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Top Ten Medical Research Discoveries of 2014

Scientists “switch off” autoimmune diseases, find geographic origin of AIDS

It was an exciting year in the medical research field, as teams across the world continued to search for better ways to prevent or treat ailments, according to a special report from Medical Xpress. Some teams focused on aging or ways to prevent it, while others looked for ways to enhance what Mother Nature gave us naturally.

The geographic origin of AIDS is now known. Researchers from the U.S. and Europe were able to piece together where, when, and how the first instance of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in humans occurred. Using a statistical analysis, the team was able to pinpoint the original infection site as Kinshasa, the capital of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo — sometime during the 1920s. The team published its findings in Science. The first human infection came from a chimpanzee, as had been suspected. The team’s work illustrates how social change and transport methods contributed to the pandemic that began in the 1960s.

Cesarean sections may cause epigenetic changes. A study conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found evidence suggesting that delivering babies via cesarean section can result in changes to the babies’ stem cells. Such changes, the team found, may be responsible for an increased risk of immunologic diseases, such as asthma, type-1diabetes, and celiac disease. The team published its findings in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The authors also reported that it remains unclear whether such epigenetic changes are lifelong or short-lived.

“Trigger” for stress processes discovered in the brain. Researchers at the Center for Brain Research in Vienna, Austria, along with colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, discovered an important factor related to stress: the protein secretagogin was found to work as a trigger in the brain by releasing the stress hormone CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone). The team published its findings in the EMBO Journal. Prior research had shown that CRH is part of the process that leads to signaling in the pituitary gland and other organs.

Researchers identify first steps in the formation of pancreatic cancer. A team of bio-researchers at the Mayo Clinic identified the initial processes that result in pancreatic cancer –– a finding that could lead to therapies for preventing the cancer from getting started. The team published its findings in Cancer Discovery. The investigators discovered that the initial processes, which occur at the molecular level, come about because of the development of lesions, some of which morph into cancerous growths.

Scientists discover how to “switch off” autoimmune diseases. Researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. reported on a major breakthrough in finding a cure for autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. In a paper published in Nature Communications, the team described finding a way to stop the immune system from attacking healthy tissue — by learning how the process of conversion from attacker to protector works. The process is currently going through clinical development by a biotechnology company affiliated with the university.

Researchers discover genetic marker behind stroke and cardiovascular disease. A team of researchers at the University of Virginia announced that it had found a genetic variant tied to an increased risk of stroke and certain types of cardiovascular disease. In a paper published in PLOS Genetics, the investigators described the study, which included analyzing the genomes of more than 5,000 people, and how it led to findings related to metabolic pathways that play a role in many types of diseases.

Memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease reversed for first time. Researchers at the University of California–Los Angeles and at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging reported that a 36-point therapeutic program they developed had reduced signs of dementia in nine out of ten volunteer patients involved in the study. In a paper published in the journal Aging, the team described the program and detailed the results they observed with patients who adhered to it over a 3- to 6-month period.

Drug shown to reverse diabetes in aimals. In studies testing the blood pressure drug verapamil, researchers at the University of Alabama announced that the medication had completely eliminated any signs of diabetes in laboratory animals. Their findings have led to a $2.1 million grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. The team has not published its results yet but will likely do so after test trials, which are scheduled to start early next year.

Scientists locate homing signal in brain, explaining why some people are better navigators. Researchers at University College London identified the part of the brain that is responsible for allowing people to know which direction to travel, given their current location and orientation. In a paper published in Current Biology, the authors explained that the entorhinal region in the brain, which was already known to be responsible for orientation, is also responsible for a person’s ability to navigate. The researchers were able to measure a person’s sense of direction using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.

Research shows that 7-year-olds can think strategically. Researchers at the University of Minnesota tested thinking strategies in children and found evidence that kids as young as 6.5 years of age were able to use strategies comparable with those of adults when playing games. The children were able to use recursive thinking and had an ability to infer what others were thinking, based on incentives presented to them. The team published its results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Medical Xpress; December 30, 2014.

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