The Top 10 Medical Stories of 2008

Medical experts chime in on what they believe were the year's top news items.

Dec. 23, 2008— -- This year marked a number of important medical advances and intriguing health news. To help narrow the large list, reached out to the top medical centers and doctors in a wide range of fields.

Below is's list of the Top 10 medical stories of 2008, deemed most important by doctors and found most interesting by readers.

No. 1: The JUPITER trial

Late in November, the results from the JUPITER trial got so much hype that it seemed scientists had found an actual magic "cholesterol pill."

Drugmaker AstraZeneca sponsored the huge 18,000-participant JUPITER trial of Crestor, its cholesterol-lowering drug (called a statin).

The trial was supposed to last five years, but the drug company cut it short after two years claiming Crestor was so effective that it was unethical to withhold the drug from those on placebo.

According to the results, Crestor reduced heart attack, stroke and hospitalization and other markers for heart troubles by 56 percent. The authors of the study concluded that the drug was so effective that it should even be given to people whose cholesterol was normal but had high C-reactive protein levels, a signs of inflammation in the body.

Not all doctors were as sold on the results. Many said exercise and diet changes were more effective than drugs, and obviously do not carry any side effects. Some questioned whether the numbers really supported such a high effectiveness.

However, the news still had many doctors excited. According to the results from a New England Journal of Medicine Web site poll, 48 percent of the 2,500 responders felt statin drugs should be used differently after the JUPITER trial.

No. 2: Birth From a Whole Ovary Transplant

On Dec. 10, a baby girl was born from the first-ever full ovary transplant.

The baby's mother had lost her fertility when she went into early menopause at age 15 because of another medical problem. Later in life her twin sister (the baby's aunt) donated a working ovary so that she may conceive. At age 38, she gave birth for the first time.

Dr. Sherman Silber of the Infertility Center of St. Louis and his colleagues reported the medical advance.

A handful of other children have been born from transplanted ovarian tissue, specifically the outer shell, but the technique is not always successful.

Since the baby's successful birth, doctors are anticipating using the technique to help women with fertility problems, or cancer patients who wish to protect their ovaries from chemotherapy.

Silber told Reuters that the technique of transplanting frozen ovaries may one day be used to lengthen a woman's fertility across her lifetime.

"If she's 40 or 45 when she has it transplanted back, it's still a 25- or 30-year-old ovary, so she's preserving her fertility," Silber told Reuters.

No. 3: The ENHANCE Trial

In January, early news of the anticipated ENHANCE trial surprised doctors and drugmakers looking for confirmation that the blockbuster cholesterol drug Vytorin worked.

The ENHANCE trial pitted the cholesterol-lowering drug simvastatin against the popular combo-drug Vytorin, which had both simvastatin and ezetimibe (Zetia).

But instead of proving the power of the combo, early data showed that Vytorin was no better at reducing the thickness of blood vessel walls than simvastatin alone.

The news hit so big, both the Food and Drug Administration and the American College of Cardiology felt compelled to respond.

"There should no be reason for patients to panic," read a Jan. 15 statement posted on the American College of Cardiology's Web site. "The overall incidence rates of cardiac events were nearly identical between both treatment groups, and both medicines were generally well tolerated."

Vytorin had proven itself to be effective at reducing the "bad" LDL cholesterol, and if it could prove to reduce the thickness of blood vessel walls it would be one more sign that the drug could cut down on the big scares -- heart attacks and strokes.

The news of the ENHANCE failure had the FDA worried that patients would give up on taking their statins.

"We already know that people tend to stop taking all long-term drugs, including statins, when they're on them. And I'm very concerned that aspects of the Vytorin discussion will lead to people becoming indifferent to an extremely important measurement -- LDL cholesterol," Dr. Robert Temple, director of the Office of Medical Policy in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, posted on the FDA's Web site.

No. 4: Malaria Vaccine

Although scientists have long discovered how malaria is transferred and know how to prevent it, nearly 1 million people die every year from the disease, according to international estimates.

Insect nets and other measures to control the mosquito population that spreads the illness have virtually eradicated the disease in some countries, but dire poverty prevents many of these programs from getting off the ground in the most affected areas.

Finally, Dec. 8, the first results of a malaria vaccine that shows promise hit international news.

Early reports showed the vaccine was more than 50 percent effective in preventing malaria among infants and toddlers, according to reporting by The Associated Press.

Malaria largely strikes the young, first infecting the liver with the parasite and quickly traveling to the whole body causing delirium, fever and chills.

"We are one important step closer to the date when malaria will join diseases such as smallpox and polio, which have been either eliminated or controlled through vaccines," Christian Loucq, director of the nonprofit PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which helped to conduct the study, told Reuters.

The study only focused on two countries in Africa, but a longer and larger study is expected to start in 2009.

No. 5: Continuous Glucose Monitoring

This September, researchers in Florida unveiled the first glucose monitor that measures blood sugar around the clock -- literally 24/7 every five minutes.

Doctors told that the invention had dramatic implications for managing the most difficult Type 1 (or juvenile) diabetes cases and that it may one day be used for severe cases of Type 2 diabetes.

People who have Type 1 diabetes have lost the ability to produce insulin on their own, need insulin to survive and rely on glucose monitoring to keep their blood sugars from plummeting or skyrocketing. Some Type 2 diabetics also rely on insulin treatments, but many can manage their disease with diet and exercise.

