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Amazing Medical Discoveries

Grow-your-own organs, bionic eyes and more life-changing innovations

En español | Imagine fighting cancer with a vaccine. Or treating depression with a magnet. Or even growing a new liver or bladder using cells from your existing organs. Many of these novel approaches, for treating heart disease, cancer, and even blindness, are already in place or coming soon. Of course, as with any new procedure or medication, there may be as-yet-unreported side effects. And not all new technologies are covered by insurance. These innovations, however, could potentially save your life — or the life of someone you love.

See also: 6 ways to feel happier, be healthier. >>

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Doctors are making amazing medical discoveries that could change your life. — Illustration by Hugh Kretschmer

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Artificial retinas

Remember The Six Million Dollar Man? Steve Austin had a bionic eye, which was almost as impressive as the Argus II, an artificial retina for people blinded by degenerative diseases like retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited retinal condition that affects some 100,000 people in the United States.

Here's how it works: A tiny video camera mounted on a patient's glasses transmits signals to an implant on his or her retina; the implant then sends pulses to the brain, which are perceived as images.

About 30 patients have received artificial retinas so far, and the technology continues to improve. While the first model allowed people only to locate objects and identify the direction of movement in front of them, the latest version has enabled patients to read high-contrast letters and string together words, says researcher Ashish Ahuja, Ph.D., a consultant to Second Sight, the Sylmar, California – based company that manufactures the Argus II.

The next big goal is to adapt the technology for patients with macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss, afflicting 1.75 million Americans.

Better blood thinners

For heart patients, doctors have long wanted an alternative to the blood-thinning drug warfarin, which is notoriously difficult to regulate and has many food and drug interactions. Now they've got one: Pradaxa, which was cleared by the FDA last fall and is currently on the market. Like warfarin, Pradaxa decreases the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation, a common type of heart-rhythm abnormality in older adults. Warfarin works by blocking vitamin K, which helps make some of the blood's key clotting factors. Pradaxa works further down the clotting chain, blocking thrombin, the immediate precursor to a blood clot. Studies show that Pradaxa is 35 percent better than warfarin in reducing the risk of stroke. Plus, it doesn't require patients to undergo periodic lab tests, and has no food and few drug interactions.

At least two other new blood thinners are expected to hit the market in the next two or three years as well. "We've been looking for a new anticoagulant for 50 years," says Alfred Bove, M.D., Ph.D., professor emeritus of medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia and past president of the American College of Cardiology. "Now it looks like we might have several."

Next: Magnets for depression relief. >>

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