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Biggest Medical Breakthroughs of the Decade


Updated December 15, 2009

The years since 2000 have brought about incredible medical breakthroughs, changing how we think about some diseases and saving lives. We saw virus taking on more and more of the blame for diseases such as cervical cancer (leading to a vaccine) and HIV being fought in unexpected ways. The best part is that many of these breakthroughs are not yet fully realized, as they have opened up pathways for more research, treatments and cures. Here's an unsystematic list of some of the breakthroughs with the biggest potential impact on our collective health.

1. HPV Vaccine - An End to Cervical Cancer?

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Scientists' understanding of the role of HPV (human papillomavirus) in cervical cancer and other diseases has moved forward at what feels like warp speed. They have taken the first step towards reducing the prevalence of this family of viruses by developing vaccines. With the approval of the first HPV vaccine, Gardasil, in 2006, scientists showed that it was possible to (safely and effectively) protect women. In 2009, a second HPV vaccine, Cervarix, was also released in the U.S., and the approval of Gardasil was extended to cover young men as well. This really is an amazing time - to think a vaccine could reduce the prevalence of a too common cancer.

2. World's First Face Transplant

Jochen Sands / Getty Images
In 2005, in France, the world's first face transplant was done to restore a woman's face after she was mauled by her dog. This was a major breakthrough in surgical techniques, as a face transplant is an extremely complex procedure. As time goes by, more and more face transplants are being done offering hope to people living with disfigurement and disability due to extreme injury to their faces.

3. Stem Cell Breakthrough - Rodent Tooth Regenerated From Stem Cells

Aaron Graubart / Getty Images
For the first time, scientists have successfully reproduced a fully functioning, three-dimensional organ replacement (a rodent tooth). It might not be a heart or a kidney, but this tiny rodents tooth is an astounding breakthrough, that is only a small glimpse into what's in store for organ replacement - and perhaps dentistry - in the future. Could dentures and dental implants be a thing of the past? And could this discovery lead to the creation of more "replacement parts" for our bodies?

4. XMRV: Retrovirus Linked to Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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The XMRV breakthrough could be the biggest thing to ever happen to chronic fatigue syndrome. People with this condition, as well as many doctors and researchers, have long argued that many cases were related to a virus and/or an immune problem, but official recognition has been slow. The possible tie to a recently discovered retrovirus (XMRV), if replicated, validates the illness once and for all and provides a long-awaited direction for treatment and prevention.

5. One-a-Day HIV Therapy

single pill
A.T. White / Getty Images
HIV therapy used to be extremely complex, with multiple medications that had to be taken at the correct times each and every day. Now, we have one-a-day HIV medication that is simple and easy to take. This improves the adherence of people living with HIV to their medication, which in turn improves their ability to control the virus in their bodies. Considering that over 33 million people in the world have HIV (and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the world), this is a big advance in HIV care.

6. Lucentis for W-AMD

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Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a condition that causes vision loss. Until recently, there has been no treatment for a type of AMD known as "wet." In "wet" AMD (W-AMD), new blood vessels form under the retina which are frail, leading to blood and fluid leaking into the eyes. This can lead to blindness. The good news is that a drug now exists that helps to treat W-AMD and will, hopefully, prevent vision loss in many of these patients. Since we are all aging, we should be very grateful for this development.

7. Importance of Childhood Obesity

childhood obesity
Stockbyte / Getty Images
Not too many years ago, no one would have been shocked at the site of school children lining up behind candy and soda machines at lunch time (I know I had my fair share of candy at school with a special weakness for apple-flavored Jolly Ranchers). Now, it feels as if parents, teachers and officials are coming together to create a healthier world for our kids, starting with food at school and at home. Everyone agrees that childhood obesity is a serious problem and we are getting together to work on it - a medical breakthrough in prevention.

8. Circumcision for HIV Prevention

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Male circumcision is not exactly a new thing, but that circumcision can help prevent HIV infections is. That's right, adult male circumcision can help prevent HIV. In the last decade, researchers have been able to show that increasing the number of adult males who are circumcised could potentially prevent millions of cases of HIV. Believe it or not, adult male circumcision is having an impact in parts of the world with severe HIV epidemics. Anything that can save millions of lives is a breakthrough, in my opinion.

9. Banning Smoking in Public Places

no smoking
Michael Matisse / Getty Images
While smoking bans started before this past decade, it is a marvel of prevention and policy change how far we have come on smoking. Just watch an episode of "Mad Men" to see what the world was like before smoking bans. Since 2000, municipalities and businesses have all jumped on board and banned smoking in indoor places, so much so that we are often shocked to smell cigarette smoke at all.

10. NanoMedicine

Magictorch / Getty Images
Nanotechnology (the use of man-made particles 1-100 billionths of a meter long) has the potential to revolutionize medicine. Nanotechnology can be used to deliver targeted medications and interact directly with cells. Nanomedicine is an emerging field seeking to explore the potential of these tiny particles in treating all sorts of disease. While we don't have a specific breakthrough for nanomedicine, I'll bet that we'll look back on some nanoresearch that took place in the past decade and find a critical discovery that leads to a breakthrough soon.

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