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We all see the headlines about modern medical miracles. In 10 to 20 years, nanobots will repair the brain damage that causes Alzheimer's disease, one reporter assures us. In 15 to 30 years, shape-shifting metamaterials infused with custom-made antibiotics will be commonplace for wound repair. And maybe in just 5 to 10 years, surgeons will use something that looks like the old dot matrix printer to make new organs custom fit to the patient.
These are all nice ideas, but what medical breakthroughs are really making a difference in people's lives right now? Here are 5 important surgical innovations and 5 important pharmaceutical innovations that are actually in regular use at the end of 2012.
1. Surgery-free knee repair.
Sports injuries and aging cause millions of people constant knee pain, and every year over 850,000 people have knee replacement surgery in the United States alone. But what if all that was needed to get a new knee was a series of injections?
Doctors can now take a patient's blood, send it through a centrifuge to concentrate the red blood cells known as platelets, and then inject the platelets into the injured joints. The platelets activate naturally occurring stem cells that repair the knee. The procedure has been around for a few years, but 2012 saw a very important change for American patients--qualification for insurance reimbursement. The procedure's $500 to $1,500 cost is now covered by most insurance policies, even some that will not pay $5,000 to $15,000 for the better-known surgical knee replacement. People who take anti-coagulant drugs known as PAF-inhibitors, unfortunately, cannot receive the treatment.
2. Robotic surgery for the prostate.
Hundreds of thousands of men every year have prostates removed to stop the spread of prostate cancer. The problem with traditional surgery has always been that the prostate bleeds, making it difficult for the surgeon to locate the nerves that have to be spared to enable continued ability to have erections. New surgical techniques involve the surgeon standing about 10 feet away from the patient controlling a robot, which operates in a bleeding-free space made possible by the insertion of a balloon into the abdomen. Operated by the surgeon, the robot is capable of more precise cuts that leave nerves intact and conserve the ability to participate in sexual intercourse.
3. Autotransfusion to minimize blood loss during surgery.
One of the major complications of major surgery, especially open heart surgery, is loss of blood. A new technique called Hemosep, proven in clinical trials at the University of Kirikkale Hospital in Ankara, Turkey, collects spilled blood and recirculates it into the patient. There is less need for donated blood, and there is no risk of introducing infections or making errors in blood type matches. Hemosep has already been approved in Canada and the European Union, and is awaiting approval in the USA.