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Highlighting Medical Breakthroughs

New technologies help you breathe easier, lessen your pain and preserve teeth

Pioneering drugs that remedy once-intractable diseases; clever products that make everyday living easier for people with injury or illness; innovative technologies that provide relief at a touch of a button — by all measures, 2017 has been a year of astounding health care advancements. Here are some of the ways medical trailblazers and researchers are creating fresh possibilities for you and your family. 

Cell pain


Wanda Gougis, left, and her daughter Juanita, both have sickle cell disease but are benefiting from a recently approved drug.

Ease the pain of sickle cell

Wanda Gougis carries what she calls “the trait”— the gene for sickle cell disease. If both parents have the gene, it can get passed on to a child, which is what happened to her daughter Juanita, 28. She spends an average of one week a month in the hospital in pain from the blood disorder and lives with her 68-year-old mother and her sister; they help care for her. Wanda’s and Juanita’s futures look brighter, thanks to the first new drug approved for sickle cell disease in nearly 20 years. Years ago, Juanita took part in a clinical trial of Endari (L-glutamine). The drug was shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of pain episodes. The FDA approved the medication in July, according to developer Emmaus Life Sciences. Despite her struggles, Juanita works as a swimming coach and lifeguard in Los Angeles and attends nursing school. Endari’s approval brings even more hope. “We’re still celebrating,” Wanda says. —Mindy Fetterman

Chuck Negron

Brian Doben

Musician Chuck Negron wears eyeglass frames that conceal tubes to his nose to help treat his COPD.

Breathe more easily

For 25 years, Chuck Negron, 75, has managed to push through rock concerts despite having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. "But I was putting a burden on my heart," says the former singer for Three Dog Night. "And I wasn't really willing to go on stage with an oxygen cannula up my nose." The answer was Oxy-View eyeglass frames, which conceal the tubes to his nose. Stage image aside, this device can help the almost 16 million Americans with COPD get the oxygen they need without embarrassment. "You don't have to let a medical condition dictate how your life is going to be, Negron says." —Virginia Sole-Smith

Heal your liver

Treatment of hepatitis C has exploded in the past five years. "Until about 2011, we could cure only half the people we treated. Now there are seven or eight FDA-approved designer drugs [such as Harvoni] that allow us to cure 100 percent," Adrian M. Di Bisceglie, M.D., chairman and professor of internal medicine, and chief of hepatology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, tells AARP. "We do genetic testing on the virus to determine which of the six strains a patient has, which helps us choose precisely the right antiviral agent. We eradicate the disease, and the liver can start to heal."

Now the goal is to find the 3.2 million people who are infected, Bisceglie says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all boomers — born 1945 to 1965 — get screened.

In other good liver news, modern transplantation has been a completely transformational therapy. "You can take patients who are nearly dead — weeks to live — put a new liver in them, and within a day or two they’re new people, walking and talking, having new life," Bisceglie says. —Selene Yeager

Lungs and heart x ray


Drugs are under rapid development that can reverse the progress of lung cancer dramatically.

Hit back at lung cancer

Personalized medicine in lung cancer is a very exciting development in the field, according to Norman H. Edelman, M.D., senior scientific adviser for the American Lung Association. "We no longer say, 'You have lung cancer. Here are the drugs we use.' We examine your cancer and can tailor the drugs to the genetic mutations in your particular tumor."

Another exciting advancement is the approval of checkpoint inhibitor drugs such as nivolumab, which allow your immune system to fight your own cancer. "These drugs are under rapid development, are becoming increasingly effective and can reverse the progress of the disease dramatically," Edelman says.

In the next five to 10 years, we will see breakthroughs for personalized medicine in all of lung disease. "We now understand that asthma is not one thing but a collection of things. We’ve identified telltale cells in your blood and sputum that indicate whether your asthma will respond to one drug or another," Edelman says. "So we have a new class of monoclonal antibody drugs that allows us to treat the 5 to 10 percent of people with persistent, hard-to-control asthma. We expect this sort of personalized medicine to extend to most other lung diseases." —Selene Yeager

Take it to heart

The discovery of PCSK9 inhibitors — a new class of injectable drugs that switch off one of the genes responsible for elevated cholesterol — was a blockbuster in the heart field, according to Steven Houser, research scientist and immediate past president of the American Heart Association. "For folks who have mutations in this pathway, this development is a godsend. The treatments are currently quite expensive, so use by the general public could be limited. But every company I know is working on drugs for that pathway. They’ll be here in the next five years, and this will have a big impact."

