In the last decade, we witnessed global economic turmoil, went to war, suffered viral epidemics, were introduced to the iPhone and, if you weren't paying attention, saw some significant advances in medical science. As a population, we've gained a lot of weight -- more than 30 percent of American adults are considered obese -- but we've cut back on smoking. We began injecting ourselves with Botox to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles on our faces. Surgeries are becoming less invasive, and treatments are becoming more targeted and personalized. We're constantly finding out more about how our bodies work. We've collected 10 things -- good and bad -- that have been discovered in medical science during the last 10 years. Let's begin with the discovery of omega-3 fatty acids and how they can help protect us from heart disease and numerous other conditions.
10. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids. While they might not sound like something you intentionally want in your diet, omega-3 fatty acids are important because they control body functions such as blood clotting. Researchers have found that these fatty acids provide protection against cardiovascular disease, including abnormal heart rhythms, hypertension, high triglyceride levels, heart disease and stroke. They also potentially prevent age-related macular degeneration, certain cancers, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis).
Your body doesn't actually make omega-3 fatty acids, though, so to get their benefits you need to eat foods rich with them. One of the best sources is fatty fish, including salmon, sardines and tuna. Additionally, walnuts, dark green vegetables (such as kale and spinach), and some vegetable oils are good sources of omega-3s.
9. Once-a-day HIV Pill
Since HIV introduced itself to the world, researchers have been searching for ways to treat, cure and prevent infections. It's estimated that, worldwide, more than 30 million adults and 2.5 million children live with HIV [source: AVERT]. The CDC estimates that more than 1.1 million Americans are infected with HIV, 21 percent of whom are undiagnosed [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
The year 2010 went out like a lion regarding AIDS and HIV research: A once-a-day pill that not only treats HIV but also help to prevent the infection (called pre-exposure prophylaxis). The study focused on gay and bisexual men and found that those who took the daily pill along with using condoms reduced their risk of HIV infection by 44 percent. And those who followed the daily dosage closely had 73 percent fewer infections at the end of the study.
8. C-reactive Proteins
While it doesn't sound like much to say that researchers recently discovered inflammation, which is basically like saying they discovered swelling, the important discovery here is that they found a link between inflammation of our arteries and cardiovascular disease. The level of a certain protein called C-reactive protein, or CRP, found in our blood clues your doctor in to the level of inflammation you have in your body. It can be measured with a simple, high-sensitivity CRP blood test that can determine whether or not you're at high risk for having a heart attack or other sudden heart problem or stroke. High levels of CRP in your blood put you at high risk.
7. Enzymes Make All Blood 'Universal'
Blood comes in different types. It's positive or negative for an Rh protein (this is its Rh factor), and it belongs to one of four blood groups: A, B, AB and O. In total, there are eight different combinations of blood types, some more rare than others, which can make blood transfusions tricky -- the blood we have has to match the donated blood type. There's one exception: Blood type O-negative is considered a universal donor, which means that it doesn't have any A or B antigens or Rh proteins. Anyone can receive this blood through a transfusion without experiencing complications or a fatal reaction. The problem, however, is that only about 7 percent of people have O-negative blood [source: Red Cross].
Researchers have now found a way to convert any blood type to type O. They have discovered two enzymes that remove the A and B antigens from blood, while keeping the blood safe and usable. An enzyme from the bacterium Bacteroides fragilis strips the B antigen from blood, while another enzyme, from the bacterium Elizabethkingia meningosepticum, removes the A antigen.
6. Gene Therapy for Neurodegenerative Diseases
Neurodegenerative diseases are nerve disorders that progressively cause our bodies to lose control of certain functions such as muscle control. Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease are all examples of degenerative nerve diseases. It's estimated that one in four Americans will have a degenerative nerve disease, and even if you're lucky enough not to suffer from the condition itself, it's almost certain to touch all of our families [source: University of Pittsburgh].
Degenerative nerve diseases typically run in families, suggesting a strong genetic link. Until recently, treating these diseases was limited to treating symptoms. But researchers have found that gene therapy may help repair the defective genes responsible for causing disease. Modified, healthy genes are inserted into a disease sufferer's defective cells, and while it's not a cure, ongoing studies show promising, measurable results of decreased disease activity.
5. The First Cancer Vaccine
Cervical cancer has been linked to a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that will infect an estimated 50 percent or more of sexually active Americans during their lives [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
Roughly 250,000 American women have a history of cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix uteri), and it's estimated that 1 in 147 will receive a cervical cancer diagnosis in her lifetime [source: National Cancer Institute]. Nearly 12,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006 and about 4,000 died from cervical cancer that year [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
For the first time, a vaccine to prevent cancer has been developed, specifically targeting the strains of HPV that are linked to the development of cancer -- and one of the two available vaccines also immunizes against the strains that cause genital warts. Health professionals recommend girls and boys be vaccinated between ages 9 and 26, before becoming sexually active.
