As the sun starts to sets on 2017, we take some time to reflect on the remarkable breakthroughs that were presented in medical research this year. Here, we'll retrace our steps from January through December, revisiting the studies on Medical News Today that piqued your interest and sparked debate.
This year certainly hasn't fallen short of major events. In politics, January witnessed Donald Trump sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, while March saw the United Kingdom trigger article 50 to leave the European Union.
From hurricanes to floods and earthquakes to landslides, this year has seen its fair share of natural disasters. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria wreaked havoc in the Caribbean islands, the Florida Keys, and the Texas coastline, while earthquakes and landslides killed hundreds in Mexico and Colombia.
2017 also saw the rise of the fidget spinner — a craze that toy analysts say took just 3 weeks to cross the Atlantic and go global — with at least 19 million sold during the first 6 months of 2017.
Clinical research has also progressed at lightning speed. Some very surprising findings have been unearthed, such as the process responsible for hair loss and gray hairs and that type 2 diabetes may be transmissible in a similar way to disorders such as mad cow disease.
So, here is a highly condensed compilation of the most popular peer-reviewed studies covered by MNT in 2017.
Debunking diet myths
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020
Many diets claim to offer the best solution, but research tends to swing back to consuming a balanced diet and taking part in exercise as regularly as possible to maintain good health.
One of the most popular news articles of the year provides further evidence to support the importance of including fruits and vegetables in a balanced diet.
That research concluded that boosting your intake of fruits and vegetables may improve psychological well-being in just 2 weeks.
Participants who upped their consumption of fruits and vegetables to 3.7 servings per day over the duration of 2 weeks experienced significant enhancements in motivation, flourishing, and vitality.
MNT also covered several studies that debunked popular diet beliefs and examined the potential side effects of gluten-free diets.
Findings contrary to popular belief
Much of what we know about diet has been turned on its head or challenged by science in 2017.
As a nation, we have been led to believe that saturated fat clogs the arteries and leads to coronary heart disease. An editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, however, deemed this pipe-clogging notion as "just plain wrong."
Other research led by the University of Connecticut in Mansfield found that clogged arteries might, in fact, be down to bacteria — not diet. Researchers revealed that the fat molecules located in the plaques that build up in the arteries might not only come from the foods we eat, but also from bacteria that reside in our mouths and guts.
For the most part, the medical community will paint "good" cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, as desirable because it may protect against stroke and heart disease. Research published in August, however, found that HDL cholesterol could heighten the risk of premature death.
The link between salt intake and high blood pressure has also been called into question. One study presented at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting, held in Chicago, IL, demonstrated that there is no evidence to suggest that a diet lower in sodium is beneficial for blood pressure.
People with celiac disease or who are intolerant to gluten often benefit from consuming a gluten-free diet. However, many people without these conditions often adopt a gluten-free diet in the hope that it will benefit their health in some way.
New research in 2017 has suggested that diets unnecessarily low in gluten may have undesirable consequences. Gluten-free diets may raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and deprive people of heart-healthy whole grains, which are thought to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Furthermore, gluten-free diets may increase exposure to toxic metals. Rice flour is typically used as a gluten substitute and can bioaccumulate arsenic and mercury from water, soil, and fertilizers. And, researchers found that among people following a gluten-free diet, their blood levels of mercury were 70 percent higher and arsenic levels in urine nearly twice as high.
Even a little exercise provides benefits
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
A study covered by MNT in September found that achieving the recommended minutes of exercise over 5 days of the week, in segments of 30 minutes for each session, could prevent 1 in 12 deaths and 1 in 20 cases of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.
In an ideal world, everyone would aim to meet or exceed the recommended amount of physical activity to stay fit and healthy. For those of us who are too busy or have too many commitments to fit in all 150 minutes, a batch of studies brings news that even a small amount of activity can benefit our health.
Research has also shown that compared with being inactive, walking for just 2 hours per week is linked to a lower risk of all-cause mortality. What is more, just 1 hour of exercise each week can help to prevent depression, and only 20 minutes of exercise reduces the body's inflammatory response.
In December, a review of existing studies provided evidence that a single bout of physical activity can protect the heart from cardiovascular disease through a mechanism called "cardiovascular preconditioning."
