The "Next Big Things" In Medicine

Medicine is on the brink of many new treatments. Sunday Morning takes a look at three of them.

Alzheimer's Research

There is a new technique that may help doctors make an early diagnosis.

In Los Angeles, Dr. Gary Small and his colleagues at the UCLA Center on Aging may have found a way to identify abnormalities in the brain associated with Alzheimer's long before there are symptoms.

"What we've discovered is a new chemical marker," he told CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes.

Seen with a pet scan, that marker can highlight the abnormal protein deposits in the brain, called plaques and tangles. This technique should help in researching new drugs that can attack those deposits.

"I'm optimistic that in the not-too-distant future Alzheimer's will be a disease that's dealt with very much like having high cholesterol, where you go to the doctor, you get a brain check, and if you have too much of these abnormal proteins in your brain, the doctor will give you a prevention treatment," Small said.

Although there is no cure, early diagnosis will help patients like Nancy Leavitt, who has a long family history of Alzheimer's.

"I have trouble with names and faces," she said. "We all have these middle aged pauses but when I forget something I just panic, you know. I just think 'Oh my God, this is it,'" she said.

The next steps are wider testing and FDA approval.

No-Cut Operations

Soon procedures that involve virtually no incision at all will become more common.

It's called N.O.T.E.S for natural orifice translumenal endoscopic surgery.

Albert Lapuglia of Chicago was surprised when doctors told him there was a new way to remove his gallbladder.

"They were going to go down my throat into my stomach, make an incision with some instruments, remove the gallbladder, take it back out through my mouth," he told CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

Dr. Eric Hungness at Northwestern Memorial Hospital is among the first of American surgeons to perform the high tech procedure.

"Instead of making any incisions on the outside of the body we would put instruments though the mouth or through another natural orifice and do an operation that way," he said.

He slid this slender tube down Lapuglia's throat, then used handgrips to control tools inside, a camera and a tiny sewing kit complete with a needle and scissors.

Because doctors didn't have to make any large incisions, Lapuglia was back on his feet in just a couple of days.

"I felt good," Lapuglia said. "I didn't suffer and I didn't take painkillers for more than three days."

Although still in its infancy, the new technique is considered to be one of the most exciting medical breakthroughs in decades.

Virtual Reality

What's next to allay anxieties of all kinds? It's called virtual reality therapy.

"Many people have bad memories and that is what causes their fears," psychologist Libby Tannenbaum told CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta who hosted Sunday Morning's Health Issue. "The only way to overcome a fear is to face your fear."

Planes are used for passengers fearful of flying. Groups are used for people nervous about public speaking. Or in Gupta's case, returning to Iraq - fears he formed when reporting from there last year.

Gupta went through the therapy of Atlanta's Emory University for a segment on CNN where he learned to embrace the theory behind virtual reality: the best way to put something behind you is to put it in front of you.