More New Medical Breakthroughs

The most amazing discoveries, devices, tests, and cures.

By RD Staff from Reader's Digest | March 2007

New Hope for Sick Babies Each year, about 8,000 more babies are added to the 764,000 children and adults in the United States who suffer from cerebral palsy. Until now, there was no treatment. But a new study has found that cooling the bodies and blood of high-risk full-term babies shortly after birth may significantly reduce their chances of disability or death.

Cerebral palsy can be caused when the brain is starved of oxygen at birth. It often takes hours or days for dangerous chemicals to build up and kill the brain cells that control motor function. Bringing the brain’s normal temperature down four degrees slows the buildup and prevents damage.

In the study of 208 babies, only 44% who received cooling died or developed a disability, compared with 62% of those who received normal care. “This is the most promising treatment we have today,” says study author Seetha Shankaran, MD, of Wayne State University, Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Available: Now — Cynthia Dermody

A Juicy Cure for Prostate Cancer Here’s a possible treatment for prostate cancer that’s a pleasure to take: a glass of pomegranate juice. Researchers at UCLA measured patients’ prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood levels, which help indicate the presence of cancer. They found that drinking eight ounces of the tangy juice daily significantly slowed rising PSA levels in patients previously treated for the disease. Additional clinical trials are planned to confirm the results, but the preliminary research looks promising for the roughly 235,000 men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. Available: 3-5 years — Lisa Fields

Good News for Pain Potent pain medications often cause side effects like nausea and constipation, so some patients get grief along with relief. But scientists have changed the way narcotic drugs behave by activating only the receptors that relieve pain and bypassing those that cause gastrointestinal trouble. New, specially designed medications are being tested in clinical trials for end-stage cancer patients. The hope is that anyone needing a painkiller could benefit. Available: 1 year — Lisa Fields

A “Feel” for Robotic Surgery Using medical robots for minimally invasive procedures from heart to prostate surgery has improved patients’ recovery times as well as surgeons’ precision. However, a common complaint of docs learning the techniques is the lack of sensitivity, or “feel,” in the fingers that they had when wielding a scalpel.

A new solution called electronic skin is being developed at the University of Nebraska. When the thin-film sensor touches a surface, such as tissue inside the body, it “reads” the texture and activates transducers on the surgeon’s glove to give the sensation of touch. This may improve the outcome of minimally invasive surgery by detecting cancerous tissue in the GI tract and calcification in the arteries early on. Available: 3-5 years — Fran Lostys

Germ-Killer Coating Germ-phobes, rejoice: Hospital waiting rooms could soon be killing fields, not breeding grounds, for viruses and bacteria. Researchers at North Carolina State and Emory University have developed a thinner-than-microscopic protective layer, called nano-coating, that can be applied to almost any surface. It kills 99.9% of most microbes through a chemical reaction caused by exposure to visible light. “We can put the coating on hospital furniture, on drapes-the potential is vast,” says Tom Roberg, CEO of LaamScience, the company developing the technology. If all goes as planned, nano-coating could be in hospitals as early as this fall. Available: 1 year — Lisa Fields

Skin Cancer Survivor Thomas May should be dead. After seven years with melanoma, just about everyone is. But May, 41, is quite alive, and it is his cancer that has died, thanks to an experimental gene therapy. Steven A. Rosenberg, MD, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, took some of May’s own white blood cells and gave them a new gene that improves their ability to spot and kill cancer. He then injected the souped-up white cells back into May. The altered cells became melanoma’s worst nightmare, and May was soon declared disease free. Since the therapy is targeted specifically to melanoma cells, May had none of the usual side effects, such as nausea and hair loss. “It’s the first gene manipulation that can successfully treat a cancer,” says Dr. Rosenberg. Most people in the study weren’t so lucky, but Dr. Rosenberg is improving the technique and broadening its application to other cancers. Available: 3-5 years — William Speed Weed

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