Top health stories of 2011

It’s hard to believe another year has gone by! When it comes to our health, it seems like some things change quickly, and sometimes progress proceeds at a snail’s pace.

Here are some of 2011’s top stories.

A new source of stem cells

Last year’s stem cell breakthrough was creating pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from human skin, but this year the latest breakthrough comes from cloning. Researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation used a modified version of a cloning technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to create human stem cells. In this trial, researchers combined the DNA of an adult human cell with the genetic material of an egg. Keeping the egg cell’s DNA — rather than replacing it — allowed researchers to create an egg capable of dividing to make new stem cells.

However, the research is still in the early stages, and the problem is the cells have one extra chromosome. In the future, experts hope to correct this abnormality. (See Time Magazine for more information.)

First face transplants performed in North America

Once a creepy movie premise (remember Face Off ?), face transplant surgery offers new hope to patients disfigured by serious accident or injury. Only a handful of people worldwide have had this extensive and controversial procedure, and this summer the first transplant was performed in the U.S. on Dallas Wiens, who suffered severe electrical burns.

Just a couple of months later, another widely publicized case emerged — that of Charla Nash, who was mauled by a friend’s pet chimpanzee. News reports around the world followed the progress of these remarkable people — both are now doing well.

While the procedure hasn’t yet been performed in Canada, doctors at the University Health Network and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto are getting ready to offer the surgery sometime in 2012, according to a Globe and Mail report.

Alzheimer’s disease starts long before symptoms

We wish we could report a cure or a sure-fire preventative, but sometimes a change in approach can be a big leap forward. The bad news is doctors discovered the disease process starts earlier than previously thought. Growing evidence shows that changes are happening in the brain long before symptoms of dementia appear.

The good news? With this new definition experts can look for better ways diagnose and treat the disease in its earlier stages when treatment could make the most difference.

In other Alzheimer’s news, experts also found a link between diabetes and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and researchers are working an Alzheimer’s blood test they say can diagnose the disease in its early stages.


Experts aim for better suicide prevention

Not all stories have to do with our physical health. Suicide was in the spotlight this year due to tragic deaths among children and teens who had been bullied — including the case of young Mitchell Wilson, who suffered from muscular dystrophy. Anti-bullying and suicide prevention efforts regularly make the news.

However, one issue we hear less about is the rising suicide risk among older adults, which has experts worried as suicide prevention efforts don’t focus on this demographic. (See Boomers and seniors at risk of suicide for more information.)

On the flip side, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia were also back in the news as experts argue Canada needs to revisit its laws, like this recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. As our population ages, experts warn we need to pay more attention to end of life planning — so expect this issue to make headlines in 2012.  

The dangers of head injuries

Head injuries were all over the media in 2011, from hockey star Sidney Crosby’s concussion to television dramas like Harry’s Law and A Gifted Man. Last year, we all learned something about the short term dangers and the long-term effect of multiple concussions — like dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a progressive neurological disease resulting from repeated head injuries).

This awareness is leading to changes in how we experience sports. Both coaches and parents are concerned about the safety of players in contact sports like hockey and football, and experts have renewed calls to people of all ages to wear helmets for sports like skiing. In fact, this December, Nova Scotia became the first province to consider a law requiring helmets on its slopes starting next November.

Advocacy groups in other parts of the country, like the Yukon, are calling on officials there to do the same. (See the Nova Scotia Government website and CBC News for details.)

Steve Jobs: Should he have had surgery?

Just in case the death of Apple’s iconic CEO didn’t cause enough of a stir, the subsequent release of his authorized biography had everyone talking for weeks. In it Jobs admits his biggest regret was not having surgery to treat his cancer. Jobs had a rare form of pancreatic cancer known as pNET that can be cured with surgery. However, he didn’t want his body cut into, so he opted for alternative therapies like acupuncture and a special diet instead.

