A Year in Medical Breakthroughs: 6 Exciting Innovations in 2016

Ready to be awestruck? Read these jaw-on-the-floor stories showcasing some of the incredible cures that modern medical science brought us this year.

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We geek out over health breakthroughs at Dr. Oz The Good Life — and why wouldn't we? Each discovery brings us closer to curing chronic diseases, saving lives with new technology, or giving patients the happy news of a fast road to recovery. The six stories here spotlight a few of the year's ­biggest leaps forward. They're a hopeful look at medicine's future — and great conversation starters for your next holiday party.

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1. 3D Printing Saves Lives

A 3D model of Brynlee's heart helped doctors save her life.
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Samantha Hopkinson arrived at Phoenix Children's Hospital in January desperate for help. Her daughter, Brynlee, had been wheezy and congested since infancy. Now, at age 2, she couldn't eat solid foods without choking.

She'd already been misdiagnosed with bronchitis and asthma by the time an allergist recommended that Samantha take her to Phoenix Children's ­cardiac 3D lab. The doctor hoped that their technology — 3D printers that pump out true-to-life, personalized models of hearts, brains, and other organs — might solve the mystery of Brynlee's illness.

When doctors printed out a model of her heart, the problem was instantly illuminated: Brynlee's aorta had grown like a weed around her esophagus, pinching the airway. The fix was a relatively easy operation, but without the 3D technology, her doctors may never have realized what was needed.

These printed models are saving the day in surgical cases that are less straightforward than Brynlee's, too. Traditionally, when a doctor opens up a patient it can be a bit of a guessing game: Is this the right incision? Is there a faster, safer way to operate?

Brynlee holds the model heart that helped doctors find a surgical solution.
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New 3D printers are helping to erase this doubt, says Justin Ryan, PhD, a research ­scientist who worked on Brynlee's case. "Doctors can visualize the procedure and see where to disconnect structures or how to work around blood vessels," he says. They also use 3D models in practice rounds before doing a surgery, running through it once, twice — however many tries it takes to nail the fix.

Five days after a model of her heart was created, Brynlee had her surgery. "You could hear a difference almost instantly; she wasn't as wheezy," says Samantha. As for the 3D model of Brynlee's heart, it went home with the happy, healthy toddler, who loves to take it down from the mantel to show off to guests.

2. Drones Bring Medical Care Way Out There

A drone can swoop into areas beyond the road's end.
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Drones can bring to mind bombs and surveillance, but this past July they were used to deliver lifesaving medical ­supplies to rural Madagascar, where nearly 70 percent of the ­population lives in hard-to-access areas. To be diagnosed or treated for diseases such as tuberculosis or tapeworms, ­villagers often must walk five hours just to reach the nearest road — and then take a car to get to a doctor. A drone is able to complete that same trip in 22 minutes, flying in to pick up blood and stool samples, and then making another trip with medication when needed. "Here in the U.S. we may think ­tuberculosis is an out-of-date illness, but in underdeveloped countries like Madagascar, someone dies of TB about every 15 seconds," says Peter Small, MD, founding director of Stony Brook University's Global Health Institute, who coordinated the inaugural flight. "Our goal is to help combat this — as well as other diseases — with drones."

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3. Virtual Reality Is the New Painkiller

Just 10 minutes of virtual reality may reduce pain by 24 percent.

The opioid epidemic has doctors scrambling to find ­innovative ways to shut off pain without prescribing ­dangerously addictive pills, and some are turning to an unexpected technology: ­virtual reality (VR). Made famous by video games, VR has found its way into hospitals, where kids awaiting surgery, women in labor, and other patients are looking to dial down their discomfort or anxiety. Once patients strap on VR goggles, they are fully immersed in a 3D world, with images so real you want to reach out and touch them. The experiences range from calming (a scenic countryside tour) to thrilling (a you'll-swear-you're-there roller-coaster ride), but they all have the same goal: to give patients a break from the pain.

VR works by hijacking the brain's attention so it's not focusing on the discomfort. "We think it acts like a roadblock," says Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research in L.A. "When you overwhelm the brain with images and sounds, pain is stopped as it's coming up the spinal cord." Spiegel's hope is that the ­technology will one day supplement current pain management methods, potentially helping to curb opioid abuse.

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4. Paralysis Meets Its Match

Although his family was concerned about the risks that came with brain surgery, Ian says he was onboard the moment he learned about the study.

In the past year, Ian Burkhart has swiped a credit card, picked up a coffee mug, and strummed tunes on Guitar Hero. For the 25-year-old, everyday tasks like this were huge milestones. In 2010, he was paralyzed from the chest down after breaking his neck during a swimming accident in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He found himself in the right place at the right time when he signed up for physical therapy sessions at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Ohio State neuroscientists had recently teamed up with a science development company called Battelle to test a new technology designed to let paralyzed patients move their arms solely by using their thoughts. When they heard about Ian's situation, they asked if he wanted to participate in a clinical trial. He said yes — zero hesitation.

