What Will '09 Bring In Medicine?

Every year, we hear about amazing medical breakthroughs likely to make our lives better and prolong them.

2008 was no different, and we should start seeing the results of some of that work in 2009 in doctors' offices and hospitals across the country.

On The Early Show Saturday Edition, Frances Largeman Roth, a senior editor of Health magazine, explained what's likely in store in medicine in the coming year.

FIGHTING OBESITY

The hot word in obesity for this year is "leptin." When the connection between this hormone and weight loss was first discovered in 1994, researchers helped fat, overfed lab mice stay slim. And they believed they could do with people what they did with mice: inject some leptin, and kiss pounds goodbye. Humans, it turned out, were more complicated. When they lost weight, their bodies became stingier with calories consumed and more efficient in retaining existing weight. Not willing to give up on leptin, scientists at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City started looking at the hormone as a possible weight-loss-maintenance drug. They discovered through scans that brain activity in areas connected to restraint and control declines after weight loss. Hike leptin levels, however, and those brain areas become more active. Researchers now see new possibilities for leptin in long-term weight control.

BREAST CANCER

There have been three big developments in treating breast cancer. The first is an alternative mammogram option. A recent Mayo Clinic study of nearly 1,000 women showed that new, gamma-ray cameras detected three times as many tiny tumors (as small as two-fifths-of-an-inch in diameter) as standard mammography in women with dense breasts. This development gives high-risk women another early-detection option besides mammograms and more expensive MRIs.

The next is an herbal breakthrough, Black Cohosh, a plant in the buttercup family. It's been shown to stop the growth of some breast cancer cells, according to new research conducted by a French pharmaceutical company and funded in part by the National Institutes of health. Researchers attribute the cancer-cell death to the agent triterpene glycoside, which is found in black cohosh extract. Should you take it? Ask your doctor. Past research has shown that black cohosh can interfere with certain kinds of chemotherapy and has some adverse side effects. Plus, studies so far have been done only on mice.

Finally, one-stop radiation: For most breast cancer patients who need radiation, treatments typically last up to six weeks. But a new study raises hopes for a one-day treatment known as "intraoperative electron beam radiation therapy," or IOERT. One researcher has shared the findings of an eight-year randomized trial. The results showed that women who received breast-conserving surgery followed by a single dose of IOERT at the time of surgery had a chance of survival equal to that of women who underwent the surgery followed by six weeks of postoperative radiation therapy.

COLON CANCER

Researchers have found that targeted treatments are saving lives. When oncologists discovered that different genes (BRCA1, BRCA2, HER2) were linked with different types of breast cancer, lifesaving targeted therapies were soon developed. Now, there's similar positive news for people with colon cancer. Until this summer, late-stage colon cancers were treated pretty much the same, but the discovery of a mutated KRAS colon cancer gene has helped change that. As a result, one-size-fits-all chemotherapy is being replaced with more personalized treatment that could save lives.

STAPH INFECTIONS

More hospital patients die from staph infections than from AIDS each year. But there's a breakthrough in the way hospitals will treat those infections in the future. New prevention and treatment options for the bug known officially as methicillin-resisten staphylococcus aureus have emerged.

One is a protective nasal gel (XF-73), designed to kill the microbes early on, upon contact, with every breath. Past anti-MRSA drugs focused on preventing bacteria from spreading or stunting the bacteria's growth. Also, surgeons began experimenting on animals this year with MRSA-fighting stitches coated with a virus that fights the MRSA bug but doesn't affect humans. Each tiny hole for stitches is a potential entry point for MRSA or other stubborn infections, so the idea of fortifying dozens of these sites to prevent chances of future infection is brilliant.

BRAIN DISEASES

Scientists in England this spring won permission from British medical authorities to create new embryos called cytoplasmic hybrids, eggs from rabbits or cows that have had their nuclei replaced with human genetic code. The United Kingdom puts far fewer restrictions on stem cell use in federal research than the United States does. No Frankensteins at work here: The goal is to produce stem cells that will help determine the causes of and find treatments for incurable and debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

AGING SKIN

A landmark review by doctors at the University of Michigan Medical School published earlier this year in the prestigious Archives of Dermatology verified that three leading skin-renewal treatments are all, indeed, medically effective. Carbon dioxide laser resurfacing? Check. Topical retinol products? Check (at concentrations between 0.2 and 0.6 percent). Injections of hyaluronic acid? Check. Each of these three anti-aging treatments can improve skin by strengthening what's called its "dermal collagen matrix." The biggest surprise to researchers? The filler, hyaluronic acid, can also boost the creation of collagen when delivered by syringe. Doctors had previously thought its value was strictly cosmetic, not medical.
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