Prominent medical news stories in 2015 have featured Alzheimer's disease, autism, "female Viagra" and the possibility of head transplants.
Well, there was one Internet phenomenon that called for answers from medical science - that of "the dress" - and tropical disease was certainly newsworthy again in 2015.
But what really broke through in medicine this year?
Below is a list of just some of the areas of medicine that have seen interesting developments over the course of 2015.
Jump to selected topics highlighted here (or scroll through the article for the full list of topics in alphabetical order):
- Dementia and Alzheimer's disease
- Fertility and IVF
- Lifestyle effects on health
- Mental health
Head-turning medical news
Whatever your area of interest, one set of headlines was particularly striking in 2015, centering on developments that for the first time brought into the realm of reality the incredible idea of a complete head transplant.
Could 2016 witness the world's first head transplant following developments that occurred this year?
Dr. Sergio Canavero first tantalized the world with the prospect back in February, saying it could be possible to overcome the last remaining challenges of reconnecting the severed spinal cord and preventing total immune rejection of the new head - small obstacles, naturally.
Now, "head transplant" is the correct description if you take the view of the body accepting a new head - immunologically speaking it is the body, not the head, that decides whether to accept or reject.
A better description may be "body transplant" - for the medical reality in question concerns people whose heads are trapped with their completely disabled bodies, and who would opt to have their head transplanted onto a new, healthy (but deceased) donated body.
Could 2016 possibly be the year that a human head transplant actually takes place? And if it could, would the headlines about head or body transplants worry us in terms of the decisions over who of those among us could, or could not, be considered eligible?
Groundbreaking medical news
The test of whether or not a news story in medicine truly relates to a groundbreaking development cannot usually be applied in full until after a number of years.
To find out, ask whether there has there been a change to clinical practice. Has the development changed the way that health and disease are managed in the everyday medical setting?
These are the developments that overturn scientific understanding or change medical practice and, therefore, find their way into MNT's updates, to one of the Knowledge Center topics.
We hope you enjoy the rest of this overview for the past year's medical headlines, and it comes with all our best wishes for the holidays and the new year ahead.
It is a problem that England's counterpart - its chief medical officer - has been warning will result in minor and routine surgical operations becoming high-risk procedures. But research is making some strides against the issue:
- Antibiotic breakthrough may lead to the end of drug-resistant superbugs - by finding a way to culture bacteria from the soil, scientists unlocked a previously elusive source of potential antibiotics
- Antibiotic resistance genes found in bacteria of remote South American tribe - this story also looked at bacteria themselves as the source of strategies to kill other bacteria, finding that their natural ability to resist antibiotic compounds was present in their genes thousands of years before today's drugs
- Maple syrup helps antibiotics defeat bacteria - could maple syrup extract one day be incorporated in antibiotic capsules? One study found its phenolic compounds weakened bacterial defenses to antibiotics.
Medical research has been driven for years to reach a full understanding of what causes autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), during which time there has been controversy about various factors becoming linked to the spectrum of disorders.
New studies have added to the growing body of research linking genetics with autism spectrum disorder.
One area that has shown consistency, though, is genetic risk, and adding to the body of science in 2015 were two studies:
- How a gene mutation can cause autism - knowing that genetic studies have been linking about 1,000 genes to autism, one group of scientists published details in August of exactly how mutating one of these genes can lead to the disorder
- New study identifies epigenetic signatures - this research mapped some genetic patterns in paternal DNA that could be linked to autism in offspring. The scientists publishing in April already knew there was a higher genetic risk in the children studied because they had an older sibling from the same father already diagnosed with autism.
On the same news day of the latter study, a separate paper was published that had investigated diagnostic delays in autism. This was news that children with ASD were not diagnosed on average until 5 years of age - almost 3 years after parents in the study voiced concerns to health care professionals.
There was good news in ASD diagnostics and care, however, with claims of an "autism discovery." Brain imaging revealed language development differences that could predict those 1-year-olds who would develop along the autism spectrum with poor language abilities versus those who would develop good communication.
Firmer evidence that many young children with autism show gut symptoms may also improve care, alerting health care professionals to the comorbidities potentially accompanying ASD.
Gut links in autism
A correlation between having autism and showing gut symptoms does not prove a causal link between the two. The last story immediately above makes it tempting to think otherwise.
If gastrointestinal (GI) problems and autism do prove to be related, is this a causal link, and if so, what is the main direction of the cause? Is it a case of GI problems leading to autism, or autism leading to GI problems?
