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2002 Medical Breakthroughs

A number of scientific breakthroughs in 2002 could transform the world of medicine.

Early Show Medical Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains the advancements that may change our lives.

One of the biggest pieces of medical news was announced toward the end of 2002. A fringe scientist in Italy announced a woman would be giving birth in January to a cloned baby. Dr. Senay says nobody in the mainstream medical community has been able to confirm whether or not this is real or a publicity stunt, but this scientist, Antinori, is not alone in trying to clone humans.

She says it's only a matter of time before one of these fringe groups is successful. The "brave new world" implications are certainly worrisome, but the real problem is that the animals that have been cloned in research labs have suffered severe medical problems.

Dolly the sheep, the clone that was born in Scotland five years ago, has had painful joint problems. Even the animal clones that seemed to be doing well in early years eventually had debilitating health problems as adults. Therefore, Dr. Senay explains, it's quite cruel to create these children, if the fetuses do survive, who will likely have some kind of health problems and often a shorter-than-normal life span.

One estimate predicts that only 3 percent of all cloning efforts succeeds. However, mainstream scientists are against the cloning of humans, so it's really a fringe phenomenon, and most countries don't allow this kind of work.

Dr. Senay says Stanford University is cloning human embryos, but it is done for research purposes, not with the goal of creating a human. What the Stanford lab and others around the world are doing is cloning embryos for stem cells.

Stem cells recently have been found to be a panacea, of sorts. Scientists believe they will be the key to discovering cures for such debilitating diseases as Parkinson's disease, diabetes and Lou Gerhig's disease. Labs currently depend on fertility labs for excess embryos to conduct this research, but hope to be able to clone embryos for a limitless supply.

Anti-abortion activists and certain religious and political groups are opposed to the research because the embryos have to be created and destroyed to have stem cells for research. But there has also been promising research on cloning adult cells, so this is still part of cloning science, without the embryo debate.

Another medical finding may affect treatment of heart disease. It will likely change how we treat heart problems in the near future. Researchers over the past year revealed that inflammation may be more of an indicator of heart attacks than cholesterol. One test on the market uses C-reactive protein, or CRP, which measures inflammation. Dr. Senay says once CRP is more widely used, it could reduce the number of heart attacks in this country significantly.

The other test for heart attacks used BNP, B-type Natriuretic Peptide, which is able to quickly test for congestive heart failure, often difficult to diagnose, so patients can get treatment faster. This has been on the market for over a year, but it's just beginning to catch on.

Dr. Senay says there is also good news for arthritis sufferers. The National Institutes of Health is funding a clinical study using MRI scans that can test for arthritis at much earlier stages than seen before. This research will help scientists develop new, better treatments, good news for the estimated 35 million Americans who suffer from osteoarthritis.

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