The 4 Most Game-Changing Medical Advances of the Past Decade

December 17, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC

Health care suffers from a hype problem. But drug makers have also produced some innovative medicines in the past decade—ranging from personalized gene therapies for rare diseases to more wide-spread treatments that tackle infectious disorders and more common conditions such as heart and lung disease.

Some of these drugs, and the diseases they tackle, don’t get a whole lot of attention. Here are a few worth highlighting.

1. Truvada (Gilead Sciences)

Gilead’s HIV/AIDS prevention medication may be one of the most important advances in the life science field. 

Taking Truvada on a daily basis has proven to offer between 90% and 99% effectiveness in preventing HIV transmission in at-risk patients such as men who have sex with men or engage in behavior which may raise their risk for contracting HIV/AIDS.

It’s the foundational pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatment, and it’s so effective that some nations have made a three-month-supply available for just five dollars.

There’s still a ways to go with PrEP adoption in the U.S. because of high out-of-pocket costs that can discourage people from taking it. But there is also some preliminary evidence that adoption of Truvada and other PrEP medication is linked with a dropoff in HIV infection rates

2. Keytruda (Merck)

Keytruda is an example of the cancer immunotherapy boom. The drug brought in a stunning $3 billion in sales in the third quarter of 2019 alone, easily surpassing Wall Street expectations and cementing its status as “The Drug to Beat.”

That’s not just a sales story—there’s a reason that Keytruda, which was first approved way back in 2014, has won so many FDA green lights in cancers ranging from melanoma (the treatment apparently cleared former President Jimmy Carter of his own cancer) to lung cancer, one of the deadliest diseases out there.

The latter has fueled Merck’s success while boosting life expectancy among lung cancer patients. In fact, the FDA approved the drug as a “first-line” treatment, along with traditional chemotherapy for certain lung cancer patients (a combo that’s delivered for people who have never been treated before). 

Merck faces competition from companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Roche, who have their own rival immunotherapy drugs, but to date, Keytruda remains the king.

3. CAR-T, CRISPR, and Gene Therapy (Novartis, Spark Therapeutics, and Many More)

The genomic revolution is underway—and it runs the gamut of the life sciences. 

There’s gene-editing (such as the CRISPR technology that allows us to slice and dice our fundamental biological building blocks and which could potentially be used to combat everything from inherited blood disorders to various cancers). This is still experimental in nature, but a plethora of pharma giants and biotech startups alike are exploring the tech.

Gene therapy can be a different, and more nuanced, beast. For instance: Novartis’ “CAR-T” therapy Kymriah, a blood cancer treatment approved by the FDA in 2017, weaponizes the body’s own immune system in order to ward off the disease. This process involves re-engineering immune cells in order to target cancerous cells. Spark Therapeutics’ rare disease therapy Luxturna, also approved in late 2017, adds to the list—the treatment inserts a new copy of a healthy gene into cells for an inherited form of blindness.

What’s so innovative about these therapies is they have the potential to provide a permanent solution to intractable, often deadly disorders. But pricing—and a complicated manufacturing process—remains a problem.

4. Artificial Heart Valves and Robotic Therapy (Edwards Lifesciences, Intuitive Surgical)

The robots—and their counterparts—are on the rise. And they’re helping patients in a major way. 

Two companies leading these efforts are Edwards Lifesciences and Intuitive Surgical, both featured in the latest Fortune Future 50, a list that identifies companies with the strongest long-term growth potential. 

While precision medicine and gene therapy has transformed the drug development field, both of the firms are focused on medical problems which afflict a much wider swath of Americans, such as heart disease and the need for surgery.

For instance, Edwards Lifesciences is a leader in artificial heart valve development for patients who can’t necessarily risk a more invasive surgery. Heart disease causes one in four American deaths every single year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Intuitive Surgical has been building up minimally invasive surgical tech that allows doctors to perform operations without having to, well, slice people up. A surgeon can guide various robotic arms and a high-definition camera into patients’ bodies through tiny holes in the abdomen or other regions. The company’s growth speaks for itself (a 57% spike in market value in the past two years alone)—but what may be more impressive is the adoption by physicians across the globe. Intuitive’s flagship da Vinci robotic platform has been used in more than five million surgeries, according to the company.

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