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Medical Breakthroughs: Life-Saving Discoveries

Many of the innovations that are buzzing in the medical field occur at the cellular level, such as ways to destroy tumors, monitor recovery or even grow your own replacement organs. And the development of universal blood cells and new diabetes medications promises to save lives in the future.

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Scott Tysick/Masterfile

Andemariam Beyene had 2 weeks to live. Thanks to the first permanent artificial organ, he now looks forward to a long life.

In May 2011, Beyene, who is 39 and is a native of Eritrea, was diagnosed with advanced tracheal cancer—one of the rarest and deadliest forms of cancer. Beyene’s disease had progressed beyond the stage where conventional remedies could help, but his doctor had heard of a cutting-edge treatment and immediately flew Beyene to Sweden, where scientists used stem cells from Beyene’s bone marrow to grow him an artificial trachea, or windpipe, in 48 hours. Now, 16 months later, Beyene tells Consumers Digest that his new trachea functions as though he never had developed cancer.

It might sound like something out of a 1960s mad-scientist movie, but growing organs from your own cells is just one of the medical innovations of which you can expect to see more in the near future.

Some of the medical breakthroughs that we describe here are available now or are just around the corner; other breakthroughs are a bit farther down the road. The potential of these innovations is eye-opening: Devices that reduce the danger of ruptured aneurysms, fight hypertension without medications or give you control over lengthening your limbs are available or are being developed. Medications could revolutionize how diabetes is treated. Universal red blood cells could end blood-supply shortages.

But whether these innovations stay on track remains a question mark. An artificial pancreas that we investigated in 2009 is a cautionary tale: That device, which is made out of a continuous glucose monitor and a computer-controlled insulin pump, just began widespread human testing in June 2012. Three years ago, developers predicted that it would be ready by now. However, the launch of such a device now isn’t predicted to happen until 2019.

LAB-GROWN ORGANS. Such as was the case with Beyene, scientists now are creating organs by using stem cells, which are cells that can be turned into any type of cell and are used to repair damaged tissue.

“Scientists recently discovered how to create stem cells from skin cells,” says Dr. Anthony Atala, who is director of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “And this allows them to bypass the controversy of using stem cells from human embryos.”

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Creating Beyene’s trachea required a complicated series of sci-fi steps. Technicians took a computerized tomography (CT) scan of Beyene’s neck and used it to create a true-to-scale model, or “scaffold,” of his trachea that was made from polyethylene terephthalate, which is a type of plastic. Technicians harvested stem cells from his bone marrow and used them to grow more stem cells in a lab. They then poured the resulting stem-cell “bath” over the plastic scaffold in a specially designed, closed box that’s called a bioreactor.

“We turned the scaffold in the bioreactor just as you turn a chicken in a rotisserie,” says David Green, who is president of Harvard Bioscience, which developed the technology. Green says the growth-factor proteins, which were spurred by the constant body temperature within the bioreactor and the scaffold’s slow spinning motion, stimulated the stem cells to turn into trachea cells and grow into a new organ in 48 hours. 

Food and Drug Administration in February 2012 approved the first artificial-trachea surgery in the United States. (The operation hadn’t taken place as of press time.) And more artificially grown organs like these are becoming available on an experimental basis for patients whom Green calls “the sickest of the sick, with no other options.” Indeed, in June 2012, Swedish researchers saved the life of a 10-year-old girl who had a severe vein blockage in her liver by successfully transplanting a vein that they grew from stem cells that were harvested from the girl’s bone marrow.

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