3 Clinical Advances Helping People Live Longer, from the Golden Age of Healthcare

Mike Novotny Medrio founder photo

Today’s post comes to us from Medrio’s founder and CEO Mike Novotny, who discusses some of the exciting healthcare innovations saving lives today.
 
In a hundred years, there will be no such thing as disease.

My dad is 86, but when he was born, life expectancy in the U.S. was just 57 years old. Now it’s 80. Since 1900, global life expectancy has more than doubled. It’s now approaching 70 years. A baby born today will be the first 150-year-old. And no country in the world has a lower life expectancy than the countries with the highest life expectancy in 1800.

The main reason for this is medical discovery. Major breakthroughs are made every day, and the pace of discovery continues to accelerate. But we often take for granted all the advances in medicine and healthcare that have extended our lifespans. The economics of the healthcare system are, admittedly, broken, so people fixate on the negative—but in terms of discovery, it’s never been better. Countless new drugs are saving people’s lives every day— but they never would have been developed without the support of clinical trials.

That’s why, contrary to the naysayers, we’re actually living in the golden age of healthcare right now.

1. Immuno-oncology is the most promising approach to cancer treatment today.

Put simply, immuno-oncology (IO) is the study and development of treatments that take advantage of the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

As a living, dynamic system, the immune system is able to detect cancer anywhere in the body, which is especially important in treating patients with cancers that have spread or metastasized to other organs. IO works by augmenting the immune system’s natural ability to see and eliminate cancer cells much in the same way it protects us against infection from viruses and bacteria.

And the research is exploding with potential…and results.

The FDA has recently approved IO therapies for nearly 20 types of cancer, including advanced tumors, blood cancers, and cancers with a specific genetic defect resulting in a high frequency of mutation. There are also numerous ongoing clinical trials to test the benefits of IO agents in many other types of cancer. Linear Clinical Research, for example, is helping patients with rare and advanced forms of cancer in Western Australia access relevant clinical trials under the Australian Genomic Cancer Medicine Program—without having to travel great distances.

We used to think of cancer as a death sentence—but thanks to IO, we may need to start rethinking our assumptions.

2. Increased R&D financing means new discoveries and treatments for people with rare diseases.

A few decades ago, drug companies focused primarily on developing drugs for the most common diseases—and there was a major economic incentive to do so.

But this all changed in 1983 when Congress passed the Orphan Drug Act (ODA)—a landmark health bill aimed at motivating pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for people whose rare diseases had been ignored.

Now, we gain understanding on a molecular level, and therefore set ourselves up for cure, of a new rare disease every day. This is unprecedented in the history of healthcare.

The ODA created financial incentives for drug manufacturers, including tax credits for costs of clinical research, government grant funding, assistance for clinical research, and a seven-year period of exclusive marketing. At the same time, federal programs at the FDA and the NIH began encouraging product development, as well as clinical research for products targeting rare diseases.

Since 1983, the ODA has resulted in the development of more than 250 orphan drugs, which now are available to treat a potential patient population of more than 13 million Americans. In contrast, the decade before 1983 saw fewer than 10 such products developed without government assistance.

Because of the ODA, promising treatments are available to people with rare diseases who once had no hope for survival.

3. Advanced diagnostic tools mean earlier treatment—and even prevention—of serious diseases.

I have three kids between the ages of two and eight. And during each pregnancy, there were different standard practices regarding prenatal testing.

When my wife was pregnant with my eight-year-old, the common practice was amniocentesis—which involves putting a huge needle in the uterus to extract fluid. While this was an effective method to test for certain disorders like Down syndrome, it also came with a huge risk of complications—like miscarriage.

I remember my wife and I feeling conflicted. But just two years later, with our next kid, the doctor recommended against amniocentesis, because at that point blood tests had a higher confidence level, though plenty of uncertainty remained.

By the time my wife was pregnant with our third kid, the doctor said there was no need for amniocentesis at all—they had 99.999% confidence that they could get all the necessary information from blood tests alone. Today, doctors can test for even more genetic abnormalities earlier, through prenatal blood testing. Known as non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), this approach gives women more time to make decisions about their pregnancies while helping alleviate health risks.

This rapid breakthrough was possible in large part due to diagnostic testing. In fact, one of our customers, Illumina, at my eClinical software company, Medrio, was heavily involved in making NIPT possible.

This isn’t a story you’ll see on the front page of any major newspapers—the press often focuses on the negatives. For instance, the potential ethical issues involved, like sex-selective abortion and people with Down syndrome.

But in reality, diagnostic breakthroughs have caused far more benefits than potential negative effects. In fact, one of our customers was approached by the CDC a few years ago asking for diagnostic tests for Zika. At the time, Zika was spreading like crazy, and the CDC was concerned that it had infected blood donations throughout the U.S. So, using our software, our customer ran the clinical trial and came up with a test. It worked. Suddenly, there was an easy way for them to test all the blood samples and prevent tens of thousands of people from getting Zika.

People are attracted to negative stories, and so are journalists. And it’s true that healthcare in America is pricier than it should be. But from a discovery standpoint, there’s so much good happening in the healthcare space today.

The breakthroughs being made today are likely to save your life — literally.