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
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.
— 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