Why 2017 Won't Suck for Medical Science

Look forward to head transplants, medical ketamine, and a gene-editing arms race with China.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Pfree2014

News from the world of medical science in 2017 is going to be insane. If all goes according to plan, this could be a year in which medical progress—which normally creeps forward ever so slowly—experiences a few quantum leaps.

That's not to say it'll be a great year for health. Millions of Americans might lose their insurance if Obamacare gets repealed and replaced—for the time being—with nothing. And it's also worth noting that some of the medical breakthroughs scheduled for 2017 are so outlandish, they might not pan out. But in theory, the rising tide of medical science lifts all boats (fingers crossed on that one).


So this may not be the best time to be a human being, but thanks to some of the breakthroughs outlined below, we can all hope that 2017 will be remembered as a year when having a human body got a little easier.

Ketamine for Depression

Since 2013, we've been hearing that psychiatrists in the US might soon start prescribing ketamine for the huge proportion of depression sufferers who don't respond to antidepressants like Prozac. Ketamine is, of course, a staple drug in the rave scene, but it's also on the World Health Organization's model list of essential medicines. In 2015, a recipient of therapeutic ketamine for depression told us the whole experience was just lovely.

The psychiatric applications have looked so promising that the FDA fast tracked ketamine tests last year, "making it more likely that they will become available to patients in 2017," according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The drug that will likely debut first is called "esketamine"—but according to emergency room doctor Darragh O'Carroll, who frequently prescribes ketamine at the University of Southern California Medical Center, the difference is negligible, and comes down to chirality—meaning the two drugs' molecules are mirror images and are technically only slightly different. "They are doing so to push for a new patent, because technically esketamine is a different drug then ketamine," he said. "From my perspective, it's big pharma trying to push that their drug is better than the other guys."


In short, esketamine is basically ketamine, and it might help your treatment-resistant depression.

An Actual Fucking Head Transplant

If the human head transplant supposedly scheduled for 2017 actually works, it's going to be one of the most important achievements in the history of medical science, and the history of technology just in general. Problem is, whether or not it will work is still seriously in doubt.

In 2015, Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from a terminal muscle atrophying disease, publicized that he would be the first person ever to experience a complete head switcheroo, with surgery slated to happen in China in December 2017. But Sergio Canavero, the grandstanding Italian spinal surgeon who claims he'll be attempting the operation, told the Times of India in May 2016 that an unnamed Chinese recipient has jumped in line ahead of Spiridonov for unknown reasons.

In January 2016, Canavero claimed to have performed a head transplant on a monkey, but he was suspiciously cagey about letting journalists see the monkey. Monkeys have been the victims of failed—but promising—head-transplantation attempts in the past.

Still, a successful head transplant—which might more accurately be dubbed a "full-body transplant"—could be the cure to most diseases, in addition to its applications in the treatment of spinal injuries. So—long shot or not—file this one under "huge if true."

Self-Testing for HPV

A new doodad called the Cobas4800 will allow women all over the world to test themselves for human papillomavirus (HPV) from home. HPV is a relatively harmless STD in its own right, but it can lead to cervical cancer, the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide, according to a report from a Spanish NGO called the Information Centre on HPV and Cancer.

That means with the early warning and quick treatment, the number of women worldwide who die from cervical cancer every year could drop dramatically and quickly from its current 265,672.

The CRISPR Innerspace Race Between the US and China

It's reasonable to not know what the hell gene editing is, or why a sort of medical arms race would be a good thing, so stay with me:

In 2012, a group of mostly American researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that a cluster of bacterial genes known as CRISPR were capable of selectively targeting unwanted human DNA and replacing it with different DNA. It didn't exactly send shockwaves through the media, but it should have. In the ensuing four years, science journalists have obsessed over the astounding possibilities—and potential horrors—of gene editing with CRISPR: It might be a new way to screen for and treat cancers; it might let us genetically modify our vegetables, livestock, and maybe even children, to our hearts' content; and it might eradicate vast categories of viral diseases. We just have to find a way to step up the research, so we can find out which of these things that might happen, can happen.


Well, the world may have just stumbled into a way to step up research.

In November 2016, Chinese medical researchers at Sichuan University in Chengdu used CRISPR to alter the DNA of human cells under attack from an aggressive form of cancer—meaning the age of human-gene editing officially kicked off outside the US. Carl June, an immunotherapy specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Nature Magazine that the Chinese breakthrough was akin to "Sputnik 2.0." June called it "a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States, which is important since competition usually improves the end product."

So with any luck, the Innerspace Race will kick off officially in 2017 at the third meeting of the CRISPR & Precision Genome Editing Congress in Boston, and before long, we'll all be just like the people in Bioshock, injecting ourselves with genetic improvements and turning ourselves into a race of superbeings.

VR Headsets in Actual Operating Rooms

Several hospitals have previously launched virtual reality pilot programs, but now, according to the Cleveland Clinic, several are about to start using VR as an actual surgical tool starting in 2017.

Granted, no one wants to picture neurosurgeons with Oculus Rifts over their faces while they scoop tumors out of brains, and fortunately, that's not what's happening here (although, let's be honest: that can't be far away). Instead, what's been happening in tests at hospitals like UCLA Medical Center is that surgeons have been operating goggle-free, and then they'll put down the knife for a second and put on the goggles, so they can temporarily step inside a simulation of your unique brain. In VR land, they'll double check that they're making the right cuts, and then take the googles back off and resume your surgery.

The fact that this is coming to an operating room near you is good, even though it will make your doctor look like a dweeb.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.