The Top 12 Medical Breakthroughs of 2012

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Scientists didn’t discover a magic pill for colds or the fountain of youth in 2012, but the year was still full of significant medical milestones. From new drugs for cancer and HIV to genetic discoveries to renewed guidelines (and lively discussions) on mental health and birth control, here’s a look at some of the year’s most memorable headlines.

Woman moves her prosthetic limb with brainpower

In December, University of Pittsburgh scientists announced that a woman paralyzed from the neck down had successfully been outfitted with a robotic hand that can be controlled by her thoughts–the first prosthesis to be operated by mind-control.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders gets long-awaited revise
Changes to the American Psychiatric Association’s “Bible of psychiatry,” also known as the DSM, were finally approved in December. The manual’s new version, DSM-5 will replace the current DSM-4, which has been in use since 1994, in the spring of 2013. Among the changes, “autistic disorder” will become “autistic spectrum disorder,” and will include Asperger’s syndrome. “Binge-eating disorder” and “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder” will also be added to the new collection of medical conditions.

Doctors recommend broader access to birth control, emergency contraception

In November, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that birth control be sold over the counter in pharmacies. Just a few days later, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their guidelines on emergency contraception, as well, saying that doctors should tell their teenage patients about the morning-after pill, and should write them a prescription if they’re sexually active.

Majority of U.S. cities now smoke free
A milestone in the fight against cigarette smoke took place this year, when a report found that, as of October, 30 of the country’s 50 largest cities were protected by laws that prohibit smoking in all indoor areas of private workplaces, restaurants, and bars. In fact, almost half of all Americans are protected by state or local anti-smoking laws, compared with less than 3% in 2000.

Connecticut school shooting sets stage for talks about mental health care
If anything even remotely positive comes out of the tragic murder of 26 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and teachers by a 20-year-old gunman in December, it may be renewed interest in our country’s mental health system. In addition to renewed discussions about gun control, experts are questioning whether we’re doing enough to get troubled kids the help they need.

Truvada approved for HIV prevention
A drug used to treat HIV symptoms was also found effective for preventing HIV in high-risk groups, including gay men and sexual partners of HIV patients. Truvada became the first drug approved for reducing the risk of HIV infection when it was approved by the FDA in July.

Researchers make new genetic discoveries about autism, Alzheimer’s, mental illness
A study published in April revealed how scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle had identified hundreds of spontaneous mutations (those which aren’t passed down from parents) in the genetic sequences of autistic patients. That same month, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles reported on the largest brain study conducted to-date, during which they discovered genetic variants that increase a person’s risk of certain mental illnesses and Alzheimer’s disease.

Smallpox virus joins the fight against breast cancer

In October, researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif., revealed that they had successfully used a modified smallpox virus to infect and kill breast cancer cells in mice. The research focuses on what’s known as triple-negative breast cancer, for which there are not currently many long-term treatment options.

Early study finds promise for lung cancer vaccine
In a small preliminary study, a new vaccine extended the lives of patients with lung cancer by an average of 14.5 months, according to preliminary results presented in April. Larger, double-blind studies and published results are still needed, however, before the vaccine may become available to the public.

Blood test may reveal baby’s gender soon after conception

Big news for expectant parents: One day, you may be able to learn the sex of your unborn baby as early as the first trimester. A South Korean study published in January revealed how a blood test can earlier and more accurately determine whether a pregnant woman is carrying a boy or girl.

First drug approved for most common skin cancer
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and until this year there was no drug approved to treat the most common form of skin cancer itself, basal cell carcinoma. In January, the FDA approved Erivedge (vismodegib), the first medication indicated for the treatment of basal cell skin cancer that has spread or is deemed unsuitable for surgery or radiation.

Dirt-cheap diabetes drug may also fight cancer
The year’s final medical breakthrough is somewhat of a surprise, considering it involves a drug that’s been on the market for years now. Metformin — a generic (and therefore relatively inexpensive) drug used to treat diabetes — may also help prevent cancer, scientists have recently discovered. The findings have yet to be confirmed in large scale clinical trials, but in the meantime, cancer researchers are excited about the possibility of this potential low-cost way to save lives.

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