Regeneration is the holy grail of researchers who study cardiac injury and repair, Houser says. "Researchers are testing four or five different flavors of stem cells in preclinical models to see if they reduce the damage of a heart attack. If any of them do, people will fare way better following an incident. Scientists across the world are investigating stem cells to regenerate heart tissue. I’m pretty confident that in the next 10 years, we’ll have some regenerative therapies." —Selene Yeager

Another breakthrough for heart care could impact the hundreds of thousands of Americans who receive pacemakers for heart irregularities each year. Last year a new device called the Micra Transcatheter Pacing System was approved by the FDA. It reduces infection risks, is 93 percent smaller than a conventional pacemaker, is implanted into the heart muscle through a catheter and has no wires. —Sari Harrar

Self-donate stem cells

Bone marrow transplants could become easier to perform if doctors use a patient’s own blood stem cells. “Our goal is to make everyone’s cells amenable to self-donation,” says George Daley, a stem cell biologist and dean of the faculty of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has grown the world’s first man-made human blood stem cells in his lab; these have the potential to grow into all kinds of blood cells. —Virginia Sole-Smith

"Biologics ... are dramatically improving the lives of people with hard-to-treat allergic asthma, eczema and other allergic diseases."

Olajumoke O. Fadugba 


Overcome allergies and immunodeficiency 

Biologics could be the way of the future for treating allergies. "Typically, we treat the symptoms of allergic diseases by targeting the elevated chemicals that cause them, like using antihistamines to lower histamine levels," Olajumoke O. Fadugba, M.D., director of the Allergy and Immunology Fellowship Training Program at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, tells AARP. "But now we can also use biologics — antibodies, such as Xolair, that block the molecules that cause the response. These are dramatically improving the lives of people with hard-to-treat allergic asthma, eczema and other allergic diseases."

In another five to 10 years, we could see breakthroughs in gene therapy for immunodeficiency diseases. "Currently we run a risk of curing one disease — the immunodeficiency — and inadvertently causing another — cancer. That technology will be better perfected in the years to come," Fadugba says. —Selene Yeager

Pain Quell

Photographs by Craig Cutler

The Quell device is a strap placed around the calf that uses electrical stimulation to treat pain.

Conquer aches without drugs 

The cartilage in Joe Cleggett's hip joint had worn through, allowing bones to rub against each other. Seeking to hold off on hip-replacement surgery, the 73-year-old from Braintree, Massachusetts, tried a new device to treat the pain. Quell is a strap placed around the calf near the knee. By electrically stimulating a bundle of nerves there, it can relieve pain anywhere in the body. “It’s basically telling your brain, ‘You’re really not feeling this pain, so let it go,’ ” Cleggett says. —Denny Watkins

Companies are also developing pain remedies that use headsets to immerse people in virtual worlds. In clinical trials and studies, patients said they felt a 24 percent pain reduction while virtually throwing balls at animated bears and 60 percent less pain while floating through a wintry landscape and lobbing snowballs. For some, pain relief lasted a day after using the headset. —Lexi Pandell

"We are studying how the gut can affect the brain, as well as how the intestine can affect skin diseases."

Fabio Cominelli 

Soothe digestion pain

There have been tremendous advances in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, according to Fabio Cominelli, M.D., director of the Digestive Health Research Institute at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Biological therapies and new drugs provide improvement in quality of life and can put people in permanent remission. There may be 3 million people with IBD in the U.S., and it often occurs between ages 55 and 60."

Research into the gut microbiome has provided a host of possibilities, not only in digestive diseases but also in conditions such as asthma and diabetes. "We are studying how the gut can affect the brain, as well as how the intestine can affect skin diseases," Cominelli says. —Selene Yeager

"We are moving toward smart, multifunctional filling materials for cavities. Instead of lasting eight to 10 years, as tooth-colored composite fillings currently do, they’ll last perhaps 30 years."

Thomas Hart

Have healthy teeth for life

For those that dread the dentist's chair — have hope. "We are moving toward smart, multifunctional filling materials for cavities," Thomas Hart, D.D.S., director of the American Dental Association Foundation’s Volpe Research Center, tells AARP. "Instead of lasting eight to 10 years, as tooth-colored composite fillings currently do, they’ll last perhaps 30 years. They’ll also be self-healing, so if a filling crack develops, a little capsule of material will open to seal it. This may be available in as soon as five years." —Selene Yeager

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