Medical research in 2016 was as diverse as it was fascinating.
This year certainly hasn't been lacking in major events; NASA's Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter's orbit, the final videocassette recorder was manufactured in Japan, and the world's longest and deepest traffic tunnel opened underneath the Swiss Alps.
The last 12 months also bore witness to the deaths of a bewildering array of legends, including Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, and Muhammad Ali, to name but a few.
Away from celebrity demises, medical research has been bubbling along at breakneck speed.
This year's findings include the discovery that reading books is linked to a longer lifespan. Also, scientists finally proved that, even if you pick up dropped food within 5 seconds, it is still not safe. According to the researchers, "bacteria can contaminate instantaneously."
What follows is a highly abbreviated list of the most talked about medical research published in 2016 and covered on MNT.
Marijuana as popular as ever
Marijuana's state of legal flux has seen it appear increasingly in the scientific literature. In total, 23 states (and the District of Columbia) have passed laws allowing some level of medicinal use.
A number of MNT articles covering the most recent findings in cannabis research sparked both interest and discussion.
The active ingredient in cannabis - THC - creates the associated "high" by interacting with the CB1 receptor. In October, a study published in the journal Cell added to scientific understanding of how cannabis produces its mind-altering effects by creating a 3-D model of the CB1 receptor.
One of the primary goals of the endeavor was to understand how synthetic cannabinoids work. These drugs, such as K2 and Spice, were responsible for around 8,000 calls to poison centers in the United States in 2015. Understanding their mechanism of action in more detail could save lives.
Because cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in America, studies investigating associated health consequences often gain a great deal of attention. For instance, a study published this year in the American Journal of Medicine linked heavy cannabis use to reduced bone density and increased risk of osteoporosis.
Another study revealed details of how marijuana increases memory loss by activating CB1 receptors in mitochondria.
On a more positive note, Alzheimer's researchers published a study in the Aging and Mechanisms of Disease, backing up findings about cannabis' neuroprotective properties. They found that THC reduced beta-amyloid levels and prevented the death of nerve cells.
The sobering rise of Zika
Sadly, Zika was big news in 2016, and not just within medical research; it is a global concern. Caused by a virus and transmitted primarily by mosquitoes, the disease has relatively vague, flu-like symptoms, such as a low-level fever, rash, muscle and joint pain, and headache.
This year, the Zika virus' ability to interfere with the growing fetus was proven.
However, it has now been linked to microcephaly (a condition where a baby's head is smaller than normal) and Guillain-Barré syndrome (a serious and rare condition affecting the peripheral nervous system).
MNT covered researchers' claims that "up to 1.65 million childbearing women could become infected."
We also wrote about the groundbreaking work at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that described how the Zika virus attacked fetal brains and the confirmation that Zika did indeed cause a range of birth defects.
WHO have now downgraded Zika from a Public Health Emergency, but the troubles are far from over; many scientists are concerned that this change in status will reduce the amount of funding available to researchers delving into the details of this poorly understood disease.
Pokémon Go dramas
Worthy of a brief mention is the furor that surrounded Pokémon Go - a simple but addictive smartphone game that has players roaming around in the real world, on the hunt for cyber creatures. Although fun and, according to some, beneficial to psychological and physical health, it led to a range of unfortunate incidents, including multiple injuries and the discovery of a dead body.
As with every year in science, thousands of cancer research projects produce new and innovative papers. Whether investigating ways to treat cancer or studying how it develops, the findings are always fascinating.
In June, Nature Communications published research that deepened scientific understanding of how cancer cells break away and spread to other areas of the body.
Once cancer departs from its point of origin, it becomes much more difficult to treat. They found that cell surface proteins, called integrins, bind and communicate with their surroundings. These proteins seem to play an important role in the survival of cancer cells once they have left the primary tumor.
The team - from Queen Mary University London in the United Kingdom - produced a video to explain the findings further:
Another cancer-related finding that was heralded as "groundbreaking" was published in Science in March. Researchers from University College London in the U.K. made tentative steps toward an intervention that might be able to coerce a patient's own immune system into destroying cancer cells.
"Our research shows that instead of aimlessly chasing crimes in different neighborhoods, we can give the police the information they need to get to the kingpin at the root of all organized crime - the weak spot in the patient's tumor - to wipe out the problem for good."
Dr. Sergio Quezada, co-author
Industry funding and sugar under the microscope
Industry-funded research came under scrutiny in 2016. One story covered by MNT explained how Coca-Cola and PepsiCo sponsored more than 90 national health organizations between 2011-2015 and campaigned against 28 public health bills.