A computer chip the size of a pencil eraser was implanted in the left side of Ian's brain, just above his ear. After a few weeks of recovery, his training began. The chip's 96 hairlike electrodes recorded the patterns of neurons that fired when Ian simply thought about moving his hand and fingers. Those recordings were transmitted through a cable connected from his brain to a computer, where the patterns were decoded. Then, the resulting message zipped over to a sleeve wrapped around Ian's forearm, which stimulated his muscle to move.

"The first time I was able to move my hand was surreal," he says. "I was blown away by the fact that I could just think and my hand would open."

It took almost a year of practice for Ian to gain grip strength, move his fingers individually, and master the ability to pinch his fingers ­together to pick something up. But the time-consuming, repetitive, and frequently frustrating training was worth it. This past April, Ohio State researchers published the results of their study on Ian, the first successful case of limb reanimation, as the technology is called. His experience offers the priceless possibility of movement to others with paralysis, they say. Although Ian needs to be connected to the lab's computer for the technology to work, experts think it could one day travel into everyday life. Ian remains optimistic as well: "I want to learn as many tasks as I can that will help me be more independent, like opening a fridge or brushing my teeth," he says. "I have a lot of work ahead, but this technology gives me hope for the future."

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5. A Second Chance for Stroke Survivors

Sonia's most recent poststroke milestone: becoming a mom.
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Sonia Olea Coontz was just 30 when a devastating stroke left her in a wheelchair with limited use of her body's right side. Therapists told her that while physical therapy could improve her condition, she'd never be 100 percent better.

"That wasn't a good enough forecast for me," she says. "I'm stubborn. If someone tells me I can't do something, I want to prove them wrong."

Sonia searched for alternative treatment options and came across an experimental Stanford University study led by chairman of neurosurgery Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD. His plan: to inject ­human adult stem cells from donor bone marrow ­directly into the brains of stroke ­patients. Not for the faint of heart, but Sonia didn't flinch.

"I wasn't nervous at all," she says. "Life was pretty horrible: My speech was slurred, I couldn't move, and I was in a lot of pain. I was ready to try practically anything."

She enrolled and underwent surgery along with 17 other patients. Within just 24 hours, she had better control of her right side and was able to speak more clearly. The research team held their breath, wondering if the results would last. This year, they published the promising outcome of the study. Steinberg believes that while the injected cells survived for only a month in patients' brains, they set off an extraordinary chain reaction: "Once the cells reached damaged areas of the brain, they acted like a jumper cable, turning previously nonfunctional neural circuits back on."

Today, Sonia's speech has returned to normal and she's regained the use of her right side — and then some: She works up a sweat at the gym at least five days a week. Watching her jog, cycle, or hit the rowing machine, you'd never know that she ­recently relied on a wheelchair. And that 100 percent recovery her physical therapists said she would never reach? In Sonia's opinion, she's almost there.

6. Patients Regain Their Limbs and Full Lives

Zion spent up to eight hours a day in therapy regaining hand function and learning new tasks, such as how to use a fork and write his name.

When 9-year-old Zion Harvey was 2, a sepsis infection caused him to lose both hands, his legs from the knees down, and his kidneys. He received a kidney transplant from his mom and was given prosthetic legs, which let him walk and run. But despite Zion's nonstop spunk, he still missed out on fun and games like coloring or tossing a baseball around with friends. Until now. In August 2015, Zion was the first child to receive a double hand transplant.

After an almost 11-hour surgery to attach donor hands at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Zion spent the next 10 months in intensive therapy. The goal was to teach his brain how to communicate with the new hands — not an easy feat, as that area of his gray matter had essentially been snoozing since the amputation. And because Zion had been so young when he lost his hands, he had to relearn how to move them, so his therapists started with the basics: how to open his fingers, point, and make a fist. Then Zion was able to move on to the fun stuff, like learning how to toss a ­football and swing a baseball bat. He nailed it, and even got to throw out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game this past summer.

"This was a risky surgery, but Zion was the perfect candidate," says Benjamin Chang, M.D., codirector of the hospital's Hand Transplantation Program. "The immunosuppressant drugs needed post-op to prevent the body from rejecting the new hands have dangerous side effects, but we were able to go forward since Zion was already on them for his kidney. Plus, he's mature beyond his age, which made us confident that he'd be able to commit to the therapy following the surgery."

Zion's journey isn't over. He'll continue to receive daily immuno­suppressant injections, and his team of ­physicians will monitor his condition for the rest of his life. But the can-do fourth grader isn't fazed. What's he obsessed with these days? Persuading his mom to let him join the football team.

This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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