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Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs in 2013 from Times
10. Detecting Parkinson’s Disease Early
Scientists are now convinced that the most common neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, might be better treated if it were possible to identify patients early in their disease and intervene with treatments. For example, by the time the first symptoms of Parkinson’s appears – the tremor in the fingers or lip, the loss of smell or the rigid facial expression – damage to the brain and the neural networks that guide muscle movement is well entrenched.
But in the first report on biomarkers that serve as the fingerprint for Parkinson’s, researchers say a panel of proteins in the spinal fluid may help to identify patients in the first stages of disease. Experts hope the finding launches new studies to test the possibility that drugs that failed in more advanced patients might be more effective in controlling symptoms in those at earlier stages of the disease.
9. Genetic Bonanza: New Genes Linked to Alzheimer’s
Nearly a dozen newly discovered genes connected to the most common form of Alzheimer’s, which occurs later in life, bring to 24 the number of genes now known to be associated with the disease. The new additions are involved in the body’s immune responses and inflammation, both of which are connected to the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s. With more genetic players, researchers will have more targets for drugs that could potentially treat the symptoms of memory loss and dementia that are a hallmark of the brain disorder.
8. Turning Poor Quality Eggs into Healthy Ones
Poor quality eggs are one of the reasons that some American women struggle to get pregnant. But researchers at Stanford University developed a technique that helps women with ovarian insufficiency to produce healthy, mature eggs again. The process, called in vitro activation, involves removing an ovary or piece of ovarian tissue and treating it in a lab with proteins and other factors that help the immature follicles it contains to develop into eggs. The recharged tissue is then reimplanted near the fallopian tubes. So far, of the 27 women who volunteered to test the technique, five produced viable eggs, one woman is pregnant and another gave birth to a healthy baby.
7. Introducing…the Poop Pill
Okay, so the pills are actually made up of the bacteria found in poop, but you get the idea. It turns out that our guts are packed with microbes that do good – they help us digest our food and fend off other, their disease-causing microbes. The right population of bugs can also stamp out Clostridium difficile, a scourge that plagues hospitals and can cause diarrhea and potentially fatal inflammation of the colon. Packaging a microbial community in a pill was the brilliant idea of Dr. Thomas Louie, of the University of Calgary. Among 27 patients who tested the gel capsules, none experienced recurrent symptoms of their Clostridium infection. And they certainly welcomed the easier mode of delivery, which was an improvement over the alternative: fecal transplants, delivered by nasogastric tube, though sanitized of the nastiest and most toxic components.
6. Hair, Hair Everywhere
The answer to growing new hair may lie in turning hair on its head – literally. Researchers at Columbia University report that transplanting hair follicles, which contain the roots of new hair, as well as the cells that surround them – upside down – may be the key to luscious new growth. The experiment involved patches of foreskin from circumcised babies that were transplanted onto mice. Foreskin was used because it has no hair follicles of its own, so any follicles that were inverted, implanted and took root could not be confused with native ones. The new follicles took rout and sprouted—a big boost for the hairless but hopeful.
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5. Less Is More: One Dose of Vaccine Instead of Three May Be Enough to Protect Against HPV
The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is one of the best ways to protect against genital warts and cervical cancer, but only about half of girls and boys aged 11 and 12 have completed all three doses of the immunization. Fortunately, if the latest research from an international group of researchers is confirmed, they may not have to. The scientists found that a single dose of the vaccine generated 24 times more antibodies than produced after an actual infection with the virus, among a group of women in Costa Rica. While it’s not clear whether these levels would be enough to protect against infection, and lower the risk of cancer, the results suggest that even one dose of the vaccine may be enough to provide some protection against HPV.
4. Finally, We’re Just Like Dolly
It took 17 years and a scandal involving scientific fraud and embezzlement, but stem cell scientists have finally accomplished with human cells what a scientist long ago did with a ewe – cloning. Using human skin cells, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a professor at Oregon Health & Science University, applied the same process, known as nuclear transfer, that produced Dolly the sheep in 1996, the first cloned mammal. A previous attempt by South Korean researchers turned out to be fraud when it was revealed the team used embryos generated by IVF instead of nuclear transfer to generate its so-called human clones.
Mitalipov’s goal wasn’t to generate mini-mes, however. Instead, he successfully inserted a fully developed skin cell into a hollowed out human egg, and chemically and electrically stimulated the egg to start dividing to produce embryonic stem cells. (The procedure went no further than that—no walking, talking clone.) Stem cells serve as the cellular foundation for the rest of the body’s tissues and organs, and the hope is that they may one day be used to treat diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to heart disease and diabetes.
3. The First Home Pregnancy Test That Tells You How Pregnant You Are
Pregnancy tests just got an upgrade. The Clearblue Advanced Pregnancy Test with Weeks Estimator is the first such test approved by the Food and Drug Administration that not only detects pregnancy, but measures how far along it is, based on time since ovulation. The test uses levels of the same hormone that signals pregnancy, human chorionic gonadotropin, to make its estimate.
2. Dramatic New Changes to Cholesterol Treatment Means More People on Statins
When it comes to cholesterol, doctors have been telling us for years to ‘Know your numbers.’ That may change with the new cholesterol guidelines released by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. The revised advice focuses on the myriad factors that contribute to heart disease – in addition to high cholesterol levels – and the best way to treat them. If you haven’t had a history of heart problems, that means that a new calculator, which factors in your age, sex, gender, smoking history, diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, could help you and your doctor decide whether you can benefit from taking cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, which may prevent your first heart or stroke event.
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1. Road to the End of AIDS: A Newborn Is Functionally Cured of HIV
It seemed almost too good to be true, so Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatrician at University of Mississippi Medical Center, checked the numbers again. But they told the same story. A toddler born to a mother infected with HIV was, after two years, seemingly free of the virus. The infant was functionally cured of HIV.
The baby, who showed signs of infection just after birth, was able to shed its viral load thanks to a combination of three anti-HIV drugs that doctors normally use to treat older infants and adults. Generally, doctors give both the HIV-positive mom and newborn baby a single antiretroviral drug during delivery to stop transmission of the virus from mother to child. But because the baby’s mother did not know she was HIV positive, that precaution wasn’t taken. So Gay and her colleagues took a chance on the more potent drug cocktail. It worked, and the virus has not returned, even after the child stopped taking the medications.
Experts are hedging their celebrations, especially in light of the latest research showing that up to 60% more HIV may lie dormant in infected individuals than previously thought. These reservoirs could potentially seed new infections and cause new symptoms. But the Mississippi toddler represents the hope that if doctors can intervene early enough after HIV infection, there might be a chance of stopping the disease altogether.
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