When it comes to cutting-edge medical research, Kentucky has long played an outsized role despite being a relatively small state.
It began more than 200 years ago, when Danville’s Ephraim McDowell became the father of abdominal surgery, and it continued up to a few weeks ago, when it was reported that an Owensboro facility had produced the experimental serum given to two Americans who had become infected with the Ebola virus in Africa.
While more work is necessary to determine the treatment’s effectiveness, this is no small accomplishment, as the outbreak of this virus has been called its worst ever.
What makes this treatment unique is that it came from tobacco, a plant Kentucky knows quite well.
Because tobacco is relatively easy to manipulate genetically, it has proven to be ideal when it comes to producing large quantities of medicine. The Ebola treatment is just one of potentially many.
Another example comes from the two University of Louisville researchers who helped develop the world’s first 100 percent-effective cancer vaccine, which initially targeted cervical cancer. They are now looking at tobacco to provide a less-expensive version of this medicine.
Other research focuses on blocking the spread of the HIV virus and quickly providing significant quantities of flu vaccine. Eggs are the incubators now used to provide most of the current flu shots.
In other success stories, many may remember when Louisville was home to pioneering work in artificial hearts in the 1980s and again in 2001, when surgeons there successfully implanted the world’s first that was self-contained.
Another major milestone was reached two years earlier, when hand surgeons in that city completed the country’s first successful hand transplant.
More recently, both the University of Kentucky and U of L are at the forefront in helping those paralyzed learn to walk again. One advancement publicized in April showed the potential benefits of an electronic device implanted in these patients, while another featured an exoskeleton that patients could control by thought.
In other medical highlights, UK recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of having its cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute, a prestigious honor that has helped increase the school’s research and treatment capabilities.
UK is also home to one of the country’s 10 original Alzheimer’s Disease Centers, and its pharmacy school was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the country’s top five in 2012.
One of that school’s professors was recently recognized for his work in an area especially important to our state as it fights a steep rise in heroin abuse. He has designed a nasal spray that, assuming it receives FDA approval, can quickly administer the drug naloxone, a miracle drug that can reverse overdoses if given in time.
Earlier this month, meanwhile, our region was the focus of a healthcare-related meeting that was part of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) program. Part of its focus was on the innovative steps we are taking here in Eastern Kentucky to improve our collective health, especially in areas like cancer, heart disease and illnesses tied to obesity.
With that in mind, I want to thank those locally who are there on the frontlines every day doing their part to help those who are sick or in need of preventive care. This commitment may not always draw headlines but is vital just the same. Those involved are making a profound difference on our quality of life that will be felt for generations.
As always, I would like to know your thoughts on this issue or any other affecting the state. You can always email me at Greg.Stumbo@lrc.ky.gov or leave a message for me by calling, toll-free, 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.