From the emergence of Zika and the legalization of marijuana to the ongoing opioid epidemic and the skyrocketing cost of the EpiPen, 2016 was a year packed with big shifts in the country’s health landscape.
2017 promises to hold yet more changes, including new advances in high-tech medicine and the surprising comeback of some older remedies.
CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus talked about the medical innovations that could be right around the corner on “CBS This Morning” Wednesday.
“We saw the rise this year, over and over again, of the ability to use an enzyme called CRISPR to change one letter of the 3 billion letters in the DNA code,” he said.
CRISPR could be used to help eliminate diseases like sickle cell anemia, scientists hope.
“We may be able to actually change [it] before the child is born. Or in an adult, imagine taking the T cells, which is where HIV infects, and changing them so that HIV can’t get in. This is going to be a major advance going forward,” Agus said.
How soon could patients actually receive CRISPR treatments?
“Clinical trials are going to be ongoing this year, so we’re going to see lots of announcements about it,” he said.
The technology is being applied to plants, too. “The first CRISPR food products are actually on the shelves. There are mushrooms out there. So this is a technology that is coming into prime time,” said Agus.
But CRISPR could be a “slippery slope.” While it has the potential to cure devastating diseases, scientists say it could potentially be misused – to make someone taller, faster, smarter.
“The potential for taking advantage of it is clearly there,” Agus said.
Wearable medical devices
More and more people are donning health devices to track everything from the number of steps we take in a day, to our heart rate and our blood pressure 24/7.
“It really is the quantified self,” said Agus, who noted that this week the CES 2017 technology show in Las Vegas is featuring some of the newest innovations in the wearable health device field.
“We’re going to start to measure things like insulin, glucose – your sugar levels – through the skin. And so this is a year that we’re going to see an explosion of devices to learn about ourselves.”
But with it will likely come more risk for hacking of our personal health data, he warns.
“It’s a major issue. The FDA yesterday announced guidelines to prevent the hacking, but clearly, the ability to hack is there. We all have to be aware of it and companies really have to step up and build in the safety precautions so it doesn’t happen,” Agus said.
Illegal drugs in mainstream medicine?
“Over the last decade, the science community has started to use things like MDMA (ecstasy) to treat PTSD and the data are it’s working. And so these drugs that have been used for recreation are now finding medicinal purposes,” Agus said.
Among the drugs scientists are exploring for possible therapeutic use:
Marijuana – pain and nausea
LSD – suicidal behavior
Psychedelic mushrooms – cancer pain and anxiety
Kratom – memory and focus
“It’s exciting that there are new weapons in our armory to fight disease… it turns out that these happen to be recreational drugs,” Agus said.
Climate and health
Agus also said to be on the lookout for health issues impacted by climate change.
“We’re seeing that this is the hottest year on record and when that happens, the bacteria change, the viruses change,” he said.
A decline in air quality is linked to asthma and allergies. Climate change also impacts crops, and could alter or imperil the food supply. And with hotter weather come more vector-born diseases — Zika virus, Lyme disease, West Nile virus and others transmitted by mosquitoes or ticks could spread farther and faster.
“Climate change is going to affect our health,” Agus said.