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New Medical Breakthroughs Older Adults Need to Know About

Three health advances unveiled in 2024 offer hope for Parkinson’s, colorectal cancer, kidney failure  


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Illustration Collage: AARP; (Source: Shutterstock)

Richard “Rick” Slayman made history on March 16 by becoming the first living person to receive a genetically modified kidney — from a pig. 

The 62-year-old Weymouth, Massachusetts, resident had end-stage kidney disease and was running out of options. In 2023, the kidney he received about five years before from a human donor started to fail; he was placed on dialysis but experienced complications that required frequent hospitalization.

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That’s when his doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston suggested an experimental pig kidney transplant. “I saw it not only as a way to help me, but a way to provide hope for the thousands of people who need a transplant to survive,” Slayman said in a statement released by Massachusetts General, where the transplant was performed.

This is just one example of a groundbreaking medical advance that could one day help countless older adults. Here’s a closer look at it, plus two other recent breakthroughs announced in early 2024.

1. Transplanting a kidney from pig to patient

Taking an organ from one species and transplanting it in another — called xenotransplantation — is what Steven Potter, M.D., describes as “one of the holy grails in transplantation” science. A big reason: There is not enough supply from human organ donors to meet demand. About 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration.

A kidney is the most common organ needed for transplant, and demand is only expected to increase alongside accelerating rates of end-stage kidney disease in the U.S. Currently, nearly 808,000 people in the U.S. are living with end-stage kidney disease. Most kidney transplant recipients are between the ages of 45 and 65, according to Cleveland Clinic. For these people, a transplant is the ideal treatment, as it can drastically improve an individual’s quality of life, says Potter, director of pancreas transplantation at Medstar Georgetown Transplant Institute. Dialysis — an expensive therapy where a machine takes on the work for the kidneys — is the other option.

The pig kidney that Slayman received was genetically edited “to remove harmful pig genes and add certain human genes to improve its compatibility with humans,” Massachusetts General said in a news release. And a new class of immunosuppressant medications that help prevent organ rejection was used for the pioneering procedure, so it was “advancing on multiple fronts,” Potter says.

Even though it may be a while before xenotransplantation becomes more common in operating rooms around the country (doctors have also transplanted a pig heart into living humans), Potter says Slayman’s March 16 surgery is “a big step forward.”

2. A blood test for colorectal cancer 

Colorectal cancer trends in the U.S. are worrying — and so are screening rates.

According to a 2024 report from the American Cancer Society, incidence for the cancer, which is most commonly diagnosed in older adults, is increasing. (More than 80 percent of colorectal cancer cases are among people age 50 and older.) Death rates are also rising for people under age 55. All the while, just over half of adults who should get screened for colorectal cancer do. Some scientists are hoping that a new screening option — one with fewer barriers and less of an ick factor — could bump that share up among people either reluctant or unable to undergo a colonoscopy or participate in one of the other recommended screenings.

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A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that while colonoscopy remains the gold standard, a blood test developed by Guardant Health detected colorectal cancer in 83 percent of people who had the disease. That’s similar to what we see for routine stool-based colorectal cancer screening tests, says study coauthor William M. Grady, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

The blood test detects certain cancer signals in DNA that’s been shed from a tumor, Grady says. And if that tumor material is found in the blood, the next step is to do a colonoscopy to confirm if cancer is present. Earlier detection can potentially expand treatment options and improve odds of recovery.

The blood test is currently available for physicians to order for their patients, but Grady says many insurance companies don’t cover it. That could change with formal approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which could come this year. An official FDA approval makes it more likely the test, which retails for $895, would be covered by insurers, Grady says.

If the test is approved and becomes a more widespread screening tool, Grady says it will be important for patients to talk to their doctors about the pros and cons of each available screening test before deciding on one.

“We know when people are given options that it increases the likelihood that they’re going to do one of them,” Grady says. “And so in this case, what we’re hoping is that by having this blood-based test, it will increase compliance.”

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3. A skin biopsy for Parkinson’s disease

Diagnosing Parkinson’s disease isn’t as cut-and-dried as diagnosing some other health conditions. Often doctors rely on a patient’s symptoms, medical history and lab tests or brain scans to rule out other disorders.

“In some cases, it can be very clear when we first see a patient that, yes, they have Parkinson's disease,” says Christopher Gibbons, M.D., a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School — for example, if they have a tremor. Other cases are less obvious, and the patient may have to wait some time for a definitive diagnosis.

That can be a frustrating process, Gibbons says. It can also delay treatment. (No drug available yet can reverse or slow the progression of the disease, which occurs when nerve cells in the brain die or become damaged. But some medications can help with Parkinson’s symptoms.)

A new study published in JAMA, however, suggests a skin biopsy could help some doctors in the diagnostic process. The test was roughly 93 percent accurate at detecting Parkinson’s disease in people who had a confirmed case.

The test, which is already commercially available for doctors to order but isn’t widely used, can identify a misfolded protein, called alpha-synuclein, that is a hallmark of Parkinson’s. It can also detect this protein in people with related neurodegenerative conditions, including dementia with Lewy bodies.   

This misfolded protein spreads throughout the nervous system, including to the nerves in the skin, says Gibbons, a coauthor on the JAMA study. The researchers took three punch biopsies from study participants — each equivalent to one-eighth the size of a pencil eraser, Gibbons says. The biopsy detected misfolded alpha-synuclein in 92.7 percent of patients with confirmed Parkinson’s disease in the study.

Researchers recently developed a spinal fluid test that can also detect misfolded alpha-synuclein. Gibbons says the utility for these tests is going to be increasingly important, especially when it comes to drug development and enrolling patients in clinical trials. Many potential treatments are in the research pipeline, he says, “and if one of those treatments becomes available, it’ll be incredibly important to know who has the protein and who would respond to a therapy.” 

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