The pandemic wasn't the only area we saw progress as it relates to global health — but it was the catalyst for a number of the good news stories we're celebrating here!
While mRNA vaccine technology had been in the works for years, COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity for scientists to put their years of research to work on a global scale. And the success of the vaccines in preventing severe infections led to progress on the development of mRNA vaccines for other deadly diseases — including cancer and Lyme disease.
And while we don't like to pick favorite good news stories, one of our team's favorite pieces of global health good news was when the WHO approved the world's first-ever malaria vaccine! Global health inequalities are heartbreaking, frustrating, and preventable — we were thrilled to celebrate the news that a vaccine for a disease that mostly impacts lower-income individuals in Africa was finally approved! It will save so many lives.
Amputations have dramatically decreased in Yukon thanks to a new frostbite treatment
Doctors in Canada grade frostbite conditions from one to four — with four being the worst, where they expect 100% of cases to result in amputations.
Thanks to a new treatment approach pioneered by a pair of doctors including Dr. Alex Poole, who told the CBC: "We've got that down to 50 [percent]. And we've not had to have any amputations on our grade twos and threes."
They started using a drug called Iloprost, which Poole and his colleague, pharmacist Josianne Gauthier found can prevent tissue from dying and help it heal. They've also used it on occasion in with thrombolytics, which are used for blood clots.
"[Iloprost] opens up the blood vessels and restores the blood flow to the extremities. So it helps prevent amputation," Gauthier said.
They published an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal outlining their new approach — and to their surprise, the entire country was in need of innovations to treat extreme frostbite.
"So that's been very satisfying with our work so far, is that we sort of had an influence across the entire country for frostbite care, hopefully saving some fingers and toes along the way," Poole said.
Initial results of a groundbreaking new HIV prevention vaccine showed a 97% success rate
A new, groundbreaking vaccine approach for the prevention of HIV was 97% successful in the first phase of human trials, reported IAVI and Scripps Research.
According to the research organizations, the vaccine "successfully stimulated the production of the rare immune cells needed to generate antibodies against HIV in 97% of participants."
HIV affects more than 38 million people around the world and is among the most difficult viruses to target with a vaccine, largely because of its unusually fast mutation rate, allowing it to constantly evolve and evade the immune system.
“This is a tremendous achievement for vaccine science as a whole,” said Dr Dennis Burton, professor and chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research. “This clinical trial has shown that we can drive immune responses in predictable ways to make new and better vaccines, and not just for HIV. We believe this type of vaccine engineering can be applied more broadly, bringing about a new day in vaccinology.”
The results of this study make way for more clinical trials to refine and extend the approach — with the long-term goal of creating a safe and effective HIV vaccine.
This is incredible news and great progress to celebrate in the fight against HIV! Additionally, the scientists working on the vaccine say it could help with other challenging pathogens like Zika and malaria.
→ Read the best Paul Farmer quotes on global health, equity, and making a difference
A groundbreaking new mosquito trial has resulted in 77% fewer cases of dengue fever
In a groundbreaking new trial, scientists used mosquitos infected with "Wolbachia" bacteria, which doesn't harm the mosquito itself, but does stop the dengue virus from going where it needs to replicate and infect someone.
One of the researchers, Dr. Katie Anders, describes the bacteria as "naturally miraculous."
The trial used five million mosquito eggs infected with Wolbachia. Eggs were placed in buckets of water in the city every two weeks, and building up a bacteria-infected population of mosquitoes took nine months.
The results: 77% fewer cases of dengue fever, and an 86% reduction in people needing to visit the hospital.
Dr. Anders, who is also the director of impact assessment at the World Mosquito Programme, told the BBC, "This result is groundbreaking. We think it can have an even greater impact when it is deployed at scale in large cities around the world, where dengue is a huge public health problem."
Dengue is also known as "break-bone fever" — it causes severe pain in muscles and bones, and outbreaks can overwhelm hospitals. In 1970, nine countries had faced severe dengue outbreaks — today, there are up to 400 million infections annually.
This is really good news in addressing this problem that impacts millions of people around the world!
BioNTech just gave the first dose in Phase II of its mRNA cancer vaccine trial
BioNTech, the company that helped develop one of the COVID-19 vaccines, just announced they gave the first dose in Phase II of their mRNA cancer vaccine trial targeting late-stage melanoma cancers.
The mRNA vaccine targets the four most common antigens found in more than 90% of melanoma patients.
“Our vision is to harness the power of the immune system against cancer and infectious diseases. We were able to demonstrate the potential of mRNA vaccines in addressing Covid-19. We must not forget, that cancer is also a global health threat, even worse than the current pandemic,” said BioNTech’s co-founder and CMO, Dr. Özlem Türeci with the announcement.