On a similarly shocking note, we published a Spotlight feature in September of this year explaining how large companies manipulated or manufactured data to ensure that sugar did not get the blame for the increase in heart disease in the 1960s.
The authors concluded:
"Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD [coronary heart disease]."
More generally, sugar's dietary omnipresence has faced increasing scorn. Analyzing data from more than 19,000 American adults, researchers found that swapping a single 8-ounce sugary drink for an 8-ounce serving of water could make a serious reduction in caloric intake and improve overall health.
Further twisting the knife in sugar's ample gut, a study published in Circulation provided further evidence that sugary drinks do indeed increase visceral fat.
The opioid plague
One of this year's more disturbing stories involved opioid abuse; deaths related to opioid pain medication have been described as an epidemic. More than 259 million opioid prescriptions were written in 2012. An estimated 1.9 million Americans are addicted to opioid painkillers, and 80 percent of heroin users started out on opioid painkillers.
Opioids (including heroin) were responsible for the deaths of 28,000 people in 2014.
In response to these deeply worrying statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new prescription guidelines.
Other studies were published that brought the effectiveness of these drugs into question; for instance, one argued that opioids might, in fact, worsen chronic pain.
Of course, the race is on to find less addictive, effective replacements. A study, published in Nature, explains how a team unraveled the atomic structure of the morphine receptor in the brain to create a new drug.
The drug - PZM21 - blocks pain but without the side effects that can lead to death, such as respiratory depression. The compound also appears to be less addictive. The path to curtailing America's opioid addiction is likely to be convoluted, but new compounds such as this could help provide a roadmap.
Exercise, exercise, exercise
This year has seen a continuation of the fitness fad in the Western world. Gym memberships and spandex are more fashionable than they have ever been, which, when viewed against the backdrop of rising obesity rates, is a rather strange contrast.
Research focusing on fitness was as popular as ever in 2016.
A paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in March found that prolonged sitting is responsible for an estimated 3.8 percent of global deaths.
MNT also covered a study revealing that, in older adults, it is fitness - rather than physical activity alone - that will help stave off heart disease and other conditions.
To add into the mix, we covered an AHA study arguing that exercise does not offset the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle, as well as a Lancet study concluding that 1 hour of exercise a day does mitigate the impact of prolonged sitting.
Although much research has been published, the general gist remains the same: exercise should be maximized, sitting should be minimized.
Ongoing statin discourse
Statins - the most popular cholesterol-lowering drugs - were barely out of the news in 2016. Because almost one third of Americans over the age of 40 take statins, there is good reason to scrutinize their benefits and, of course, risks.
One study covered by MNT this year asked whether the potential harm that statins can do has been overstated in the literature. Although the researchers confirmed an increased risk of ischemic stroke, diabetes, and myopathy with statin use, they concluded that the benefits far outweigh the dangers. Co-author Prof. Rory Collins said:
"Our review shows that the numbers of people who avoid heart attacks and strokes by taking statin therapy are very much larger than the numbers who have side effects with it. In addition, whereas most of the side effects can be reversed with no residual effects by stopping the statin, the effects of a heart attack or stroke not being prevented are irreversible and can be devastating."
Another paper, published in JAMA, included a meta-analysis of 49 studies, utilizing a total of 312,175 participants. This, too, concluded that statins should be the first choice for cholesterol-lowering medication. However, they also made it clear that there were other good options available for people who do not tolerate statins well, including therapies that lower cholesterol by increasing expression of LDL receptors, like diet, bile acid sequestrants, and ileal bypass.
Looking at statin dosage, Stanford University School of Medicine released another positive result for statins this year. They found that higher statin doses were linked to lower mortality rates.
Thanks to the incredible quantities of statins that are taken daily, this debate is likely to grind on.
The number of children with a peanut allergy has tripled from 1997-2008. Today, an estimated 3 million people have allergies to peanuts and tree nuts.
With the American penchant for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it is no wonder that new guidelines about when to feed peanuts to infants garnered interest in the U.S.
The new guidelines suggest introducing peanuts as early as 4-6 months. Similarly, another study, published in JAMA, concluded that babies fed peanuts at the age of 4-11 months had a 70 percent lower risk of developing allergies later in life.
No doubt, 2017 will be similarly stocked with medical advances, debates, warnings, and discoveries. True to form, MNT will let you know as they unfold.
Happy New Year!