The Top 10 Healthinnovations of 2020.

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Welcome to your 2020 list.

The Top 10 Healthinnovations is an annual list, now in its seventh year, of the most viewed articles for the past 12 months on our site. In this article, our readers from across the globe signal which areas of research and development are the top health innovations of 2020. This, in turn, has made this post a must-read for key investors, academia, and companies working in the health industry. Subsequently indicating the primary area of interest and expenditure in clinical trials currently.

Undeniably this has been an incredibly trying year for all due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Families have been separated by lockdowns with vital support ripped from their moorings. Moreover, these events were coupled with massive financial losses resounding the world over, and an invaluable loss of life. However, in the face of such insurmountable odds, amazing innovations have been achieved by an industry under unimaginable pressure.

Last year’s list concentrated primarily on neuroscience; in contrast, the articles on the Healthinnovations site gaining the most views in 2020 primarily focus on immunology and the biomimicry of immune reactions. Understandably, all aspects of immunological strategy are being researched as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

So here are the Top 10 Healthinnovations for 2020 as decided by health innovators worldwide:

1. A nanoparticle that eats the plaque responsible for heart attacks.

Imaging demonstrating that the novel nanoparticle reduces vascular inflammation. Image courtesy of Michigan State University and Stanford University.

The article garnering the most views from health innovators in 2020 involved a nanoparticle capable of targeting and eating the plaques that cause heart attacks. The top-ranked study, from Michigan State University, engineered a nanoparticle using single-walled carbon nanotubes loaded with a macrophage-specific nanotherapy. Accordingly, the nanoparticles accumulated inside macrophages in the arterial plaque to activate phagocytosis, where the plaque is ‘eaten’ and destroyed by the white blood cells safely.

It is to be expected that a precision immunotherapy should take the top spot in this highly competitive list in the midst of a pandemic. A reason could be because it is literally a blueprint for a synthetic immunotherapy that could possibly counteract the cytokine storm. Another factor could involve the development of nanomedicine, a market expected to be worth US$475 billion by 2027 according to ResearchAndMarkets.com.

Similarly, the popular interventional cardiology market which was valued at US$14.69 billion in 2017 is expected to reach $24.96 billion by 2027. Certainly, these figures make these sectors a strong bet.

2. Human sperm stem cells were grown in the lab.

Egg and sperm illustration by 3FX Inc.  Image courtesy of Farid Ghanbari.

The next study in our list to be flagged by health innovators covers male infertility, a market expected to reach US$6,213.96 million by 2027. However, this figure may be grossly underestimated when compared with a report published in 2019 by the National Institute of Health, which stated 8% to 10% of couples globally are affected by infertility.

The majority of cases concerning male infertility are caused by defective sperm. This all stems from a process known as spermatogenesis where sperm are generated from male spermatogonial stem cells or SSCs. Obviously, problems can arise with fertility if this process goes awry. Hence, a popular idea for treating male sterility involves SSC therapy which differentiates SSCs into healthy sperm in controlled conditions. However, trials have run into problems when attempting to distinguish SSCs in testicular tissue.

This was until the University of California San Diego developed a reliable method for identifying and culturing cells matching the characteristics of human SSCs. The team identified definitive biomarkers for human SSCs in testes specimens, to enable the accurate identification and capture of these stem cells. The newly determined biomarkers subsequently uncovered signaling pathways that could be altered to produce and culture SSCs for therapeutic purposes. The results of this study are expected to lend hope to millions of couples around the world suffering through grueling fertility treatments.

3. A tissue-engineered uterus supported live birth in rabbits.

An implantable, artificial vagina. Courtesy of Dr. Yuanyuan Zhang, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

In a telling indication we have another fertility study at number three, this time from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine who bioengineered uteri capable of supporting fertilization, fetal development, and live birth in rabbits. The groundbreaking study sees researchers manufacture artificial uteri in animals who had undergone a hysterectomy. Moreover, the synthetic uteri seeded by the rabbit’s own uterine cells developed natural structures to support a normal pregnancy, with forty percent of this group capable of engendering regular fetal development to live birth.

In summary, this regenerative technique is able to support normal pregnancies and fetal development comparable to those produced in a normal uterus. Meaning, this approach may provide a pathway to pregnancy for women with a defective uterus whilst avoiding human donors and possible organ rejection.

The global fertility services market is expected to grow to US$36 billion by 2023 according to a Market Research Future report, with the female infertility drug market set to reach US$2.5 billion by 2028. As the male infertility market is expected to reach a far smaller segment by 2027 this could denote many more undiagnosed cases of male infertility waiting to be mined via awareness campaigns and counseling to ease suspected sufferers of male infertility into the clinic and, hopefully, fatherhood.

