More New Medical Breakthroughs

Smallpox Cure But wasn’t that disease killed off a long time ago? While the smallpox virus was officially stamped out

A smallpox virus
A smallpox virus

Smallpox Cure
But wasn’t that disease killed off a long time ago? While the smallpox virus was officially stamped out in 1980, unknown samples of the virus may still be out there. And if they ended up in terrorists’ hands, the results could be devastating, infecting thousands, possibly millions, of people. Up to a third would die.

Now scientists may have found a cure for smallpox. The new drug, SIGA-246, currently in the final stages of development and testing, not only safely protects against the disease but also can treat it and stop an outbreak in its tracks. The drug would also work for relatives of the virus, like monkeypox and cowpox, which could someday mutate and become just as dangerous as smallpox.
Available: 1-3 years
— Cynthia Dermody

Bone Builder?
If Spider-Man had gone to medical school, he could have made a fortune in orthopedics. That’s because new research by Tufts University bioengineers shows that spider silk, combined with tiny glass beads called silica, creates a new material that could one day be used in growing and repairing human bones.

Spiders usually use their silk to make webs and catch prey, and scientists have long studied the benefits of the flexible, strong fibers. The new “fusion” material promises to improve the quality of bone implants in surgery. Earlier research on spider silk suggests it can be used in many products, including surgical sutures, body armor and even artificial ligaments for people with knee injuries.
Available: 5+ years
— Neena Samuel

Easier Heart Surgery
Nearly 100,000 people undergo chest-cracking open-heart surgery to replace heart valves each year. But a less invasive technique may become the new standard. As with angioplasty, doctors enter the body through a groin vessel, thread tools and devices into the heart (the valve itself compresses to the diameter of a pencil), and operate while watching live images from an echocardiogram and x-ray machine. The procedure will make valve repair or replacement feasible for sick patients who can’t handle the stress of open-heart surgery (as well as those reluctant to undergo it the old-fashioned way), possibly doubling the number who can be helped. It will be less painful, and recovery time will be quicker. Investigational trials are under way.
Available: 4-5 years
— Lisa Fields

Better Breast Cancer Screening
A new ultrasound technique lets radiologists distinguish between malignant and benign breast lesions. By using elasticity imaging, researchers accurately identified harmless and cancerous lesions in almost all of the 80 cases studied. An estimated 213,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. annually, and early detection is their best hope. “If our results can be reproduced in a large multicenter trial,” says Richard G. Barr, MD, of Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, “this technique could significantly reduce the number of breast biopsies required.”
Available: 1 year
— Fran Lostys

Medication Match Game
Scientists seeking new treatments for diseases can access an online tool developed by researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The Connectivity Map matches diseases with compatible drugs, based on the genetic profiles of both. The creators relied on Human Genome Project data, and the results should help researchers discover new applications for existing medications. So far, about 160 drugs and compounds are cataloged, and a few new uses for existing drugs have been suggested. Eventually, all FDA-approved drugs should be included.
Available: Now
— Lisa Fields

New Way to Fight Asthma
Some 20 million Americans (about a third of them kids) suffer from asthma, but a new 30-minute outpatient procedure called bronchial thermoplasty may help. A bronchoscope, a flexible tube, is inserted into the mouth or nose and then guided into the lungs. Radiofrequency energy is sent through a catheter and heats the airway to about 150 degrees. That reduces the amount of muscle in the air passage without causing long-term damage or scarring. And with less muscle, there’s less chance of airway constriction or spasm. Thus: relief!

In studies, most patients who received the therapy breathed more easily, needed fewer meds and had more symptom-free days, says Canadian researcher Gerard Cox, MB. A larger trial is under way.
Available: 3-5 years
— Fran Lostys Stop an Epidemic!
Soon there may be a way to fight a pandemic before it has time to spread. The Hemopurifier, designed by Aethlon Medical, a small biotech company in California, is a blood-filtering device that removes viruses and toxins before infection attacks organs, using a method similar to dialysis.

The cool part: Treatment can begin without first identifying the infectious culprit. The blood cleaner comes in two sizes and is used with portable pumps or dialysis machines. The smaller version is the size of a large pen. It can be attached to an artery in the arm by emergency medical personnel, using only needles, tubing and tape. After filtering of the blood is complete (within a few hours), researchers can begin to identify the germ or toxin from blood samples. Aethlon’s CEO, James A. Joyce, points out that it took about 90 days before the SARS virus was identified. With the Hemopurifier, you won’t lose valuable time — and lives — while scientists in the laboratory try to figure out what they’re dealing with.
Available: 1-2 years
— Susan Doremus

Cold, Cold Heart
More cardiac arrest patients are walking out of the hospital thanks to a “cool” procedure (three-quarters of them used to die). Medically induced hypothermia means cooling the blood and body five to eight degrees when oxygen flow to the brain and body has stopped or slowed. Combined with better CPR and more aggressive hospital care, it substantially improves the odds of survival and prevents brain damage, according to new research. Today, half to two-thirds of those people are alive and well.

