Medical advances marked the past year

Saturday, January 5, 2002

When newshounds think back to the health stories of 2001, some of the most amazing ones may not immediately come to mind.

It was the negative side of health reporting that dominated the news: the anthrax scare that killed five persons, forced many more onto antibiotics and scared a nation unfamiliar with the devastating bacteria. The effects of mailed anthrax spores continue to confound law enforcement agencies and doctors in this new year as scientists look for candidates to try an anthrax vaccine.

And then there was the stem-cell controversy: whether to use human embryos to harvest these cells for research, the hope being that scientists could grow the cells to repair or replace failing organs.

President Bush said the federal government would pay for experiments using stem cells that already exist, not new ones that would require more human embryos.

But nobody should forget the wonderful things that happened on the health scene in a year so full of sadness. These changes promise to save and improve lives.

There was the AbioCor artificial heart, which kept one patient alive for five months, far longer than his doctors predicted. As the device is perfected, more patients who can't wait for heart transplants, which are in short supply, are sure to be helped.

Doctors confounded for years by unsuccessful angioplasties found an answer in 2001.

The problem: After stents were installed to open blocked arteries, scar tissue would block the artery again, making 20 percent of the surgeries worthless.

But researchers discovered that coating a new kind of stent with growth-stopping medicine is effective. Out of 700 patients studied, only a few had complications of any kind.

Chemists introduced Gleevec, a new drug to treat an unusual digestive cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumors. It blocks a protein unique to cancer without harming other parts of the body. It is being tested on other types of cancers as well.

And finally, doctors proved what many must have suspected all along: Exercise and weight loss decrease the risk of diabetes.

And researchers are close to developing a device that would monitor glucose levels in the bloodstream at all times and then deliver a dose of insulin when needed.

Certainly, these advances give hope for even more good things to come in 2002.

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