Medical breakthroughs you may have missed during the pandemic.
With the 2020–21 news cycle hyper-focused on COVID-19, these five advances in medicine went almost unnoticed…
We may look back at 2020 as the year that we quietly turned the corner on Alzheimer’s, thanks to a couple of important breakthroughs in identifying biomarkers, as well as the development of a new drug. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA approved Flortaucipir, a radioactive diagnostic agent used to image tau neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. In October, doctors began using the new PrecivityAD blood test to determine whether a patient is likely to have the presence (or absence) of amyloid plaques in the brain, which is a pathological hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. In early November, the human monoclonal antibody Aducanumab—the first new drug in a generation to treat Alzheimer’s—moved an important step closer to final FDA approval. In addition to these news items, dozens of major non-drug studies on the effects of supplements, diet, exercise and sleep on cognitive decline continued to generate mounds of useful data for the prediction, diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
The Doctor Can See You Now
A couple of years ago, fewer than one in 500 doctor visits in the U.S. were virtual. Although the technology was in place, the impetus for patients, health providers and insurers just wasn’t. That all changed when we began masking up and hunkering down. Around one in 10 interactions fell under the Telehealth heading during the early months of the pandemic. While the healthcare industry is still sorting through the Mt. Everest of new data this shift generated, it is safe to say that Telehealth is no longer a solution looking for a problem to solve. At Trinitas, Telehealth has enabled the adult Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program to serve a larger audience at a critical time.
“Distance from our location does not have to be a barrier any more— explains Essie Larson, Ph.D., and co-director of the DBT Institute at the hospital. “The pandemic also allowed for large-scale research around the world to be conducted on the effectiveness of DBT in a virtual modality. The results are indicating not only great success, but also better attendance rates. While virtual services may not be a fit for everyone, having it as an option for either ongoing therapy or for occasional sessions—due to barriers such as bad weather, illness or car trouble, for example—is wonderful.”
It may have taken a pandemic to provide proof of concept, but Telehealth has become a tool ideally suited for a wide range of challenges to the traditional face-to-face, doctor-patient relationship, including continuity of care, triage and plain old capacity.
Last fall, the American Heart Association proclaimed SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 receptor agonists—blood-sugar control medications that are prescribed primarily for Type 2 diabetes—as being game-changers for patients with higher risks for cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease. “There are many drugs available to treat diabetes that lower the patient’s blood sugar,” says Dr. Ari Eckman, an endocrinologist at Trinitas. “The class of drugs of SGL2 inhibitors and GLP-1 agonists not only lowers the patient’s blood sugar—which is important in managing their diabetes—but it has also been shown to decrease the risk of complications of heart disease and kidney disease. This is an additional benefit to using these excellent medications for patients with diabetes.”
The drugs have been around for over a decade but have not been widely prescribed for diabetics with these conditions. Clinical trials completed earlier in 2020 found that SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 RAs can safely and significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular events and death, reduce hospitalization and slow the progression of chronic to end-stage kidney disease.
Extra Cheese, Please
A large-scale Iowa State University study of the connection between specific foods and later-in-life cognitive acuity confirms what we all secretly suspected: that the benefits of wine and cheese keep paying dividends long after the wine and cheese party is over. Of all the foods evaluated, cheese was shown to be the most protective against age-related cognitive problems. And moderate regular consumption of red wine was associated with improvements in cognitive function. Other tidbits from the Iowa State results were that excessive salt intake is bad, particularly for individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s (we knew that already) and that, among the red meats, only lamb was shown to improve long-term cognitive ability (good news…unless you are a lamb).
Itching for a Solution
Any parent who has dealt with the nightmare of head lice will appreciate the FDA’s approval of Abametapir, a lotion applied to dry hair and rinsed out with water after 10 to 15 minutes. In clinical trials it was 80% effective at ridding the hair of children 6 months and older of the little buggers. Although virtual learning dramatically curtailed the number of cases in the U.S. of kids with head lice—which in some past school years touched 10 million—lice aren’t going anywhere. Indeed, many have started to develop a resistance to tried and true treatments.
“This new treatment,” says Dr. William Farrer, an infectious disease specialist at Trinitas, “requires a prescription, but does not require a second application, as older treatments often do. When it becomes available, it may be a significant improvement in the treatment of head lice.”