4. A non-invasive blood test detected cancer 4 years before diagnosis.

A non-invasive blood test detected cancer four-years before diagnosis. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

A large-scale study at number five saw researchers led by UC San Diego develop a non-invasive blood test capable of identifying whether a person has one of the five most prevalent forms of cancer, up to four years before diagnosis.

The new test works by identifying CpG methylation, the addition of methyl groups to multiple adjacent cytosine-guanine sequences in a DNA molecule. It is in this way each tissue in the body can be identified, as well as different cancer types via their unique signature of methylation. In the final analysis, the team emphasizes their assay cannot predict which patients will later go on to develop cancer, rather it identifies patients who already have cancerous growths whilst remaining asymptomatic for current screening methods. It is hoped this test will vastly improve survival rates for patients undergoing treatment for cancer.

The global market for cancer diagnostics was estimated at US$150.6 Billion in the year 2020 and is projected to reach US$223.3 Billion by 2027. To compare, a McKinsey & Company report states global oncology therapeutics sales are forecasted to hit US$250 billion by 2024, suggesting that the therapeutics market has a lot more room to grow.

5. Cancer researchers discovered a new organ.

The newly discovered tubarial salivary glands: A potential new organ at risk for radiotherapy. Image courtesy of the Netherlands Cancer Institute.

Our next innovation at number five saw the Netherlands Cancer Institute identify and classify a new organ possessing vast implications for cancer patients. The new organ was shown to represent a previously unknown part of the salivary gland system, which is historically regarded as an organ-at-risk that needs protection during cancer treatment.

These major health innovations of 2020 identify a previously unknown pair of salivary glands in the nasopharynx using a new type of scan that marks salivary glands. The two new areas that lit up were found to be composed of salivary gland tissue, and are thought to be responsible for nasopharynx/oropharynx lubrication and swallowing.

Furthermore, this newly discovered set of the tubarial salivary glands can now be protected during cancer treatment meaning cancer patients may experience fewer side effects, benefiting their overall quality of life.

This discovery cannot be overstated enough as it helps to evolve the gold standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy cancer treatments. In short, modernizing these decades-old cancer treatments is sorely needed providing an avenue to move on from these old therapies, tapping into the potential goldmine of novel cancer therapeutics. In summary, the fact this study has made our list indicates that health innovators are looking for new therapeutics, predicting their inception in the very near future.

6. The gut microbiome was shown to influence ALS outcomes.

The gut microbiome was found to influence ALS outcomes. The image shows in mice with a common ALS genetic mutation, the spinal cord has high levels of inflammation (red) and immune cells (green) linked to specific microbiota species.
Image courtesy of Kevin S. Smith/Harvard University.

The study at number six from Harvard University identified a new gut-brain connection in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Importantly, this study provides an insight into the environmental pathology of ALS and corrects an inaccurate mouse model used in the past.

The researchers bred two groups of mice with a corrected ALS genetic mutation at two separate laboratories, known as Location A and Location B. The mice produced at Location A were shown to have body-wide inflammation which led to a shortened lifespan. In contrast, the mice with the identical mutation bred at Location B survived into old age. Subsequently, DNA sequencing identified specific gut bacteria present in mice reared at Location A that were absent in the healthier mice produced at Location B.

To verify this result, the ailing mice at location A were successfully treated with fecal implants from location B mice. Thus, an animal model was corrected providing salient results for future clinical trials, and an important gut-brain connection mapped.

A ResearchAndMarkets.com report expects the popular human microbiome market to reach US$4,542.67 million by 2027. Increasingly tied to immunology, global sales in the ALS market are expected to grow to US$1.04 billion by 2029, at an impressive CAGR of 13.9%.

7. A new role for white blood cells was discovered in brain development.

A new white blood that only resides in the mouse and human brain was discovered. Image courtesy of VIB-KU Leuven.

The next top health innovations for 2020 at number seven comes from VIB-KU Leuven who identified a CD4 T helper cell population in both the mouse and human brain, distinct from CD4 T helper cells in the peripheral immune system. It was shown that without these brain resident white blood cells microglia remain suspended between a fetal and adult developmental state in the mouse brain. This, in turn, caused defective synaptic pruning and abnormal behavior in mice.

An investigation showed the brain-resident T cell population evolve from peripheral white blood cells that have traversed the blood-brain barrier. Moreover, it was observed the gut microbiome modifies these white blood cells, which then cross the BBB to act as a ‘letter to the brain’ containing vital information regarding the peripheral immune system. It is thought that this is how the peripheral immune system communicates information to the CNS to influence behavior.