Regardless of how much time you can dedicate to exercise, even a little can offer some benefits. Regular exercise that meets or exceeds the guidelines can provide even more.
Could intermittent fasting tackle obesity?
In addition to diet and exercise, weight loss strategies have proven to be a popular topic in 2017 to fuel the battle against obesity. Our readers have been interested in the most effective techniques for weight loss, with intermittent fasting topping the charts among the most read weight loss articles.
Intermittent fasting involves switching between periods of fasting and non-fasting and could be a novel way to tackle the global obesity epidemic.
This diet type has been shown to impart many benefits, such as reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, protecting nerve cells from certain types of damage, slowing aging, and reducing the risk of age-related diseases.
In October, a research team led by the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, published a paper that set out to examine the molecular changes that underpin the effects of intermittent fasting.
Mice were divided into two groups: one was an intermittent fasting group and the other one was a control group. The intermittent fasting mice were given no food for a day and then fed for 2 days, while the control group was fed daily.
These feeding patterns were continued over 4 months and, overall, the mice consumed the same amount of calories.
At the end of the study, the intermittent fasting mice weighed significantly less than the control group. Furthermore, among the intermittent fasting group, glucose metabolism was more stable, their livers were healthier, and they had a lower percentage of white fat as it had been converted into brown fat.
Brown fat burns energy and could be a potential candidate for treating obesity and other metabolic diseases.
When a similar experiment was conducted in obese mice, the researchers observed the same benefits after just 6 weeks of intermittent fasting.
Physiological and metabolic changes were found to trigger the benefits in the intermittent fasting group, the root of which appeared to be alterations in immune-related gene pathways within fat cells.
During fasting, there was an increase in vascular growth factor, which contributes to the formation of blood vessels and the release of anti-inflammatory macrophages. These enable fat cells to burn fat stores and reduce inflammation.
At the less extreme end of the scale, research by the University of Tasmania in Australia found that taking a 2-weeks-on and 2-weeks-off approach to dieting may help to boost weight loss and keep weight stable.
Advances in cancer research
Every single year, thousands of cancer research projects release illuminating papers, and 2017 was no exception. And, as with previous years, there have been many fascinating breakthroughs in the quest to find new strategies to prevent and treat cancer.
Scientists are continually studying the most effective ways to kill off cancer cells, and a handful of groundbreaking methods have entered the spotlight in the past 12 months. Two of these methods trigger a response from the body's immune system to fight off cancer.
Another cancer-killing technique heralded as more effective than convention cancer therapies is a process called caspase-independent cell death (CICD).
When cancer cells die from CICD, the immune system will swoop in to destroy any remaining ones that managed to evade CICD. When this method was tested in the laboratory on colorectal cancer tumors, almost all cancer cells were killed.
Cancer's ability to metastasize — or break away from one body part and spread to other areas — is a major hindrance in the treatment of cancer. Researchers have gained new insight in 2017 on how metastasis might be stopped.
A metabolite called 20-HETE was examined as a target for preventing the spread of cancer. 20-HETE provides cancer with everything it needs to up sticks and move to a new site.
One study published in PLOS ONE of mice with cancer cells in their mammary fat pad found that injecting a molecule known as HET0016 inhibited the actions of 20-HETE and prevented cancer cells from moving freely within just 48 hours.
Scientists have pursued the elixir of life this year by analyzing ways to reverse aging. In fact, a study published in BMC Cell Biology showed that chemicals similar to resveratrol — which is a substance found in dark chocolate and red wine — could rejuvenate old cells. The substance not only made the old cells appear younger, but it also caused them to divide again like young cells.
"When I saw some of the cells in the culture dish rejuvenating I couldn't believe it. These old cells were looking like young cells. It was like magic."
Lead study author Dr. Eva Latorre, University of Exeter, U.K.
In July, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, NY, led a study alongside a team of specialists that investigated how stem cells found in a brain region called the hypothalamus might play a part in how swiftly humans age.
Brain stem cells steadily decline with time, which affects the speed of the aging process. A team of researchers found that by adding a fresh supply of stem cells to the hypothalami of mice, the aging process was reversed.
A step closer to reversing multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling autoimmune disease that affects around 2.3 million people globally. In MS, the immune system attacks the coating that protects the nerves, which causes communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body.
