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Cutting-edge Medical Pioneers

It’s fascinating to learn about what’s happening on the cutting edge of almost any industry — but when it’s about medicine it’s closer to home …

U.S. News and World Report writes about “14 Medical Pioneers Who Aren’t Holding Back.”   Covering areas from depression … to skin damage … to building organs … to selectively erasing memories … to cancer … to vision … to alzheimer’s … to much much more, our heath future is changing rapidly.  Below is a quick overview of each of the pioneers that US News chose to cover. Click on their names to read their individual stories.

Anthony Atala (Pediatric urologist, director of Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine): Grinding Out New Organs One at a Time. “First to build a functioning organ from scratch — a bladder made cell by cell — and put it into a patient, a child whose own bladder was congenitally deformed. Since that breakthrough a decade ago, [he] has moved on to cobbling up bones, heart valves, muscles, and some 20 other body parts.”

Jean Bennett (Gene therapy researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine) and Albert Maguire (Pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia): Gene Therapy to Reverse Near-Blindness. “The partners have restored much of the vision in patients who have a rare genetic form of severely impaired eyesight called Leber’s congenital amaurosis, in which a mutated gene prevents the retina from manufacturing a nutrient vital to eye health. The technique eventually could be tried to treat macular degeneration.”

Elizabeth Blackburn (Molecular and cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco): Ordering Cancer Cells to Curl Up and Die. “Blackburn, 60, suspected that an enzyme keeps the organism’s genetic material from eroding, as it does in other living things. She was right-and it works the same in humans. Now telomerase, the enzyme she codiscovered, is emerging as a key link to aging, susceptibility to certain diseases, and cancer.”

Mark George (Neurologist, Medical University of South Carolina): Treating Depression With an Electromagnet. “Food and Drug Administration approved George’s far gentler alternative-transcranial magnetic stimulation. In an international trial, depressed patients who hadn’t been helped by drugs improved markedly after four weeks of daily, 40-minute TMS sessions. Two more weeks doubled the rate of relief.”

Denise Faustman (Director, Mass General Immunobiology Lab): Faustman may have a way to heal the pancreas of type 1 diabetes by attacking the immune system. “A drug called CFA was a vital key to her multistep treatment. It provoked an inflammatory response that killed the immune system’s rogue cells, which had destroyed the pancreatic cells that make insulin.”

David Holtzman (Neurologist, Washington University Medical School): Attacking Alzheimer’s With a New Test for Amyloid Beta. “Until now, it typically took about two years to determine whether a new Alzheimer’s drug was having an effect. But recently, he and colleagues devised a test that rapidly shows whether an experimental medication has a chance of working.”

C. Ronald Kahn (Director, Joslin Diabetes Center, Boston): Is Brown Fat a Good Fat That Can Erase Bad Fat? “Fat you want to pack on, not take off, because it burns up calories instead of storing them as unwanted blubber? C. Ronald Kahn, head of the Joslin Diabetes Center’s section on obesity and hormone action, has tracked down this miraculous stuff. Now he’s trying to figure out how to direct the body to produce more and make it work harder.”

Boris Kovatchev (Director of the Diabetes Technology Institute at the University of Virginia): Artificial Pancreas Could Help Diabetics. “Kovatchev and others working on faux pancreases want to make the pumps smart, using a sophisticated computer algorithm that interprets the data from the sensor and instructs the pump precisely how much insulin to spit out. Creating such algorithms [that control blood glucose under most circumstances] is Kovatchev’s task.”

Wayne Marasco (Immunologist, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard): A Shot at a Universal Flu Vaccine. “The man with the unorthodox history recently made a striking discovery: a human antibody that attacks a newfound vulnerability in flu viruses. His finding could be the key to a single, perennial vaccine against all forms of influenza, including swine flu.”

Elaine Mardis and Richard Wilson (Directors, Washington University Genome Sequencing Center): Taking Cancer’s Genetic Measure. “…used an AML patient’s normal skin cells and cancer cells in her bone marrow to identify 10 genetic mutations that had set the stage for her cancer…They plan to sequence 150 more cancer patients by early next year, focusing on leukemias and cancers of the breast and lung. Pharmaceutical labs can then design molecules for specific combinations of genetic mutations that switch off the cancer process.”

Chad Mirkin (Nanoscientist and Chemist, Northwestern University): Standing Tall in a Nanoparticle Universe. “Someday neurosurgeons, after cutting out as much of a tumor as possible, may bathe patients’ brains with mutation-seeking nanoparticles-crafted in Mirkin’s lab-that home in on any remaining cancer cells. Other Mirkin innovations could help diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s and will soon be wielded against heart disease and prostate cancer.”

Todd Sacktor (Neuroscientist, SUNY Downstate, Brooklyn): Making Memories-and Selectively Forgetting Them. “…developing a way to selectively manipulate memories in rats, delicately erasing some but not touching the others… his primary aim is to understand how memory works to help people. Perhaps a memory that causes post-traumatic stress could be wiped out, or memories in Alzheimer’s patients might be enhanced.”

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U.S. News and World Report, “14 Medical Pioneers Who Aren’t Holding Back,” Multiple Authors, June 30, 2009

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