“For years we didn’t see much improvement in patients who suffered cardiac arrest out of the hospital,” says Mary Fran Hazinski, RN, spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. “Now we’ve seen a dramatic shift, and hypothermia is one of the reasons.” More than a quarter of U.S. doctors use the procedure, and more are expected to as further data becomes available.
Available: Now
— Cynthia Dermody

Blood Backup
When it comes to emergency transfusions, blood may someday get the boot. Scientists are developing substitutes that could be used everywhere from ambulances to battlefields.

The oxygen-carrying resuscitative fluids are ideal for emergency, war and disaster scenarios because unlike real blood, they have a long shelf life, can be stored at various temperatures and may be given to anyone, regardless of blood type. Made from chemically modified hemoglobin, the fluids are also nontoxic and disease free.

PolyHeme, a substitute derived from human red blood cells, is being submitted for FDA approval. Meanwhile, the Navy is urging more studies of Hemopure, a blood substitute made with bovine hemoglobin. Some blood substitutes have been linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke, so more research is needed.
Available: 1-3 years
— Laura McClure

Microchip for Meds
Do you sometimes forget to take your pills? MicroCHIPS, Inc., of Bedford, Massachusetts, has developed a device that can be preloaded with up to 100 doses of medicine, implanted in the body and programmed to administer the drug via wireless signals. The new system has been designed primarily to help deliver medicines that are less effective when taken orally. It has been successful in preliminary tests with dogs.
Available: 5 years
— Lindsay Miller Cervical Cancer The vaccine Gardasil (Merck), for girls and women 11 to 26, prevents infection from four strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), the main cause of cervical cancer.

Shingles Anyone who’s had chickenpox is susceptible to the painful disease shingles. The Zostavax vaccine (Merck) is recommended for people over 60 at greatest risk.

Whooping Cough The vaccine we get as babies wears off after about seven years, so we now have Sanofi Pasteur’s Adacel (for people ages 11 to 64) and GlaxoSmithKline’s Boostrix (for those ages 10 to 18).

Cancer Zolinza (Merck), a new medicine for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, is also being studied for other types of cancer, including leukemia.

Diabetes Januvia (Merck), a once-daily pill for type 2 diabetes, is the first of a new class of medicines that enhance the body’s ability to control blood sugar. With Exubera (Pfizer), a fast-acting needle-free insulin, diabetics simply puff on the asthma-type inhaler before eating to deliver insulin quickly, regulating blood sugar.

Heart One pill, three impressive jobs: The beta blocker Coreg CR (GlaxoSmithKline) reduces blood pressure and treats heart failure as well as post-heart-attack problems.

Smoking In trials, 44% of smokers who took prescription Chantix (Pfizer) for three months kicked the habit, versus 30% who used other drugs and 18% on a placebo.
Available: Now
— Patricia Curtis

Cancer- Curing Creature
A scorpion’s sting can be deadly, but scientists are now discovering that the poison may also be lifesaving. Researchers are using a man-made version of the venom of Israeli yellow scorpions to treat gliomas, aggressive brain tumors that are hard to fully remove by surgery alone. Of the 17,000 Americans diagnosed annually, only 8% survive for two years. A protein in the venom selectively binds itself to cancerous cells while bypassing the surrounding healthy ones. Combined with radioactive iodine and injected into the body, the venom targets and destroys the offending cells. Early results show that the treatment is safe and extends life in some patients, so a larger study with 54 people nationwide is now under way.
Available:5+ years
— Neena Samuel

Nano-Knitters for Nerves
Researchers at MIT have found a way to restore vision in brain-damaged rodents. The innovative procedure uses nanotechnology to spur growth in damaged nerve cells. Scientists say the technique could someday be used to restore speech, hearing, vision and movement in people affected by stroke, brain trauma and spinal cord injuries.

How does it work? A clear liquid of amino acids is injected into the injured part of the brain. The amino acids assemble into a mesh-like structure that’s similar to the body’s connective tissue. This “scaffolding” allows nerve cells to grow and reconnect, restoring lost communication between the brain and the body.