Treatments currently focus on preventing the immune system from wreaking further havoc, but, right now, no drugs are available to aid in the repair of myelin.
Locating therapies that could rebuild damaged myelin would be a giant leap in MS research. And, according to studies published in 2017, these may be just around the corner.
MNT covered a study published in The Lancet in October that examined the effect of the allergy drug clemastine fumarate in people with long-standing MS.
In short, clemastine fumarate improved the functioning of the nervous system by increasing the speed of the neural signals between the eye and the back of the brain. There is also substantial evidence that re-myelination may have occurred.
A clinical trial led by the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute and the Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital in Denver, CO, revealed that long-term remission in MS might be achieved by "resetting" the immune system.
Individuals with relapsing-remitting MS were treated with high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation. The group was assessed 5 years after treatment, and the scientists found that 69 percent of them had remained in remission with no relapses, disability progression, or new brain lesions.
Decreasing the risk of diabetes
Research published in October brought to light that children who are susceptible to type 1 diabetes could see their risk of the condition plummet by upping their intake of vitamin D — the "sunshine vitamin," which is also present in fatty fish, cheese, and egg yolks.
Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented?
While it is apparent that there is unlikely to be one single method to prevent Alzheimer's disease, unraveling the risk factors for Alzheimer's disease enables researchers to determine ways that people can reduce their risk of the condition.
Scientists from universities in both the U.K. and Switzerland devised a vaccine that may prevent Alzheimer's disease.
In a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease, the vaccine raised the level of antibodies that are thought to safeguard against neurological diseases.
A set of studies this year considered green tea, strawberries, and extra-virgin olive oil in the fight against Alzheimer's.
A green tea polyphenol called epigallocatechin gallate was found to stop the formation of beta-amyloid plaques that are present in Alzheimer's disease by meddling with the function of beta-amyloid oligomers.
Extra-virgin olive oil has also been examined under the microscope in Alzheimer's prevention strategies.
A study published in the journal Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology demonstrated that extra-virgin olive oil might protect the brain from symptoms of Alzheimer's by preserving areas of the brain involved in communication among neurons and increasing the autophagy activation of nerve cells in brain tissue.
The rise of gene editing
Gene editing has proven to be an area of considerable interest in 2017. Teams have experimented with gene editing in recent years as a means to eliminate gene mutations that cause disease.
Research published by international researchers in August unveiled a significant breakthrough in the gene editing arena. For the first time, scientists used gene editing to repair a disease-causing mutation in a human embryo: an experiment that was successful and hailed as a significant step forward in the prevention of inherited diseases.
"Every generation on would carry this repair because we've removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family's lineage. By using this technique, it's possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population."
Senior study author Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Ph.D., Oregon Health & Science University in Portland
Potential treatments for depression
A study that was published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics looked into how well the current depression therapies work and came to the conclusion that although treatments benefit the condition in the short-term, in the long-term, they might exacerbate depression.
If the present treatment lines are not the answer for depression, then what is? Researchers have examined a number of potential treatment strategies for depression over the past 12 months.
Individuals that do not respond to conventional therapies, for example, may find the psychoactive compound in mushrooms helpful, according to research by Imperial College London in the U.K.
Choosing low-fat over full-fat dairy products could also keep the symptoms of depression at bay, suggested a team from Tohoku University in Japan.
Effects of marijuana investigated
As with most years in medical research, marijuana has sparked debate and discussion in 2017, with researchers studying its positive and negative effects.
While cannabinoids — the active compounds in marijuana — have been acknowledged as possible treatments for preventing migraines, reversing cognitive decline, improving schizophrenia-specific cognitive impairment, and reducing seizures in epilepsy, scientists have also unearthed an equal amount of adverse side effects.
In contrast to other research, the University of Tsukuba in Japan found that cannabinoids might, in fact, trigger seizures.
Furthermore, studies have discovered that marijuana use may be worse than smoking cigarettes for heart health and lead to greater psychosis risk among teenagers, as well as raise the risk of heart failure and stroke.
That concludes our brief jaunt through the year of 2017 in medical research. No doubt 2018 will open up more routes of intrigue, debate, and discovery. MNT will deliver you the most recent findings as they are revealed.
We wish you all a Happy New Year!