Good health news: seven surprising medical discoveries made in 2023

A fingerprint test for cancer, a menopause patch and the shocking impacts of body odour are just a few of the developments made this year

man sniffing orange to restore sense of smell
Anosmia was a common symptom of Covid in the early part of the pandemic
(Image credit: ljubaphoto via Getty Images)

Scientific breakthroughs are being made all over the world, as experts seek to learn more about a variety of health conditions and ailments.

However, medical discoveries appear to have come on leaps and bounds in 2023 so far, with numerous fields of research making important advances.

Building upon last year, “landmark discoveries, some the culmination of decades of work, offer grounds of hope”, wrote The Independent’s Bevan Hurley.

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Here are some of the good-news medical stories so far in 2023.

A simple test for breast cancer

Could a simple fingerprint test be used to screen women for breast cancer? That is the possibility raised by a study of 15 women that found that sweat on the fingers contains proteins that make it possible to detect breast cancer with a high degree of accuracy. Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University used matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionisation/mass spectrometry to analyse fingerprint smears from patients with benign, early or metastatic breast cancer. With machine-learning applied, the technology was able to predict the category of cancer with an accuracy rate of 98%. Current methods of screening and detection, such as biopsy and mammogram, are effective, but they can be uncomfortable and culturally unacceptable. The team said their trial had only provided proof of concept, but that with such promising results they hoped now to take the research to the next stage.

How to restore a sense of smell

People who have been robbed of their sense of smell by Covid may be able to get it back by sniffing an orange twice a day, reports The Daily Telegraph. In the early part of the pandemic, anosmia (the loss of the sense of smell or taste) was a common Covid symptom. It became rarer in later waves as new variants emerged, but while some sufferers got their senses back after a few weeks, others seemed to have experienced a permanent loss. Earlier this year, though, a study indicated that this may be reversible with “olfactory training”: taking ten second sniffs of common household scents such as lemons or coffee twice a day. By examining MRI scans, a team at University College London found that people with persistent smell lost post-Covid have impaired connectivity between the orbitofrontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex – but that there is no such “rewiring” in the brains of people whose sense of smell came back, indicating the damage is reversible. Dr Jed Wingrove, co-author of the study published in eClinicalMedicine, says that this raises the possibility that with olfactory training, the brain may be able to recover the lost pathways, and the sense of smell return.

Does BO have a soothing effect?

Anyone reading this while stuck on an overcrowded train may be sceptical, but researchers have found that the smell of other people’s sweat has a calming effect. The Swedish team asked volunteers to donate armpit sweat from when they’d been watching either a scary film or a happy one. They then recruited 48 women with social anxiety to sniff either one of the samples, or clean air as a control, as they also underwent mindfulness therapy. Their results indicated that those who’d sniffed the sweat had responded significantly better to the therapy. Patients who’d been exposed to sweat showed a 39% reduction in anxiety scores, whereas those who only had the therapy had a 17% reduction. The researchers, from the Karolinska Institutet, suggest that a person’s emotional response produces chemo-signals in their sweat that a third party can pick up. However, while presenting their findings at a medical conference in Paris, they said they’d been surprised to discover that the patients’ response had been the same regardless of which sweat sample they’d sniffed – whether from the scary film or the happy one. That being the case, it could just be the sense of another human presence that calms people down.

Babies need peanut butter

Roughly one in 50 British children have a peanut allergy, but researchers have calculated that this proportion could be slashed if all babies were introduced to peanut butter from about four months. Previously, the official advice was not to give peanut products to children until they were three years old; then in 2018, this was reduced to six months, in light of studies showing that delayed exposure to peanut products was causing most of the allergies. Now, however, a team from King’s College London, have looked at the data from various randomised control trials, and found that the real “window of opportunity” for curbing allergies is between four and six months. Using computer modelling, they calculate that if all babies were exposed to peanut products at that age, it would cut allergy rates by 77%. Parents feeding peanuts to their babies are advised to give them a teaspoon full of smooth peanut butter, mixed with breast milk or formula, three times a week. Babies should not be given whole or chopped nuts, as these can be a choking hazard. At that young age, allergic reactions are rare and usually mild.

Restoring movement after strokes

A woman who was left partially paralysed by a series of strokes in 2012 has had the movement in her hand restored, thanks to electrodes implanted in her neck. By disrupting connections between the brain and the spinal cord, strokes often cause paralysis and muscle weakness in the arms in particular. Although some signals can still get through, they’re too weak to trigger activity in the motor neurons that control movement of the muscles. In the journal Nature Medicine, a US team explained that they’d sought to restore movement by using electrodes to stimulate the sensory neurons that communicate with the motor neurons, and so make the latter more receptive to brain signals. Heather Rendulic said that since her stroke, aged 22, she had been “living one-handed in a two-handed world”. But after being fitted with the minimally invasive electrodes, she could eat with a knife and fork again.

A testosterone patch for women

Researchers are developing a testosterone patch for women, to help those whose sex drive has dwindled during menopause. Although testosterone is considered a male hormone, it is also essential for women. Its levels drop significantly during menopause, yet there is currently no replacement therapy licensed specifically for women available on the NHS. Instead, women suffering from low sex drive during or post-menopause may be prescribed gels that were made for men. They have to be applied daily and it can be tricky to judge the correct proportion of dose, partly because they were not tailored for women, but also because the gel is easily transferred to clothing. The patch being developed by Medherant would adhere to the skin to deliver the exact dose of testosterone for women, and would only need to be changed twice a week. It is set to be trialled this coming autumn, and if successful is likely to become available first in the UK.

Even a bad marriage can be good

Living with a partner might be good for your health – even if you are not happy together, a study has found. Researchers examined the health records of more than 3,300 people (all of whom were over 50) who had signed up to The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, and looked at data on several factors, including body mass index, rates of depression, and social relationships, as well as their results in HbA1c tests – reliable indicators of average blood-sugar levels. They found that being married or cohabiting was associated with lower blood-sugar levels, regardless of the quality of the relationship; and that when people left a relationship, their levels changed significantly. The study was only observational, but it could be that when people are cohabiting they make more effort to eat healthily, and with shared overheads, have more money to spend on healthy food. The researchers said that to protect people in this age group from type 2 diabetes, it would be a good idea to address the “barriers that impede the formation of romantic partnerships” in older people.

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