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Amazing Medical Discoveries

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New breast cancer drugs

They're like smart bombs for fighting breast cancer: new medications that attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells relatively unscathed. They're called PARP inhibitors, and they target an enzyme that helps cancer cells repair themselves after chemotherapy.

"These drugs represent an entirely new way of treating breast cancer." —Nicholas Turner, M.D.

"These drugs represent an entirely new way of treating breast cancer," says Nicholas Turner, M.D., senior lecturer and honorary consultant at Britain's Institute of Cancer Research.

Early studies suggest that PARP inhibitors can effectively fight triple-negative breast cancer, responsible for around 15 percent of breast cancer cases. Tumors of these cancers lack receptors for estrogen, progesterone, or HER-2, characteristics that current medications target. Data from Baylor Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas showed that patients who got the PARP inhibitor iniparib along with chemotherapy had a 52 percent response rate, compared with 32 percent among those who received chemotherapy alone.

A British study found that another PARP inhibitor, called olaparib, shrank or stabilized tumors in 12 of 19 patients whose cancers stemmed from mutations in the inherited BRCA-1 and -2 genes — and who had not responded to other treatments. The data were so astonishing that the results were published in 2009 by The New England Journal of Medicine, which rarely publishes the results of phase 1 drug trials.

In a study published last year in the medical journal The Lancet, researchers reported that olaparib shrank tumors in 41 percent of patients with these inherited cancers. Olaparib is also being studied for treating other cancers that spring from such mutations, including some types of ovarian and prostate cancers. FDA approval is likely a few years away.

Heart disease blood test

Angiograms may become much rarer, thanks to a new 23-gene blood test that checks for certain blood proteins linked to heart disease. In a recent trial, the blood test was 85 percent accurate in detecting potentially harmful blockages among patients. Added to other heart disease risk factors such as family history and chest pain, the test improved doctors' ability to categorize patients as being at high or low risk of heart woes in the future. "It's like radar in picking up what's going on in the blood cells," says lead researcher Eric Topol, M.D., director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California.

The genetic test won't replace angiograms for several years. First, researchers need to show that it lowers the need for angiograms while not missing any dangerous blockages. That will require following a select group of patients — people the gene test categorized as low risk — to make sure they don't have any major cardiac events. But if successful, the test could significantly reduce the number of people who undergo the invasive procedure.

Next: Glucose-monitoring tattoos. >>

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