One very popular story in 2015 was that of a father being inspired after his child's autism improved following a course of antibiotics.
Again, cause is far from proven by a correlation in one child, especially when observed by a father, John Rodakis, who is passionate about researching such a link.
But Rodakis outlines that ASD "frustrates parents" when it comes to definitions, causes and care, and he believes a number of such "clinical trials of one" could contribute to the exploration of whether gut bacteria do play a role in ASD.
Skip to the year's top stories about gut bacteria concerning other conditions.
- Cure for rare form of color blindness steps closer - novel insights into two genetic mutations that may be a cause of a rare form of color blindness called achromatopsia.
- "Bionic" eye allows man to see wife for first time in a decade - device sends light signals directly to the optic nerve.
- World first: man with AMD receives bionic eye implant - an 80-year-old with dry age-related macular degeneration has some vision restored.
- Telescopic contact lens shows promise for age-related macular degeneration - researchers combine a telescopic contact lens with "smart" glasses that look like normal eyewear.
Every year brings a raft of new developments in cancer, and these past 12 months have been no exception, including:
- Groundbreaking treatment uses herpes to combat skin cancer
- New drug delivery device "could transform cancer treatment"
- Prostate cancer survival may be prolonged by brachytherapy
- Cancer cells "disguise themselves as immune cells."
It is well known in pathology that cancers arise out of a mix of genetic accidents and environmental triggers (or, rarely, genetic faults are inherited). Medical news is usually dominated by the external influences on cancer risk, often asking what is the latest risk factor that could be worth reducing?
One of the major cancer stories of 2015, however, was that it may be possible that up to two thirds of neoplasms are attributable to random DNA mutations during cell division, with no obvious environmental cause. The study suggested, in other words, that 22 of 31 cancer types were largely down to bad luck.
The findings were so striking that they prompted other researchers to take a different approach to the analysis, which reached a contradictory headline conclusion, that most cancer cases were "not caused by bad luck."
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization stated that the consumption of processed meats could cause colorectal cancer.
Nonetheless, even in avoidable cases of cancer, avoidance is not always that easy - and some cases of cancer are still down to pure bad luck.
Further, scientists often need to have observed lots of cancer cases before being able to spot the links with any risk factors. Many of the external cancer factors may be as yet unknown.
It is a complex disease, which is not made clearer by the fact that even known carcinogens do not always lead to a cancer, and some cancers firmly linked to a carcinogen are not always caused by it.
An example of this is that some smokers do not get lung cancer, and some lung cancers are in people who have never smoked.
But it is common sense to leave the statistics aside and simply avoid making a choice that is known to increase risk.
The newly asserted links that came in 2015 included the one from the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring that eating processed meats raised the risk of colorectal cancer, and from the study linking increased sitting time with breast and ovarian cancer risks.
- Aspirin may double survival for cancer patients
- How can aspirin help to cure cancer?
- Could daily aspirin prevent breast cancer?
If you worship your daily coffee, you would be delighted with its regular appearance in the medical news, more often than not for positive reasons, as covered in the next section. Meanwhile, its benefits were also cited in cancer news articles this year:
- Daily coffee could improve survival for colon cancer patients
- Coffee consumption linked with reduced melanoma risk
- Study links coffee intake with reduced risk of endometrial cancer.
Drinking coffee may fall into the lifestyle category below, but it gets its own separate mention here because every year it never fails to be the subject of numerous research studies. It made some of the headlines in the cancer section immediately above, and here are more key developments involving coffee from 2015:
- Could coffee drinking habits influence cognitive function?
- How an evening coffee can disrupt our body clock
- Coffee intake linked to reduced risk of MS.
For more medical developments concerning what we consume, skip to the section about lifestyle.
Concussion and traumatic brain injury
Receiving extra attention from the medical research community in 2015 was the question of head injury caused by popular sports such as football and fighting, as witnessed by these headlines:
- Brain disease in "95% of deceased NFL players"
- Brain shrinkage, poorer memory "linked to concussion in NFL players"
- Starting football before age 12 linked to poorer memory, thinking
- Pediatricians call for better safety in youth football tackling
- Soccer players heading balls "at increased risk of concussion"
- Fighters' repeated blows "shrink brain and slow processing."
Cystic fibrosis has long been a challenging and life-limiting respiratory condition, but 2015 brought new hope:
- Cystic fibrosis research to benefit from lab-grown "mini-lungs"
- Drug combination could extend CF patients' life
- Gene therapy trial offers hope of treatment.