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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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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.

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