2011's Ten Biggest Medical Breakthroughs

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  • Amid the flood of health information published every day – tips, articles, study results – there’s news of actual breakthroughs. Through painstaking research, experts are moving toward a greater understanding of serious illnesses , new treatments for those illnesses and discoveries that can alter the health of millions. Here are some of the biggest breakthroughs of 2011:

    Real Body Parts Created In A Lab

    Like so many other breakthroughs, this has a vaguely science-fiction feel to it. Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, has made an actual, functioning urethra in his lab. Atala created a tube-shaped structure and added patients’ bladder cells. When put into the patients’ bodies, the urethra worked. The main obstacle: the $5,000 price tag.
  • A Breast-Cancer Vaccine Animal studies conducted at the University of Georgia Cancer Center have resulted in a vaccine that attacks cancerous tumors in mice. Experts said that although the vaccine still needs to be tested on humans, it is promising for the treatment of breast, pancreatic, and ovarian cancer. Hopefully, the vaccine can even treat the most aggressive form of breast cancer, known as triple-negative breast cancer. Patients who have that variety of breast cancer don’t respond to conventional chemotherapy. Scientists are hopeful the drug will be on the market by late 2013.
  • Cancer Breath We all know about the sensitivity of dogs to imminent hurricanes and tornadoes. Now it turns out that dogs can detect early and late stage cancer by sniffing a patient’s breath. As it turns out, tumors have a very faint smell that dogs’ sensitive noses can pick up. Researchers in Germany trained five ordinary household dogs to recognize the odor of tumors in both early- and late-stage lung cancer patients. The dogs had a 71 percent accuracy rate in detecting tumors, and a 99 percent accuracy rate in smelling study subjects who didn’t have tumors. Finding early tumors can pave the way for more accurate treatment. The American Cancer society has been cautious but not dismissive about the findings, with its chief medical officer, Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld, saying, “I learned a long time ago never to say never. And when it comes to detecting cancer early by a smell test, well….stranger things have happened.”
  • A Major Breakthrough In Gene Therapy Although you hear a lot about gene therapy – injecting a healthy gene to replace a malfunctioning one in genetically-cause diseases – it hasn’t actually been that successful. Until now. A team of scientists from St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, and University College London made the discovery of effective gene treatment of Hemophilia B. The illness is characterized by excessive bleeding and joint deformities. Gene therapist Dr. Ronald Crystal, of Cornell-Weill Medical Center, told The New York Times that the discovery “was a significant advance for the field.”
  • A Malaria Vaccine Malaria, a childhood mosquito-borne illness, causes fever, headache and even death in the most serious cases. It affects millions of children in Africa, and no preventive techniques have ever been found. Now, though, a vaccine has been developed by a team including the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s not perfect – the effectiveness rate is 56 percent, and it doesn’t work on younger children – but further research will almost certainly solve one of the world’s most serious health problems.
  • A Safe Weight-Loss Drug? Researchers at the prestigious M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have zeroed in on an injectable substance called adipotide. Monkeys that were given the drug dropped 11 percent of body fat in a month. The drug, which prevents blood flow to fat cells, killing them, isn’t yet available and will require further studies. But scientists believe it could eventually become a safe, long-term drug to treat obese people.
  • Creating Alzheimer's Antibodies A team of researchers at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute discovered a new method to create antibodies that are designed to combat illnesses, including Alzheimer’s. Antibodies are substances that are produced by the immune system to to fight harmful invaders by attaching to a molecule carrying that disease. But because the molecules are so tiny, it’s been difficult to design an antibody targeting any specific one. The antibody developed by Assistant Professor Peter Tessier and his team, solved that problem. The eventual outcome: drugs that work with the antibodies to fight Alzheimer’s.
  • Saliva: The Ultimate Age Test Although DNA can tell us a lot about the human body, until now it hasn’t been able to reveal the body’s exact age. That’s changed now. Researchers at UCLA, working with saliva samples, found that the saliva attached itself to the DNA and gave a surpisingly easy way to read the subject’s age. (Variants such as diet and stress were factored in.) Further studies are needed, but it’s an important discovery.
  • A Death Risk Prophecy Scary or helpful? Scientists at Uppsala University In Sweden have figured out that people with a particular enzyme are likelier to die sooner than those without it. The enzyme, Capthesin S, is frequently found in people with heart trouble or tumors. Pharmaceutical companies are reportedly trying to develop drugs that will block the enzyme’s action.