As you may remember, BioNTech had been working with mRNA vaccine technology for years, and put their research on hold to help use it to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
They're hoping to use the advancements in the technology made during the COVID-19 development to make a cancer vaccine.
England is rolling out a new blood test that can detect 50 types of early-stage cancers
A new blood test will soon be rolled out by NHS England — it can detect 50 different types of cancer before any clinical signs or symptoms of the disease emerge in someone.
Scientists developed the test using a type of artificial intelligence that looks for DNA shed by tumors circulating in the blood stream. The results of the study, published in the journal Annals of Oncology, showed a high level of accuracy and low levels of false positives.
The test correctly identified when cancer was present in 51.5% of cases, across all stages of the disease, and incorrectly detected cancer in just 0.5% of cases. It also correctly detected which tissue in the body the cancer was located in 88.7% of cases.
“Finding cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be successful, is one of the most significant opportunities we have to reduce the burden of cancer. These data suggest that, if used alongside existing screening tests, the multi-cancer detection test could have a profound impact on how cancer is detected and, ultimately, on public health," Dr. Eric Klein, one of the authors on the research told The Guardian.
Detecting cancer in its earliest stages offers the best chance for successful treatment — and this blood test could help make that possible in even more cases!
NHS England will start rolling out the test this fall.
The WHO just approved the world’s first malaria vaccine
The World Health Organization just approved the world's first-ever vaccine to prevent malaria. Malaria kills about 500,000 people each year — almost all of them in sub-Saharan Arica, and more than half of them children under 5 years old.
In clinical trials, the vaccine had about a 50% efficacy against severe malaria in the first year. While the trials didn't measure the vaccine's impact on preventing death, severe malaria makes up about half of malaria deaths, so experts expect that preventing severe malaria will lead to fewer deaths.
A study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, estimated that if the vaccine rolled out to countries with the most malaria cases, it could prevent 5.4 million cases and 23,000 deaths in children under 5 every year.
Scientists have been working on a vaccine for malaria — a parasite, more complex to treat than viruses or bacteria — for 100 years. It can infect people over and over, and even in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where most people sleep under insecticide-treated mosquito nets, children get malaria 6 times a year on average, according to a study published by the National Library of Medicine. And even if the case isn't fatal, it leaves them weak and vulnerable to other diseases.
“This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.”
A new study in England found the HPV vaccine has lowered cervical cancer cases by 87%
A new study — and the first based on real-world data! — in England found that the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine is cutting cases of cervical cancer by 87%.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women around the world, and kills more than 300,000 women every year, according to reporting by the BBC.
Additionally, around 9 out of every 10 deaths are in low- and middle-income countries cervical cancer screenings are scarcely accessible.
Since nearly all cervical cancers are caused by viruses, experts hope that vaccination could nearly eliminate the disease — and that vaccination would have an even bigger impact in low- and middle-income countries.
Cancer Research UK called the findings "historic", and that it showed the vaccine was saving lives. More than 100 countries have started using the vaccine.
We're celebrating this incredible news — and yet another good medical breakthrough that will save so many lives.
A new mRNA vaccine targeting ticks could protect people against Lyme and other tick-borne diseases
A new laboratory-stage mRNA vaccine that teaches the immune system to recognize the saliva from tick bites could prevent these bugs from feeding on and transmitting Lyme and other tick-borne diseases to people, according to a recent study conducted in the Fikrig Lab at the Yale School of Medicine.
After observing that some animals who aren't typically hosts for ticks (like guinea pigs and cows) were able to develop tick immunity, the scientists conducting the study were curious if they could induce tick immunity without tick bites.
As one of the study's team members wrote in The Conversation, the scientists developed an mRNA vaccine called 19ISP that teaches cells to recognize 19 selected proteins present in the spit that Ixodes scapularis, also known as the deer or black-legged tick, leaves on the skin during a bite.
AIDS-related deaths have declined by 60% since their peak in 2003
Today is World AIDS Day! Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) interfere with the body’s immune system, increasing the risk of developing common infections.
HIV/AIDS is a pandemic that, as of 2018, affects nearly 40 million people worldwide, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Between the early 1980s — the time that AIDS was identified — and 2018, the disease caused an estimated 32 million deaths worldwide.
Not only does HIV/AIDS have major health consequences, but it’s also closely associated with discrimination, including violence against HIV-infected individuals.
There is no cure or vaccine (yet), but thanks to medical advances, treatment can slow the course of the disease and may lead to a near-normal life expectancy. And organizations like The Global Fund and (RED) have led the way in advocacy and fundraising that have led to a dramatic decrease in deaths worldwide.
AIDS-related deaths have declined by 60% since their peak in 2003, and the number of babies born each day with HIV has declined by more than two-thirds since 2000.
Header illustration by Giovanni Maki, Public Library of Science / (CC BY 2.5)