Managing blood sugar levels can be tricky for Type 1 diabetics. Even if the patient can avoid serious short-term complications (such as a coma or death), he or she may suffer long-term complications including blindness.

The researchers in Florida hoped allowing the patients to check their blood sugar frequently would help overall management.

"Getting better control of diabetes using continuous glucose monitoring is almost certainly likely to equate with fewer long-term complications," Dr. Roy W. Beck, from the Jaeb Center for Health Research in Tampa, Fla., told HealthDay. "This will have substantial long-term benefit on quality of life and reduce health care costs," Beck said.

No. 6: Stem Cell Genes and Alzheimer's

Solid, good news in Alzheimer's research is often hard to find. But in January, scientists at the University of California, Irvine, announced they had discovered an early step that could one day lead to a stem cell therapy for Alzheimer's disease, not to mention other neurodegenerative diseases or brain injuries.

The scientists had discovered the gene, called Lhx2, that tells cells in the developing embryo's brain to form the "thinking center" or the cerebral cortex, which controls language, vision and decision-making, according to a HealthDay report.

"This new understanding of Lhx2's role in cortical development can potentially be used in stem cell research efforts to grow new cortical neurons that can replace damaged ones in the brain," Dr. Edwin Monuki, an assistant professor of pathology at the university, said in a statement.

Now that researchers have found Lhx2, scientists in Monuki's lab will next try to turn on the gene and grow the "thinking center" cells at will -- yet another step toward treating irreparable brain damage in Alzheimer's and other diseases.

No. 7: Progress on Parasites

This year marked a great achievement at eradicating a painful, systemic parasitic disease called Guinea worm.

In 1986 3.5 million cases in 20 nations were reported. In 2008, the number fell to 4,410 cases in six countries, thanks largely to the work of The Carter Center and funding by the British government and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Our record on Guinea worm for the last few years has been steadily and rapidly downward," former U.S. President Carter told the AP.

By 2009, public health officials hope to officially eradicate the disease, making the Guinea worm one of a few diseases (such as small pox) to officially be eliminated from the world.

People ingest the Guinea worm as larvae in contaminated drinking water. In a year's time the worm can grow to be three feet long before slowly burrowing out of the skin.

According to reports by the AP, the disease is not fatal but can cause excruciating pain for months.

No. 8: Early Blood Test for Down Syndrome

A controversial and emotional medical advance this year may one day allow parents to test for signs of Down syndrome as early as 12 to 13 weeks into the first trimester.

The noninvasive blood test called SEQureDX, developed by the San Diego-based company Sequenom, can be administered as early as 12 to 13 weeks into the first trimester.

Current tests may be carried out at around 18 weeks of pregnancy, but carry a higher risk for the mother and the baby. An estimated 87 percent of all women carrying a child with Down syndrome don't learn the news until delivery.

One in every 733 babies -- or around 5,500 each year -- is born with Down syndrome, the most common genetic condition in the United States, causing an array of physical and mental challenges for both child and parents.

Controversy surrounds the question of whether an early pregnancy test would or should encourage parents to abort Down syndrome infants. According to reporting by, about 90 percent of women who learn they are carrying a child with Down syndrome end their pregnancies.

No. 9: Stem Cell Trachea Transplant

Claudia Castillo, a 30-year-old woman living in Barcelona, was the first person in the world to receive a full trachea (or wind pipe) organ transplant grown entirely from her own stem cells.

One other person in 2005 received a similar transplant, except that person had a combination of donor tissue and their own flesh.

Castillo's surgery meant that she never had to go through immunosuppressive therapy or live with the risk that her body would reject the organ and attack it as a disease.

According to the AP, only a handful of trachea transplants have been done.

Castillo had suffered from tuberculosis for years and lost her wind pipe after complications from a severe collapse of her lung.

"This technique has great promise," Dr. Eric Genden, who did a similar transplant in 2005 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York that used both donor and recipient tissue, told the AP.

The technique regrew Castillo's windpipe over the frame of a donor windpipe using bone marrow stem cells collected from her hip.

"They have created a functional, biological structure that can't be rejected," Dr. Allan Kirk of the American Society of Transplantation told the AP. "It's an important advance, but constructing an entire organ is still a long way off."

No. 10: Face Transplant Breakthroughs

For U.S. transplantation experts, 2008 may forever be known as the year of the country's first-ever face transplant.

In early December, surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic embarked on a marathon, 22-hour procedure in which they transferred 80 percent of a face -- including eyelids, bone, teeth and a nose -- from a cadaver to a living female patient.

Reconstructive surgeon Dr. Maria Siemionow, who led the team of eight surgeons that performed the operation, said that the recipient of the new face had sustained a major facial trauma years ago that left her missing "major parts of her face" and robbed her of her ability to smell and taste, as well as sight in one eye. She had also experienced difficulty speaking.

While three other such procedures had been performed in China and France before this latest surgery, the operation might be the most extensive yet of its kind.

However, not all of the face transplant news of 2008 was good. On Dec. 22 -- less than a week after reports of this advance -- Scientific American noted on its blog that the Chinese patient who received the world's second face transplant had died. According to the blog, the man's surgeon told Agence-France Presse that the man died because he had been taking herbal medications instead of his anti-rejection drugs.