development to treat some of the most common problems facing humankind today, including prostate cancer, breast cancer, and metastatic cancers, as well as arthritis and morbid obesity." And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 70 Things You Should Never Do For Your Health.

Alek Korab
Alek Korab is a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the ETNT Health channel on Eat This, Not That! Read more about Alek