New Or Experimental Medical Treatments and Therapies

Medical researchers constantly seek new and better treatments, especially for incurable diseases such as AIDS and cancer. Before these can be offered to humans, even on an experimental basis, they must undergo extensive testing, a process during which most are weeded out. Some turn out to be ineffective, others unsafe, and still others are not considered an improvement over existing therapies. Although the list of experimental treatments keeps changing, here are a few that look promising.

Note: By the time you read this, these may be more than just promising!

Immunotherapy

The body's immune system serves as the first line of defense against bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful invaders. Immunotherapy manipulates the immune system, either by suppressing or bolstering its natural function of fighting disease. Powerful drugs that suppress the immune system make organ transplantation possible by subduing the body's natural rejection of a foreign tissue.

Sometimes, the immune system goes into action against the body's healthy tissue, resulting in an autoimmune disease. Researchers are working on new immunosuppresive drugs to treat these diseases, which include chronic inflammatory disorders, such as lupus and certain other forms of arthritis.

The opposite approach, bolstering the immune system, is considered one of the most promising new medical frontiers. Several experimental cancer treatments are designed to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer in much the same way that it wards off or rejects any foreign invader. One approach is to develop vaccines against specific cancers. Another involves the use of interferon, interleukin-2, and other natural body chemicals that prompt an immune attack against tumors. Similar immunotherapy approaches are under investigation for the treatment of AIDS.

Yet another experimental cancer treatment, called transfer factor or adaptive therapy, takes a specific antibody from a healthy person and injects it into a patient who has a particular type of cancer, in the hope that it will trigger an immune system attack on the cancer cells.

Genetic Engineering

Genes are the individual units of chromosomes, the body's blueprints that make it possible for cells to duplicate themselves in an orderly and consistent fashion. From time to time, genes change, or mutate. Some mutations go unnoticed, but others result in disease. Many genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, are the result of mutations that are inherited, whereas certain cancers develop when the genetic material in cells undergoes mutations during an individual's lifetime.

Environmental factors, such as radiation exposure and tobacco smoking, can prompt genetic mutations that result in disease, but many seem to occur spontaneously, without any obvious promoting factor.

Scientists are just beginning to understand how to manipulate genes to fight disease. Monoclonal antibodies are already used in experimental cancer treatments. Antibodies are the disease-fighting substances produced by the immune system. Genetic engineers can now fuse several types of antibodies — creating super antibodies — and use cloning techniques to produce large quantities of them, which are then injected into cancer patients. Some monoclonal antibodies are engineered to attack cancer cells. Others carry anticancer drugs or radioactive materials directly to the cancer cells, thereby killing them while sparing normal tissue.

Similar genetic engineering holds promise for curing or preventing hereditary diseases. For example, researchers are working on curing cystic fibrosis by getting the body to substitute a normal gene for the one that causes this deadly disease. To accomplish this, the normal gene is attached to a virus that has been rendered harmless, which then carries the gene to the lungs and other target organs. As the gene replicates itself, it replaces the defective one. In time, doctors may be able to replace disease-carrying genes with normal ones during fetal development.

Laser Therapy

A laser, an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, is an extremely intense light beam that produces immense heat and power when it is focused at close range. When a laser beam is directed at any part of the body, the cells absorb its energy and convert it to heat. Almost instantly the tissue becomes charred or evaporates.

Lasers have tremendous potential in surgery because they remove tissue with minimal bleeding and scarring. They are now widely used to perform delicate eye surgery, remove birthmarks and other skin blemishes, and burn off small tumors. Lasers have also proved invaluable in the treatment of female infertility due to scarring and closure of the fallopian tubes, which are the passageways between the ovary and the uterus where fertilization takes place.

Researchers believe lasers also have great potential in treating atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits, or plaque, in arteries. This type of laser surgery already is being performed experimentally to improve circulation in the legs.

Even more exciting are prospects that lasers can be used to unclog coronary arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle. One approach employs laser surgery in angioplasty, a procedure in which a flexible catheter with a balloon tip is inserted into an artery and the balloon inflated to flatten any fatty deposits. Although angioplasty allows more blood to flow through the artery, it does not remove the plaque and, in time, the arteries renarrow. Researchers are working on ways to manipulate a laser device through the catheter and use its beam to vaporize the plaque. A problem is to control the light beam so it does not puncture the artery walls. But specialists at several major medical centers are now using laser angioplasty on an experimental basis.

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