Article written

  • on 04.01.2012
  • at 10:32 AM
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Top 5 Medical Breakthroughs in 2011


Medical knowledge has continued to proceed on an exponential path since the scientific method came into widespread use. Nowhere else has scientific research been focused so intensely as to the pursuit of human health.

As such, every year brings about newfound breakthroughs in the field of medicine. Here is a sampling of 2011’s most popular and interesting advances in medicine.

DRACOS (Double Stranded RNA Caspase Oligomerizer)

Just this year a team from MIT developed an entirely new approach to protection against human viral illnesses. The viruses which could be targeted with therapy based on this research include those that cause Dengue Fever and H1N1 influenza. In essence, viruses are bits of genetic material that exist to hijack a cell’s resources to replicate in order to itself. This new research highlights a unique aspect of many pathogenic human viruses, double-stranded RNA, a genetic molecule absent from human cells. By making molecules that recognize this foreign DNA and then trigger cell death, or apoptosis, the virus finds itself in a non-functioning cell and is unable to proliferate.

Glowing Tumors

A group of researchers in Munich have developed a promising method of detecting tumors in patients with ovarian cancer. Patients who are undergoing surgery for removal of ovarian cancer tumors are injected with a special dye blended with folic acid, which is known to bind with a protein molecule on the surface of ovarian tumor cells. Then, using special cameras to detect fluorescent spectrums, the surgeon can visualize where remaining cancerous cells are and remove them. The researchers are continuing to develop the technology so that it can be applied to other types of tumors and, in a broader sense, to be more adept at detecting the fluorescent spectrums.

Fungal Findings

A decent amount of research groups have undertaken studies on the effects of psilocybin — the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” — on human beings. But a study released this year examined the effect on personality in the long term after a singular session. Based on a popularly used personality inventory, subjects indicated improved openness in their personality assessments, despite the fact that this trait tends to dwindle as people age. Inspired by these positive outcomes and other related research, the group plans to continue research to assess, among other things, if the profound psychological experience can be used to help terminally ill patients deal with diagnoses and the philosophical weight of death.

Rapid Results

One of the greatest breakthroughs of modern medicine was antibiotic therapy; one of the greatest challenges facing modern medicine is antibiotic resistance. Many factors play into the complex tale of antibiotic resistance, but, by far one of the biggest contributors is the prescription of unnecessary antibiotics for viral infections. Often if a patient shows up symptomatic for an illness ranging from the common cold with cough, sore throat, sinus congestion and fever to diarrheal illness, it is not readily apparent if the pathogen is a virus or bacteria. Nonetheless, antibiotics are in some cases are handed out without substantial reason, often times to placate the patient. A new technology being tested is based on another technology used in crime scene investigations involving a chemical called luminol used for detecting traces of blood. When the blood comes in contact with the luminol, it glows. Researchers have found that when viruses and bacteria are exposed to luminol, they output different patterns of fluorescence, or glows, in a rather predictable manner. Hence, the potential for a quick diagnostic test that would allow for a drastic reduction in the prescription of unnecessary antibiotics, which don’t work for viral illnesses.

Tumor Police

Scientists have identified a compound present in a certain genus of plants called Colchicum, which can actively destroy cancerous cells. Colchicum can recognize an enzyme that cancer cells produce in order to induce the proliferation and colonization of other cells. Scientists found a way to leverage the compound they identified in Colchicum plants in a way that it would not emit toxicity until it encountered the unique enzyme responsible for tumor growth. Upon recognition of this troublesome enzyme, the compound can destroy the tumor’s ability to develop further sources of blood supply and growth to the tumor.

Kathy Stevenson blogs about medical technology and education in the medical field. Kathy has contributed several articles about medical assistant programs to student bloggers who run college focused blogs and websites.

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