 According to Coherent Market Insights, the global neuroscience market is set to surpass US$38.9 billion by 2027. Sadly, the increasing number of patients with neurological disorders is expected to propel the neuroscience market, particularly in regards to the development of mental health issues in the face of multiple lockdowns, financial struggles, and human losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

8. A study claimed to have found the center of pain in the brain.

The image captures neuron cells in the central amygdala of a mouse brain. Red, magenta and yellow cells (but not green or blue) are parts of a collection of neurons called the CeAga that have been identified as the ‘center of pain’ in the brain. Image courtesy of the Fan Wang Lab/Duke University.

Another neuroscientific study enters our list at number eight, this time from Duke University who made inroads in chronic pain, a market valued at US$77.8 billion in 2019. Here, the researchers identify a pain-suppression center in the brain possessing widespread projections to sixteen other pain-processing centers throughout the central nervous system. Specifically, the team determined the presence of pain suppressing neurons known as CeAga neurons in mice activated by a general anesthetic in the amygdala. The paths of activated CeAga neurons in the mice were then tracked to map connections to different parts of the brain.

In conclusion, a single off switch has been identified that is capable of quelling the response of dozens of pain-promoting areas contained within the brain, in effect making this switch a pain center. In time, this important discovery may proffer the prospect for therapeutics capable of activating only these cells to subdue pain regions throughout the central nervous system.

9. The world’s first spherical artificial eye with a 3D retina was developed.

The image depicts the structure of the 3D Electrochemical Eye (EC-Eye) developed at HKUST. Image courtesy of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Our next innovation sees the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology engineer the world’s first 3D artificial eye surpassing the capabilities of pre-existing bionic eyes and in some cases, exceeding those of the human eyes. The electrochemical eye was shown to replicate the structure of its natural counterpart. However, it also promises sharper visual acuity, with extra functions such as the ability to detect infrared radiation in darkness in the future.

This is all made possible by a 3D artificial retina consisting of nanowire light sensor arrays mimicking the photoreceptors in the correlating natural version. The nanowire arrays are connected to a bundle of liquid-metal wires serving as nerves behind the artificial retina. As a consequence, the nanowires enjoy a higher density than photoreceptors in the human eye meaning the artificial retina can potentially attain a higher image resolution than the biological version. It was also verified that the hemispherical retina is capable of replicating visual signals produced by the prosthetic eye onto a computer screen.

In brief, a proof-of-concept has been provided for a solar-powered 3D artificial eye outperforming current bionic eyes and their biological variants in certain circumstances.

This is a smart investment choice with the global brain-computer interface market projected to reach US$3.85 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 14.3% from 2020 to 2027.

10. Newly discovered lung-only immune cells were implicated in COVID.

Lung only immune cells were discovered that have potential implications in the treatment of COVID-19. Image courtesy of kjpargeter – www.freepik.com

And COVID finally rears its head at the end of our list! Here NYU Langone Health identified an immune cell found only in the lungs linked to the coronavirus. Specifically, the study uncovers a previously unknown subset of alveolar macrophages (AMs) which are found primarily in the respiratory tract.

Dubbed nerve and airway associated macrophages or NAMs, these newly discovered white blood cells are specialized to the airways of the lungs. They were shown to regulate the cytokine-based inflammation produced by AMs during a lung infection. Accordingly, this data could provide new information on cytokine storms linked to lung damage and death in coronavirus patients. 

The team also showed NAMs are embryonically derived, self-renewing, and are constantly expressing genes responsible for regulating the immune system whether they’re in equilibrium or an inflammatory state. In vivo studies were also carried out to demonstrate how NAMs work alongside AMs to help clear an influenza infection, aiding in the suppression of inflammatory responses.

In short, a previously unrecorded macrophage exclusive to the lungs has been identified that is responsible for maintaining immune and tissue homeostasis under inflammation. Hopefully, these macrophages can be harnessed against infectious pathogens causing cytokine storms such as COVID-19.

Conclusion and trends

Interestingly, we see health innovators tapping into a rich reserve of immunological strategy. Therefore, it’s logical that innovators honed in on ALS, because it can be a very varied disease dependent on inflammation and immune abnormalities, similar to COVID-19. As health innovators tend to be veering towards ALS, a disease heavily implicated in neurological inflammation and changes, will this also be the case with the coronavirus?

On the investment side, segments such as male infertility are being mined. Presently, birth rates are going down globally, causing a knock-on effect in adoption and fostering. As a result, fertility treatments become the only option for many couples unable to conceive naturally. Thus, the fertility market is boosted with the male infertility market flagged as underdeveloped, making this a sound bet.

Cancer therapeutics are also a ‘safe bet’ in a highly unstable financial climate, new therapies are surely on the horizon as the cancer diagnostics market expands. Another ‘sure thing’, brain-computer interfaces became a solid bet in 2020, directly mirrored by our expert readers.

And sadly we have come to the end of our article. Well done to everyone who made the list, remember there are no Healthinnovations without you!


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