#1. Circumcision Can Prevent HIVIn December 2006, the National Institutes of Health halted two clinical trials of male circumcision after an early review of the data showed that the procedure dramatically reduced transmission of HIV. Early this year, the details of those studies were published in the Lancet: In the two randomized trials, which included 7,780 HIV-negative men in Rakai, Uganda, and Kisumu, Kenya, researchers found that medically circumcised men were at least 51% less likely than uncircumcised men to acquire HIV during sex with women. The editors of the Lancet called the discovery “a new era for HIV prevention.” Scientists don’t know yet whether male circumcision can also provide protection for female partners — a new study on the hypothesis is forthcoming next year.#2. Test for Metastatic Breast Cancer
Surgeons now have a faster way to assess whether breast cancer has spread, thanks to the FDA’s approval of the first molecular test to detect metastatic breast cancer. During the patient’s lumpectomy or mastectomy, surgeons traditionally examine the lymph node closest to the breast — the sentinel node — for signs of metastases. If the tissue is examined immediately and tumor cells are discovered, additional lymph nodes are taken out — but, usually, further and more extensive microscopic testing is required to confirm that cancer has spread. Problem is the lab results take up to two days to come back, which leaves women in limbo before possibly facing a second surgery. But with the new test, called GeneSearch BLN Assay, doctors can accurately test the sentinel node for metastases during the initial surgery by measuring molecular markers of breast cancer. If the test shows the presence of cancer, the physician can remove affected lymph nodes immediately, sparing women the wait and possible follow-up surgery.
#3. First Human Vaccine Against Bird Flu
In 2007 the threat of a pandemic avian flu got a teensy bit less scary. The deadly disease has killed 207 people worldwide and infected 336 since 2003. While only a small number of those cases were traced to human-to-human transmission, public health officials fear it’s only a matter of time before the virus mutates into a more easily transmitted form and sparks a global outbreak. Hoping to ward off that worst-case scenario, this year the FDA approved the first human vaccine against the bird flu. Created from a human strain of the virus, the vaccine is given in two intramuscular shots. But don’t bug your doctor for it. The vaccine isn’t sold commercially. Instead, the federal government is stockpiling the stuff in case of a national outbreak.
#4. Help for Dieters: Alli
Need help shedding those extra holiday pounds? Overweight adults now have an extra weapon against fat: Alli, the first FDA-approved weight-loss drug sold over the counter. Alli (a.k.a. orlistat) works by monkeying with lipase, an enzyme the body uses to break down and digest the fat in food. A dose of Alli (pronounced like ally) on the heels of a meal blocks the body’s ability to absorb fat by 30%. But Alli’s maker, GlaxoSmithKline, insists the drug isn’t a magic bullet and recommends that it be used only in conjunction with a healthy low-fat diet and plenty of exercise. Another reason to practice a little restraint? Sticking to a low-fat diet helps reduce Alli’s common and unpleasant side effects — cramps, gas, diarrhea and oily discharge.
#5. New Diabetes Genes
Having a parent with type 2 diabetes ups your odds of developing the disease, but why do some sibs get it and others don’t? The answer lies somewhere in your genetic code, and this year brought scientific sleuths closer to cracking it. Research teams from the United States and Finland uncovered four new genetic variants linked to an increased risk of diabetes, which afflicts about 170 million people worldwide. Combined with the six variants scientists had discovered previously, it brings the total to 10. Eventually, these discoveries will aid experts in pinpointing those at greatest risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
#6. No More Periods
Women wanting to dodge the nuisance of their monthly menses can now turn to Lybrel, the first continuous use birth control drug approved by the FDA. Made by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the new contraceptive is similar to the conventional Pill — minus the placebos. Typically, a month’s worth of birth control pills includes four to seven days of placebo pills, which trigger menstruation. With Lybrel, the dummy pills are replaced with daily doses of hormones, eliminating menstruation altogether. The downside? Most women will have some spotting and breakthrough bleeding, especially during the first year of use.
#7. Relief from Fibromyalgia: Lyrica
People who suffer from the chronic fatigue, muscle pain, and stiffness of fibromyalgia finally have a drug to call their own. This year the FDA approved the antiseizure drug Lyrica (pregabalin), made by Pfizer, as a treatment for fibromyalgia. The news was a long time coming for the 3 to 6 million Americans, most of them women, who suffer from the frustratingly elusive and complex condition; the pain of fibromyalgia is unique and, therefore, unresponsive to conventional painkillers. In studies, Lyrica not only soothed the aches of fibromyalgia but also significantly improved patients’ quality of life. Lyrica already had the FDA’s okay as a treatment for epilepsy, discomfort from shingles, and neuropathy, or nerve pain, often caused by diabetes.
#8. Early-Stage Test for Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in America and is responsible for more deaths than the next three most common cancers combined (colon, breast, and prostate). One reason lung cancer is so deadly is that by the time tumors are diagnosed, usually as a result of physical symptoms like coughing up blood, the cancer is often advanced and tough to treat. But a new blood test may improve the odds of catching the disease earlier, at a more curable stage. Called LC Detect, the test measures blood levels of a protein present in all stages of lung cancer, but rarely seen in healthy people. While the test alone can’t confirm a diagnosis of lung cancer, it can be used in conjunction with chest X-rays, CT scans, and other imaging technology to hone in on early-stage tumors
#9. New Source of Stem Cells
This was a banner year for stem-cell research. But one advancement that may not have had its due was the discovery of stem cells in amniotic fluid. Researchers believe that amniotic fluid–derived stem cells, AFS for short, have the potential to give rise to many, but perhaps not all, of the 220 specialized cell types found in the human body — placing the potential usefulness of AFS cells somewhere between embryonic and adult stem cells. Best of all, AFS cells are easy to come by. They’re bountiful in fluid specimens left over from amniocentesis, a common prenatal procedure that extracts amniotic fluid to test for genetic disorders; another ready source of AFS cells may be “afterbirth,” the tissue new mothers lose after childbirth. Considering that four million babies are born in the United States each year, AFS cells are sure to draw much future research.
#10. Benefits of Vitamin D
Researchers have long known that the “sunshine vitamin” boosts bone strength by encouraging the body to absorb calcium. But a slew of new studies published in 2007 suggests that the vitamin has a lot of other benefits: Diets high in D may ward off diabetes, gum disease and multiple sclerosis — and maybe even cancer. Though some findings linking vitamin D and cancer showed questionable benefit, the news on colon cancer was promising. In one large trial, men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and women in the Nurses’ Health Study with the highest blood levels of vitamin D were half as likely to develop colon cancer as their peers with less circulating vitamin D. To squeeze the most value out of vitamin D, aim for taking a supplement with 1,000 IU daily.