MIT neuroscientist Rutledge Ellis-Behnke tested the solution in hamsters with severed optic tracts. Within 24 hours, the injured nerve cells began to regrow in both young and adult rodents. “The brain started to heal,” Ellis-Behnke says. “We have never seen that before.” Six months later, 75% of the animals had regained functional vision.
Available:5+ years
— Laura McClure

The Anti-Aging Pill
What if there were a pill you could take to ward off the diseases that come with aging? Researchers at the National Institute on Aging and Harvard University may have found the answer: resveratrol, a substance found naturally in red wine. Even though scientists fed mice a high-fat diet, a daily dose of resveratrol protected them from diabetes, and they lived longer than mice who didn’t get any. It’s still unclear exactly how resveratrol works, but it seems to mimic the life-lengthening benefits of calorie restriction. No matter how much red wine you drink, it would be tough to get enough resveratrol (not to mention the side effects of alcohol), so pharmaceutical companies are looking to develop a specially formulated pill form. More research is needed to determine if the effects would be the same in humans, but if they are, we’ll drink to that!
Available:5 years
— Patricia Curtis One Flu Shot Fits All
A universal vaccine could protect you from all major strains of flu, even the dreaded avian variety. Scientists are targeting a flu protein called M2 that appears in all influenza A strains. Current shots protect against only certain strains.

While an M2 vaccine may not keep people from getting sick, they might get a milder version of the flu. The good news: Fewer patients would die. Today, up to 35,000 people, mostly the elderly, succumb to the flu each year. M2 clinical trials could begin this year.
Available: 5+ years
— Lisa Fields

Sight Saver
Two new drugs (one a proven cancer fighter) have given millions of macular degeneration patients hope of improving their vision. “With these new treatments, we’re able to keep people functioning and help them live productive lives,” says Richard Rosen, MD, a retina specialist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Avastin is already approved for cancer treatment and is being used to treat macular degeneration, and Lucentis was approved as a treatment for the disease last year. Both are anti-angiogenesis drugs, which stop the growth of blood vessels that feed tumors. When injected directly into the eye to treat the “wet” form of macular degeneration, the drugs stop the growth of vessels in the retina that obstruct vision.
Available: Now
— Cynthia Dermody

Why We Love Chocolate, Reason #27
As if we needed another excuse: New evidence suggests that eating a little chocolate might help ward off artery-blocking, heart-attack-provoking blood clots. During a recent study, Johns Hopkins University researchers discovered that clots formed more slowly in the blood of chocolate lovers than in those who passed on the sweets. Cocoa beans contain chemicals called flavonoids, which seem to have blood-thinning effects similar to those of aspirin, known to reduce platelet clumping. Dark chocolate, which is lower in sugar and fat than milk chocolate, is the healthier way to reap the newfound rewards.
Available: Now
— Lindsay Miller

A Virus to Kill Cancer?
Scientists are using modified viruses to fight tumors. The viruses bind only to cancer cells, reproduce and spread, killing the cancer while sparing healthy tissue. Researchers at UCLA used HIV to attack melanoma in mice. Although humans won’t be tested with this protocol for years, at the Mayo Clinic, trials are under way using the measles virus to fight ovarian and brain cancers.
Available: 5+ years
— Lisa Fields

Do-It-Yourself Heart Repair
While the debate continues over the use of embryonic stem cells, scientists have figured out a way to use adult stem cells to treat heart attacks. Doctors often place a balloon in the blocked artery, opening it up to restore blood flow and limit the damage. Adding stem cells taken from your own bone marrow may be even more effective, say researchers in London. When injected into the artery, the cells go directly to the spot where the heart was damaged. In mice studies, the cells turn into heart muscle and restore much of the heart function. One day we might be able to completely restore the heart after an attack, says researcher Anthony Mathur, PhD. “This is the first time we’ve used our own cells to repair damaged organs.”
Available: 3-5 years
— Patricia Curtis

Replacement Parts for Women
Until now, the only artificial knee on the market was designed for everybody. But women’s knees are narrower and more delicate than men’s, and the implant commonly caused parts to overhang, causing rubbing and pain and making it difficult for patients to get out of chairs or climb stairs. Last year, the FDA approved the first implant for women, the Gender Solutions High-Flex Knee, from Zimmer, Inc. “Women are not just little men. They are different, and they walk differently,” says Robert Booth, MD, chief of orthopedic surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital, who has installed about 500 of the new implants. “Now we’re going to be customizing parts to patients rather than saying everybody drives a Ford.” Next up: artificial hips for women.
Available: Now
— Cynthia Dermody 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

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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