By Bongiwe Tshiqi and Wanita Nicol; Photography by Pixabay
Advances in the lab over the past five years are turning science fiction into fact.
Here, breakthroughs you can use now and health discoveries that are just around the corner.
You Could Put Your Ovaries On Ice
Forget freezing your eggs – a procedure called ovarian tissue cryopreservation gives women the option of freezing their ovaries.
How it works: you have one ovary (or tissue from it) removed and stored when you’re, say, in your twenties. Years later, that tissue is implanted into your remaining ovary and you start producing as many eggs as you did at the age the tissue was frozen. The procedure has been available to cancer patients since the Nineties; now healthy women could have the option too – although it’s pricey and still experimental compared with other methods. Another fertility breakthrough on the horizon: in vitro activation involves removing a nonviable ovary or piece of ovarian tissue, and treating it in a lab to help the immature follicles it contains develop into eggs. The recharged tissue is then reimplanted near the Fallopian tubes. Of the 27 women who tested the technique in a US study, five produced viable eggs, one woman is pregnant and another has given birth to a healthy baby.
Contraception Under Your Skin
Implanon NXT, a new, long-lasting contraceptive implant, arrived in SA this year. Resembling a small rod, it’s inserted under the skin of your upper arm in 15 minutes – and it’s free at government clinics (R1620 at private hospitals, plus consultation fee). Experts are divided on the issue of side effects. Some, including WH sexpert Dr Elna Rudolph, say it could affect your libido, while others claim it won’t; you could experience irregular bleeding; and it’s not recommended for women with liver disease, or those who’ve had hormone-sensitive cancer.
What experts agree on: it works. In fact, Dr Judith Kluge, head of family planning at Cape Town’s Tygerberg Hospital, says it’s the most effective contraception available, making you 10 times less likely to fall pregnant.
Poo Transplants: The Next Miracle Cure?
With scientists having discovered the importance of gut bacteria, it was only a matter of time before they started transplanting them. Antibiotics, colitis and liver disease are just some of the factors that can jeopardise gut microbes and, in turn, your health. So far, studies suggest that introducing healthy donor microbes via faecal transplants could be the answer. But if the idea of someone else’s liquefied poo in your colon is more off-putting than the diseases it’s purported to cure, there’s good news – a Canadian researcher is testing a pill that could deliver as many healthy microbes as a stool-swap and results from an early study (albeit small) look promising.
A Gel To Prevent HIV/AIDS
Earlier this year, the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) won the USA ID Science and Technology Pioneers Prize for their groundbreaking microbicide gel. A trial showed that the gel, which consists of one percent of the antiretroviral Tenofovir and is applied to the vagina before and after sex, was 39 percent effective in preventing HIV infection in women. It also unexpectedly showed 51 percent effectiveness in preventing genital herpes. Researchers are now working on a larger trial of up to 2900 women.
Cervical Cancer Could Be History
This year, SA became the first African country to provide free vaccines for schoolgirls against the human papillomavirus (HPV), an STI that can lead to cervical cancer. The idea is to vaccinate girls before they become sexually active and are exposed to the virus, which, according to gynaecologist Dr Trudy Smith, can lie undetected for years. Most women clear the virus naturally, but a weakened immune system can leave you vulnerable. The vaccine for grade four girls will be given in two doses (recently established to be as effective as the previous three-dose jab).
Cancer Cells: Seek And Destroy
Cancer immunotherapy was dubbed the “breakthrough of the year” for 2013 by the journal Science and, in particular, the “blockade approach” in which US researchers used antibodies to target specific molecules on immune cells, empowering them to find and attack cancer cells. An approved drug of this kind is already a first-line treatment for patients with metastatic melanoma and trials are currently underway for other types of cancer. Also in the test phase is adoptive immunotherapy – removing a patient’s immune cells, engineering them in the lab and then re-infusing them back into the patient to fight cancer – which is already showing promising results in patients with leukaemia.
You Have A Second Brain
Researchers have discovered that the millions of good bacteria living in your gut are as essential to your wellbeing as your brain, even to the point of influencing your immune system and emotions. Keep your gut healthy and balanced with probiotics or yoghurt containing live cultures.