For months after his death, experts debated whether his reliance on alternative medicine was helpful or harmful. (Like this article in Scientific American.) None of the speculation will change the outcome, but his case does have people taking a second look at the role of alternative therapies in treating cancer.


A pill for weight loss?

How often are we warned about the ill effects of being overweight or obese? Hailed as one of the Top 10 Breakthroughs of 2011 by Time Magazine, an experimental drug could offer a solution to the "battle of the bulge". Studies showed a new drug called Qnexa — a combination of the weight-loss drug phentermine and anti-epilepsy medication topiramate — helped participants lose 10 per cent of their body weight in a year. The drug works to suppress appetite and improve metabolism.

But don’t get too excited yet. While Qnexa also helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and helps control blood sugar, the FDA turned down its initial application for approval. The organization wants to see more investigation into the drug’s safety and effectiveness.

Qnexa may not be the only option we’ll see in the future: other drugs are still in the animal testing phase. (For more information, see Time Magazine.)

Confusion over cancer screenings

We know the drill: Early diagnosis and treatment are key to beating cancer so regular screenings are crucial. However, this year it seemed experts were telling us the opposite when it comes to two of the most common kinds of cancer: breast cancer and prostate cancer. Experts argue that for some groups, regular screening is doing more harm than good. Women are now being told they don’t need a mammogram before age 50, and after age 50 they only need one every two years. Clinical exams and breast self exams are also out.

Why the about-face? Essentially, more test equals more false positives, not to mention needless anxiety for patients, expensive follow-up tests and sometimes unnecessary treatment. One Norwegian study even suggests that some small breast cancer tumours can vanish on their own without potentially-harmful treatment. (Learn more in our recent article on new breast cancer screening guidelines.)

Men were no less confused this year when experts started recommending against regular PSA tests for men who aren’t experiencing any symptoms.  Experts are also advocating an "active surveillance" (or "wait and see") approach for some men when their tumours are found in order to prevent over treatment. (Read the new guidelines at Prostate Cancer Canada.)

Don’t expect any end to the debate over these new guidelines to be resolved any time soon. Right now, the best we can do is talk to our doctors about what screening we need and when it should start.

Of course, these stories are just a few of the many topics making the news this year — and chances are we haven’t seen the last of them yet. Case in point: here’s an update on some of last year’s top stories.

What ever happened to…?

The H1N1 Pandemic – The infamous "swine flu" managed to gain some headlines early in the year, but mainly because experts were analyzing how officials reacted to the threat.

What about the next potential threat, the "bird flu" or H5N1? The U.S. National Security Advisory Board on Biosecurity feels research could be too dangerous to publish because bioterrorists could use it to their advantage. (For more information, see the article on CTV News.)

The Bed Bug Invasion – Beware of super bed bugs! Heavy insecticide use in the past few years has lead to the development of insecticide-resistant bed bugs which are even harder to eradicate. They’ve been busy inbreeding and passing on their resistant DNA to future generations — then jet setting all over the world with international travellers. (See Bed bugs back in the news for more details.)

MS Liberation Treatment – Further research into this controversial treatment has experts cautiously optimistic that it could offer relief for some patients with multiple sclerosis. As always, experts say more research is needed — but Canada is getting closer to its own clinic trials. Health Canada has finally established criteria for trials and is currently seeking proposals. (See New research on MS and MS treatment clinical trials could happen soon for more details.)

BPA safety – Canada labelled bisphenol-A as toxic last year, but still hasn’t implemented a total ban. Now scientists have identified another threat: the BPA found in the lining of canned goods. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that BPA levels in participants’ urine soared after eating canned soup. While more research will inevitably be needed, it’s more fodder for the safety debate. (See Scary soup study for details.)

Anti-aging advances – Research continues, but so far we haven’t seen any of these revolutionary treatments hit the market. Experts say there’s still a long way to go. Maybe we’ll see these treatments in time for our 2016 list?

So what will next year bring? We’re hoping for more good news — but we’ll have to wait and see.

Have a healthy and happy New Year!

Photo © Viorika Prikhodko

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