What research hit the headlines in 2018?
We are about to leave another busy year behind us.
It saw important sports events, natural disasters, and the sad loss of more remarkable people from around the world.
In the United States, some of the top Internet searches included: the 21st World Cup, which was hosted last summer in Russia; Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas in September; and the names of musician Malcolm (Mac) Miller, fashion designer Kat Spade, and chef Anthony Bourdain, all of whom passed away this year.
Another news item of interest, both in the U.S. and around the world, was Prince Harry's wedding with Meghan Markle — now the Duchess of Sussex — in May 2018.
Here at Medical News Today, we have had our own occasion to celebrate; our website became one of the most read health websites in the U.S.
In this Spotlight feature, we give you an overview of some of the most popular medical research that we covered in 2018.
The rise of intermittent fasting diets
Diet- and nutrition-related topics have featured among the top Internet searches of 2018 — and this has also held true for MNT.
Researchers have been studying the benefits of intermittent fasting.
In particular, you have shown a lot of interest in research outlining the benefits of the 16:8 fasting diet.
This is a type of intermittent fasting diet in which a person is free to eat whatever they choose over 8 hours but then must fast during the next 16 hours.
In a study that appeared in the journal Nutrition and Healthy Aging in June, scientists from the University of Illinois at Chicago confirmed that this approach can effectively help people with obesity lose weight.
The study participants, who followed this diet for 12 weeks, had lost 3 percent of their total weight by the end of the study period.
Also, the 16:8 dieting style helped them maintain lower blood pressure. This is important, as obesity is a major risk factor for hypertension (high blood pressure), which can lead to more serious cardiovascular problems.
Another study, this time featured in the journal Obesity in May, suggested that intermittent fasting can actually bring numerous other health benefits. Its authors, based at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, say that this dieting style works by "flipping the metabolic switch."
The fasting periods drive the body to begin burning fats, rather than sugars, to convert them into the energy we need. This is what makes intermittent fasting so effective for weight loss.
However, the authors also speculate that the metabolic processes set in motion by these types of diets could also increase lifespan, protect cognitive function, and reduce inflammation.
Dangerous temptations to avoid
As the holidays are now within our grasp, we may be tempted to give in to various guilty pleasures. "After all, this is just for a few days," we may tell ourselves, "we can get back on track right after the New Year's Eve party."
Studies suggest that we would do well to steer clear of alcohol and e-cigarettes.
That being said, some of the top research from this year has shown just how harmful some of these temptations can be, and how seriously they can impact health.
For instance, one study in the journal Addiction found that drinking alcohol can have more harmful effects than using other controversial stimulants — particularly marijuana.
"[W]hile marijuana may also have some negative consequences, it definitely is nowhere near the negative consequences of alcohol," warns study author Kent Hutchison.
Specifically, long-term alcohol use led to a loss of gray matter volume (which makes up much of the brain), and it also damaged white matter (which contains axons, or the connections between brain cells that allow them to transmit information).
Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have also received a lot of attention this year, amid debates as to whether they are more harmful to health than they are helpful.
When they first became available, manufacturers and advocates hailed e-cigarettes as an easy, safe way to give up smoking.
However, in the meantime, many studies have found that the liquid in e-cigarettes contains toxic substances, also leading to the formation of toxic vapors.
This year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a detailed report reviewing hundreds of scientific papers that analyzed the benefits and risks of using e-cigarettes.
The report notes that there was strong evidence that e-cigarettes contain toxic substances, as well as "conclusive evidence that completely substituting e-cigarettes for combustible tobacco cigarettes reduces users' exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens present in combustible tobacco cigarettes."
However, despite some of the benefits associated with e-cigarette use versus the use of regular cigarettes, the report also found that people who regularly reach for these electronic devices experience almost as much exposure to nicotine as people who smoke regular cigarettes.
This nicotine intake, the authors add, increases users' heart rates. Also, the toxic chemicals released in e-cigarette vapors could cause DNA damage, which may increase the risk of numerous diseases. This includes various forms of cancer.
Such considerations could weigh heavily against e-cigarette manufacturers, which, according to recent news, have just closed a major and controversial deal with some top regular cigarette companies.
What is going on in cancer research?
This year, around 9.6 million people died due to cancer-related causes, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). This makes cancer research one of the top priorities worldwide.
Specialists have been devising more efficient ways of diagnosing and treating cancer.
When it comes to cancer, obstacles are present from the get-go. Diagnosing any type of cancer can be a long and difficult process, which can delay the prescription of an appropriate treatment.
A quick and accurate diagnosis could thus help accelerate treatment delivery and improve outcomes.
In order to reach this goal, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, developed a brand new blood test called CancerSEEK. They reported their process in the journal Science.
This test, they state, is highly sensitive and able to detect eight types of cancer — breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, and esophageal cancer — with a moderate to high degree of accuracy.
It is the most precise when it comes to detecting ovarian cancer, which it can help diagnose with 98 percent accuracy.
The authors explain that the new blood test identifies specific cancer biomarkers, such as telling genetic mutations, and the presence of proteins associated with different types of cancer.
Other research this year focused on finding better ways to stop cancer in its tracks. One study from the Stanford University School of Medicine in California — the findings of which appeared in Science Translational Medicine — tested a new cancer-destroying injection in mice.
Only one shot, the authors say, is needed to boost specialized immune cell activity and extirpate solid cancer tumors.
"Our approach uses a one-time application of very small amounts of two agents to stimulate the immune cells only within the tumor itself," explains study author Dr. Ronald Levy.
"This approach bypasses the need to identify tumor-specific immune targets and doesn't require wholesale activation of the immune system or customization of a patient's immune cells."
Dr. Ronald Levy
The injection, the researchers add, could be wielded against many different types of cancer. It has so far shown promise against breast, colon, and skin cancer.
Using old remedies in new ways
Another research trend in 2018 was reassessing old remedies or known treatments to see whether specialists can use them for new purposes.
Researchers have found new uses for known treatments.
One example is baking soda, which many have traditionally used to soothe heartburn.
The researchers — from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University — reported that drinking a solution of baking soda can protect against rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.
This is because baking soda influences the mesothelial cells — which line various organs — of the spleen so that they do not "overreact" to heavy foods and treat them as a threat of infection.
The solution also seems to impact the activity of various immune cells in the spleen, kidneys, and the peripheral blood, leading to a decrease in pro-inflammatory cells and an increase in anti-inflammatory ones.
Other studies published in 2018 showed that a series of known drugs could actually help improve conditions that they were not initially intended to treat.
More than one study concluded that medication currently used to treat the herpes simplex virus can lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease, a common neurodegenerative condition that typically begins to manifest after the age of 65.
The largest of these saw that administering this therapy aggressively could lower the relative risk of dementia by 10-fold.
Some dietary supplements also received positive attention this year. One example is nicotinamide riboside, a vitamin B-3 supplement, which some manufacturers use as an ingredient in some protein shakes and nutrition bars.
According to a small study, the findings of which appeared in the journal Nature Communications, nicotinamide riboside supplements can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure, safeguarding the health of arteries as people age.
Since 2018 has been so rich in health debates, medical research, and clinical advances, the team at MNT is looking forward to seeing what intriguing and potentially life-changing medical news 2019 will bring.
As always, we will continue to work hard and bring you accurate, authoritative, and accessible information to support you in your health and well-being journey.