Progress in medicine can be an inch-by-inch slog. But every so often, small steps culminate in big advances. Such was the case in October, when researchers revealed game-changing discoveries that fundamentally alter their understanding of common but tough-to-treat conditions. These medical breakthroughs could pave the way for treatments that may someday be yours.
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|THE CONDITION||THE BREAKTHROUGH||THE PROMISE||WHAT’S NEXT|
|ALZHEIMER’S||Scientists call it “Alzheimer’s in a dish.” They can now see in a petri dish how the disease develops, a huge advance over animal models.||Now that they can see what goes wrong with cells in the brain, experts can develop drugs that interfere with or stop the nerve-damaging disease.||It’s the first step in a process that will likely take years before it produces a new therapy. But it’s a big step in the right direction.|
|AGE-RELATED VISION LOSS||Transplanting retinal cells grown from IVF embryos restored vision to people with macular degeneration– without any serious side effects.||Half of the 18 patients can see three more lines on an eye chart, and some who were nearly blind can now see their watch and computer.||The study shows that these stem-cell transplants are safe, making it possible for more patients to participate in further trials.|
|TYPE 1 DIABETES||Researchers have created the first batch of insulin-making stem cells that respond to sugar both in a lab dish of human cells and in mice.||If the cells are safe and effective for use in humans, they could effectively cure Type 1 diabetes and free patients from regular insulin injections.||This kind of cure is years away. The cells must be tested for safety in humans and must be compared with existing treatments.|
|C. DIFFICILE||Fecal transplants can often cure this potentially lethal infection. Now scientists have a cleaner, less invasive vehicle: a pill.||Colonoscopies are replaced by capsules, which repopulate the patient’s gut with healthy, beneficial bacteria that wipe out the stubborn infection.||The treatment is now available at a few clinics like Massachusetts General Hospital. Other medical centers are expected to follow.|
|OBESITY||Scientists pinpointed a brain signal that turns abundant, unhealthy white fat into brown fat, which efficiently burns calories instead of storing them.||If a drug could turn this process on and off in a controlled way, it could help burn calories and reduce excess body fat, curbing obesity and overweight.||Brown-fat science, while exciting, is still in its early days. Stay tuned for news as the research develops.|
Sources: Nature; Lancet; Cell; JAMA
This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.