Paralysis cure, Ebola, new vaginas...and other medical stories of 2014
- 26 December 2014
- From the section Health
With a revolutionary new therapy letting a man take his first steps after being paralysed and the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it has been a year of incredible highs and devastating lows.
It has seen hints that HIV is getting milder as well as new vaginas and old wombs being transplanted for the first time.
Here's a round up of the year in medical science.
Darek Fidyka is the feel good story of the year.
He was paralysed after being stabbed repeatedly in the back in an attack in 2010, but he can now walk again after a pioneering therapy.
The world-first treatment involved taking cells from his nasal cavity, which constantly regenerate, and placing them into his spinal cord.
Scientists believe the transplanted olfactory ensheathing cells enabled nerve fibres above and below the injury to reconnect.
It is early days and his steps are still tentative, but when reserved scientists describe his progress as "more impressive than man walking on the moon" you know something significant just happened.
The Ebola outbreak started in December 2013, but nobody expected what followed.
Before this year, just 2,361 people had died from Ebola since the virus was first discovered in the 1970s and most outbreaks had been rapidly contained.
But in the current outbreak more than 19,000 cases and 7,000 deaths have been record.
This is not just the biggest Ebola outbreak in history, it is bigger than all the others combined.
In has seen an unprecedented response and a hunt for new treatments. Vaccine and drugs trials which would normally take place on a timescale of years and decades have been rushed through in weeks and months.
Yet, the outbreak is still not under control.
An unexpected story from the University of Oxford suggested HIV was evolving to become less deadly and less infectious.
They showed HIV was being forced to make damaging mutations to itself in order to survive the counter-offensive by our immune systems.
Scientists said the gradual "watering down" of HIV meant the virus was replicating more slowly and taking longer to cause Aids in Botswana, the country where the study took place.
Meanwhile, an outstanding feat of viral archaeology traced the origin of the Aids pandemic to the city of Kinshasa in the 1920s, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It all happened in the era of black and white film and the tail-end of the European empires when a "perfect storm" of population growth, sex and railways allowed HIV to spread.
Breakthrough to resignation
There was nothing short of a scandal in medical science this year.
Along the way, her supervisor Prof Yoshiki Sasai was found dead at his laboratory in an apparent suicide.
It was claimed that stem cells - those cells that can become any other and hold great promise in medicine - could be made cheaply and quickly by shocking normal cells in acid.
The development of STAP cells (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) was a front-page story on newspapers around the world and provoked reactions such as "my God that's a game changer" from scientists.
Yet it was simply too good to be true.
Researchers coming together on message boards quickly became suspicious that the results had been faked.
Dr Obokata was found guilty of misconduct and no other research group in the world has been able to reproduce her findings.
Womb transplant baby
It was another medical first as 2014 said hello to the first baby born using a transplanted womb.
The 36-year-old mother was born without a uterus, but received the organ donation from a friend who had gone through the menopause.
The womb was transplanted for a year before doctors felt comfortable enough to attempt a pregnancy by implanting an embryo that had been produced through IVF.
A premature, but healthy, boy was born eight months later.
The achievement at the University of Gothenburg raises hopes for other women left without a functioning womb after cancer treatment or because of birth defects.
On a slightly different note, four women have had new vaginas grown for them in the laboratory.
A biodegradable tubular scaffold was designed to be the right size and shape for each woman.
A small biopsy from the poorly developed vulva in each woman was used to grow a large batch of cells in the laboratory.
Muscle cells were attached to the outside of the scaffold and vaginal-lining cells to the inside.
All women reported normal levels of "desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction" after the vaginas were implanted.
In two of the women, the vagina was connected to the uterus giving them a chance of becoming pregnant.
Sugar or fat?
Fat is the big bad guy in our diets right? Maybe not.
Swapping butter for a sunflower spread may not lower chances of a heart attack after all, according to one study this year.
Meanwhile there has been a sustained fight against sugar.
The World Health Organization has toughened it's stance on sugar saying recommended sugar intake should be fewer than 10% of total calorie intake a day, but people should really be aiming for 5%.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, in England, took a similar stance.
It would mean one 330ml can of fizzy pop would take a typical adult up to the proposed 5% daily allowance, without factoring in sugar from any other source.
Body clock warning
Scientists from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey universities joined forces as part of the BBC's Day of the Body Clock to warn society had become "supremely arrogant" in ignoring the importance of sleep.
They said cancer, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, infections and obesity have all been linked to reduced sleep.
Yet people and governments were failing to take the problem seriously.
Earlier in the year studies showed night shifts throw the body "into chaos".
The damaging effect of light in the evening has also been one of the themes of the year.
A US study compared book and light-emitting e-readers to show that people using the latter take longer to nod off, have less deep sleep and are more tired the next morning.
And bedrooms light enough to see across were linked to an increased risk of weight-gain.
A whole, functioning, organ was grown from scratch inside an animal for the first time by scientists.
A group of cells were genetically reprogrammed to become thymus cells and were mixed with other support-role cells and placed inside a mouse.
Once inside, the bunch of cells developed into a functional thymus and produced a component of the immune system, called T-cells, which fight infection.
The researchers said: "This is a very exciting advance and it's also very tantalising in terms of the wider field of regenerative medicine."
Unique testes...and odds and ends
In 2014, science has shown:
- the testes are the most distinct type of human tissue
- there are specialist nerve cells for each of the five taste categories - salty, bitter, sour, sweet and umami
- our ancestors had healthier gums than we do
- central heating makes you fat, supposedly
And here's a New Year's resolution for you...give up on handshakes, after all they spread far more bacteria than fist-bumps.