4. Targeted Drug Therapies for Cancer
Targeted cancer therapy is a breakthrough cancer treatment that directly targets and kills tumor cells. Instead of toxic, tumor-killing drugs delivered throughout the body, a drug (or substance) is directed toward a specific area or tumor, sent directly to the cancer cells. Targeted therapies act directly on the cancer cells, working differently depending on the type of cancer being treated. These therapies shrink tumors, blocking them from dividing or killing them all without (or minimally) damaging healthy, normal cells in other areas of the body. This damage to healthy cells is the problem with traditional chemotherapy and radiation.
Targeted cancer therapies have been successfully used in two of the most common cancers, beginning with breast cancer and now tailored to be used against other cancers, including:
- Lung cancer
- Certain forms of leukemia
- Pancreatic cancer
- Cancers of the head and neck
- Colorectal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Some types of lymphomas
It's sometimes used as a solo therapy and sometimes along with other cancer treatments (including radiation and chemotherapy), as a cancer patient's team determines.
3. Hormone Replacement Therapy
It used to be that hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and specifically estrogen replacement, was used to reduce the symptoms of menopause and to protect postmenopausal women from heart disease and other conditions such as osteoporosis. In 2002, however, that changed. Researchers conducting the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) discovered that estrogen and progestin replacement therapy, as well as estrogen-only therapy, didn't protect women against heart disease. In fact, the combination of estrogen and progestin increased the risk of heart attacks, stroke, blood clots and breast cancer.
Since this study, health care professionals have changed the way they prescribe HRT, erring on the side of caution. Now, they use the treatment for the shortest possible time and only as relief for perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms (and not as prevention for cardiovascular illness and osteoporosis).
2. Advances in Treating Coronary Heart Disease
An estimated 17 million Americans suffer from a condition called coronary heart disease (CHD), also known as coronary artery disease and arteriosclerotic heart disease, that causes the arteries that deliver blood to the heart to narrow with plaque buildup on the arterial walls [source: Johns Hopkins University]. When this happens, the body can't supply enough blood to keep the heart healthy -- the narrow arteries cut off oxygen and essential nutrients. This increases the risks of developing blood clots and suffering a heart attack.
The only way for medical professionals to see what's going on in our coronary arteries has been, since the 1960s, to order a selective X-ray coronary angiography. It's an expensive, uncomfortable procedure that can cause complications for patients. Assessing coronary heart disease can now be done with a noninvasive technique that uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electron-beam computed tomography (CT).
1. Cracking the Human Genetic Blueprint
The ambitious project of mapping the human genome -- the entire collection of genetic information that makes up a human being -- began in 1911. It gained ground in the 1970s and '80s, but it wasn't until 2001 that two international teams of researchers completed the first draft of the complete human genetic blueprint. In 2003, 99 percent of the human genome was mapped, and we learned that humans have about 30,000 to 35,000 genes.
Studying and mapping our genetic blueprint is important to learning how and why the human body works and how and why it fails, causing physical and mental illness.
Want to learn more? Check out the next page for lots more information about medical advancements.
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More Great Links
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- American Heart Association. "Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids." Sept. 7, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids_UCM_303248_Article.jsp
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "HIV/AIDS -- Basic Statistics." July 27, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/surveillance/basic.htm#hivest
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- KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation. "What's Blood?" August 2009. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://kidshealth.org/kid/talk/qa/blood.html
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Group including Whitehead completes human genetic blueprint." Feb. 14, 2001. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2001/genome-0214.html
- Merz, Beverly. "The Human Genome Project." Howard Hughes Medical Institute. 2008. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.hhmi.org/genetictrail/c100.html
- National Cancer Institute. "SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Cervix Uteri." 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/cervix.html
- National Cancer Institute. "Targeted Cancer Therapies." June 21, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/targeted
- The North American Menopause Society. "Confirming Menopause." Feb. 22, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.menopause.org/menopauseflashes0901confirmingmenopause.aspx
- NOVA Science in the News. "The Human Genome Project - discovering the human blueprint." May 2008. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.science.org.au/nova/006/006key.htm
- Roan, Shari. "Omega-3s in seafood may prevent age-related macular degeneration." Los Angeles Times. Dec. 2, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/02/news/la-heb-omega-3-20101202
- University of Pittsburgh, Department of Neurodegenerative Diseases. "Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases." 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.neurology.upmc.edu/pind/
- U.S. National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus. "Degenerative Nerve Diseases." Dec. 3, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/degenerativenervediseases.html
- U.S. National Library of Medicine, Genetics Home Reference. "What is gene therapy?" 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010) http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/therapy/genetherapy
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