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New Vaginas, Paralysis Cure, Ebola — The Top Medical Stories Of 2014

It’s that time of year again. A time for Top Ten Lists from music to fashion, scandal and trends. From the BBC and Minnesota Public Radio, here’s a list of the top medical stories for 2014.

Affordable Care Act

Not without controversy, the Affordable Care Act was originally signed into law in 2010 by President Obama but the major provisions regarding the act were activated in January of 2014. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this Act puts individuals, families, and small business owners in control of their health care. It also reduces what families will have to pay for health care by capping out-of-pocket expenses and requiring preventive care to be fully covered without any out-of-pocket expense.

The debate rages on.

Possible Paralysis Cure

Possible cure paraylsis
Darek Fidyka undergoes five hours of physiotherapy a day.

Darek Fidyka was paralyzed after being stabbed repeatedly in the back in an attack in 2010, but he can now walk again after a pioneering therapy. The world-first treatment involved taking cells from his nasal cavity, which constantly regenerate, and placing them into his spinal cord.

Scientists believe the transplanted olfactory ensheathing cells enabled nerve fibers above and below the injury to reconnect. It is early days and his steps are still tentative, but when reserved scientists describe his progress as “more impressive than man walking on the moon,” you know something significant just happened.

Genome Advances

The future of understanding the causes of unusual medical conditions looks bright with 23andme, Illumina, and other genome projects. Genetic research has already been considered as a possible link to the development of autism spectrum disorder. Genetic testing is particularly important for detecting a number of syndromes. These include fragileX syndrome, Angelman syndrome, tuberous sclerosis complex, chromosome 15q duplication syndrome, Pheland-McDermind syndrome, and DiGeorge syndrome. By understanding the cause of these disorders, prevention and treatment will follow.

Ebola

The Ebola outbreak started in December 2013, but nobody expected what followed.

Before this year, just 2,361 people had died from Ebola since the virus was first discovered in the 1970s and most outbreaks had been rapidly contained.

But in the current outbreak, more than 19,000 cases and 7,000 deaths have been recorded.

Ebola-africa

This is not just the biggest Ebola outbreak in history, it is bigger than all the others combined.

The outbreak has seen an unprecedented response and a hunt for new treatments. Vaccine and drugs trials, which would normally take place on a timescale of years and decades, have been rushed through in weeks and months.

Yet, the outbreak is still not under control.

Milder HIV

An unexpected story from the University of Oxford suggested HIV was evolving to become less deadly and less infectious. They showed HIV was being forced to make damaging mutations to itself in order to survive the counter-offensive by our immune systems.

Scientists said the gradual “watering down” of HIV meant the virus was replicating more slowly and taking longer to cause AIDS in Botswana, the country where the study took place.

Womb Transplant Baby

Tranplanted Womb Birth
The baby will “give hope” to those wanting children, say the transplant team

It was another medical first as 2014 said hello to the first baby born using a transplanted womb. The 36-year-old mother was born without a uterus, but received the organ donation from a friend who had gone through menopause.

The womb was transplanted for a year before doctors felt comfortable enough to attempt a pregnancy by implanting an embryo that had been produced through IVF. A premature, but healthy, boy was born eight months later.

The achievement at the University of Gothenburg raises hopes for other women left without a functioning womb after cancer treatment or because of birth defects.

New Vaginas

Transplanted vagina

On a slightly different note, four women have had new vaginas grown for them in the laboratory.

A biodegradable tubular scaffold was designed to be the right size and shape for each woman. A small biopsy from the poorly developed vulva in each woman was used to grow a large batch of cells in the laboratory. Muscle cells were attached to the outside of the scaffold and vaginal-lining cells to the inside.

All women reported normal levels of “desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction” after the vaginas were implanted. In two of the women, the vagina was connected to the uterus, giving them a chance of becoming pregnant.

Medical Marijuana

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form.

Medical marijuana uses include pain management, cachexia (loss of appetite) with HIV/AIDS and cancer, MS, seizures, glaucoma, and anxiety.

The positive outcomes of medical marijuana both for patients and for the States in the form of revenue has increased a level of tolerance toward the drug. Four states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Alaska and Oregon will become the next states where recreational marijuana is legal after voters approved cannabis ballot measures set to become effective in 2015. District of Columbia voters also recently overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative legalizing recreational-purpose marijuana that will be subject to Congressional review. Colorado and Washington previously passed similar ballot measures legalizing marijuana in 2012.

Opiates And Overdoses

Due to a rise in accidental overdoses and abuse, Vicodin/hydrocodone has been proposed for re-classification to a schedule II drug. Aimed to help combat prescription drug abuse, an amendment to the FDA Safety and Innovation Act that would reclassify hydrocodone as a Schedule II controlled substance passed in the US senate on May 24, 2012. If adopted as law, “patients would need an original prescription for refills, pills would be stored and transported more securely, and traffickers would be subject to increased fines and penalties,” as explained in a statement by one of the bill’s sponsors, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). The FDA Safety and Innovation Act (S 3187), as passed by the U.S. Senate, is now with the U.S. House of Representatives.

Robin Williams’ Suicide

robin williams
The tragic death of Robin Williams increased the conversation surrounding the topic of depression and suicide prevention. The man who made millions laugh with his manic comedy routines and roles in several films struggled with depression in silence, as many do every day.

Al Jazeera America reported that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide network of 160 local crisis-support centers, reported that that on Aug. 10, the day before Williams’ death, the hotline received around 3,000 phone calls to 1-800-273-TALK — which is “fairly typical,” said Shari Sinwelski, associate project director for the network.

But on Aug. 12, the day after Williams’ death, the hotline received 7,375 calls, the highest number of phone calls the organization has ever received.

A suicide of a well-known person has been known to trigger suicidal thoughts in other people.

“Sometimes when people see a high-profile suicide such as this one, or when they hear about the suicide of another person, they may recognize some of those feelings within themselves,” Sinwelski said.

The increased call volume could also mean that people who are feeling emotionally distressed and weren’t previously aware of resources like the hotlines have realized there’s a place to turn for help.

While his death is a tragedy, the increased awareness may potentially save the life of someone else, as well as turn the conversation regarding the stigmatization of mental illness.

Read more about Robin Williams’ death here.

[Images: BBC, Wake Forest Institute, ABC News]

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