Medical innovations raise hopes of many

Staff Reporter
Tropical diseases such as malaria could be wiped out as scientists figure out how to render mosquitoes sterile.

Much of the medical technology that we take for granted today was hailed as revolutionary not so long ago: organ transplants, biological drugs and keyhole surgery, to name but a few.

With the pace of technology accelerating at a blinding rate, the announcements of new medical breakthroughs have seemingly become a daily occurrence. But what about those advancements that could affect Africans and South Africans in the near future?

One hugely important innovation that has medics and scientists abuzz with excitement throughout the continent is the genetically modified mosquito. Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile fever, which infect 700-million people annually and have the highest mortality rates in Africa, could well be on the brink of a profound development.

Scientists have discovered ways of modifying the genetic composition of mosquitoes to render them sterile. As part of a comprehensive study in 2010, three million of these infertile mosquitoes were released in the Caymans to mate with wild female mosquitoes. The results were extremely positive: a decrease of 80% in the mosquito population. Pushing this concept further, scientists are now working on modifying the genes in a way that will prevent the insect from carrying the malaria pathogen -- the parasite called plasmodium.

Another area of medical science that has enormous benefits for South Africa is a new class of diabetes drug that is awaiting approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

Called SGLT2 inhibitors, the drug works differently to any available medicine. Instead of affecting the supply or use of insulin, like most of the current generation of drugs being used to treat pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes, the SGLT2 inhibitors lower the level of sugar in the blood by causing it to be excreted in urine. Not only does this help diabetics to better manage the condition by achieving lower blood-sugar levels, it also helps them to shed weight, a prevalent problem among type 2 diabetics.

Heart attacks and strokes are responsible for about one-third of adult fatalities in South Africa. Like type 2 diabetes, these are mostly lifestyle diseases that are a result of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

After investigating the blood pressure measurements of 25 000 patients, researchers in London have identified five new genes that trigger heart attacks and strokes. They are investigating whether they can pinpoint when a heart attack or stroke is imminent, as well as the role these genes play in hypertension.

While on the subject of high blood pressure, researchers in the United States are also working on ways to counter this scourge that affects so many South Africans. Called "catheter-based renal denervation", this 40-minute procedure involves zapping the nerves in the kidney with low-power radio waves, using a probe that is pushed through certain blood vessels. The results have shown exceptional promise. Of those hypertension patients who have received the procedure, 39% achieved their blood pressure target without the use of drugs and 50% showed a marked improvement.

With 60% of South Africans overweight, obese or morbidly obese, the "gastric pacemaker" also sounds hugely beneficial. Developed in the US, the device fools the brain into thinking that the stomach is full. Using keyhole surgery, a credit card-sized device is inserted into the stomach and it then sends signals through the vagus nerve and causes hormone changes that trick the brain into thinking the tummy is full. When tested in Europe, people on average consumed 45% less food than normal.

The only downside to many of these breakthroughs is the cost, but at least they are relevant to South Africans.

Medical breakthroughs for Africa will be the topic of Bonitas House Call on February 25 at 9am on SABC2

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MalariaFood and Drug Administration