Medical breakthroughs on the horizon for 2013

Medical research is an ongoing, ever-challenging process, filled with endless peaks and valleys of success and failure.

When an experimental treatment proves ineffective, researchers must re-evaluate their methods and try something slightly different, or even start from scratch.  On the other hand, when it’s successful, it’s big news in the medical community, and provides promise for people afflicted with the condition it’s aimed at treating.

Some medical advances will likely reach the market this year, while others will need more research over the coming years.

Here are a few medical breakthroughs that are likely to make headlines in 2013:

MRI may help diagnose dementia
Alzheimer's disease and frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD) often present with similar symptoms, despite the underlying disease process being much different.  Furthermore, diagnosis of both conditions can be difficult.  Researchers have been experimenting with using MRIs to estimate the ratio of biomarkers for the two diseases to differentiate between Alzheimer’s and FTLD.

Lengthening limbs
People with uneven limbs may have a new way to help treat the discrepancy.  After surgical implantation of a telescoping titanium rod into the hollow part of bone, surgeons break the bone at the midpoint of the rod.  The patient simply holds a magnetic-field “control” against the skin for a couple minutes every day, which sends a signal to the rod to extend ever so slightly.  As the bone is forced to separate, the bone cells fill the gap.  Length of usage depends on each patient’s situation and how much bone growth is necessary.

Universal red blood cells
Type O-negative blood is the universal donor, meaning it is viable for all blood transfusion recipients; however, only about 7 percent of Americans are type O-negative.  Researchers have discovered a process by which the removal of nuclei from stem cells from O-negative donors can result in nuclei-less red blood cells, that can then be transfused into recipients.  However, researchers have only carried this out in animals, and human testing isn’t likely to start until 2014.

Easier melanoma detection
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer with more than 76,000 Americans diagnosed and 9,600 deaths every year. A new handheld device uses light of ten different wavelengths to penetrate the skin and transmit data to a computer.  The associated software then compares the recently scanned lesion to already archived images of melanoma and other skin cancers to indicate whether it is cancerous.

Lab-grown organs
Scientists have been working to grow organs and other body parts from stem cells – cells which can become any type of cell and can be used to repair damaged tissue.  Commonly, stem cells are harvested from a patient’s bone marrow and then used to grow more in a laboratory setting, but now, researchers have found that they can harvest them from the skin. This type of treatment has already been done to replace organs like tracheas and bladders, and now scientists are trying to apply it to heart valves and intestines.  Growing organs from the patient’s own cells will likely eliminate rejection of a transplant and the need for immune-suppressant drugs after surgery.  

Joint replacement sensors
By incorporating a wireless sensor into an artificial joint, doctors can monitor and measure the patient’s load, strain, temperature and pressure of the implant.  During surgery, the sensor can indicate if the joint is balanced correctly, so as to avoid problems down the road.  After surgery, the sensor can also alert doctors if the bone and implant are not fusing properly, allowing the patient to undergo an alternative treatment.

Automatically dispensed medications
Researchers are studying how a wireless chip, implanted in a patient’s hip, can help administer medications on a regular basis.  Via a wireless controller, the patient’s physician can adjust dosages and dispense times.  This will be especially helpful for patients with chronic diseases and who must remember to take daily pills at specified times.

Dr. David B. Samadi is the Vice Chairman of the Department of Urology and Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He is a board-certified urologist, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of urological disease, with a focus on robotic prostate cancer treatments. To learn more please visit his websites and Find Dr. Samadi on Facebook.