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Paging Dr. Gupta

Medical advances not science fiction

By Matt Sloane
CNN

The pill cam is a little bigger than a Tylenol, when swallowed  it transmits pictures to your doctor's computer.
This tiny camera is a little bigger than a Tylenol. When swallowed it sends pictures to your doctor's computer.

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Some of the biggest medical discoveries have come in the last 25 years -- everything from Viagra to laser vision correction.

But the discoveries of the next 25 years could make these things seem like relics.

There could come a day when you can swallow a tiny robot, and it will travel through your bloodstream to repair what ails you.

Superdrugs could be contoured to a person's particular gene sequence, making it more effective in fighting against disease because it knows specifically what the patient's genetic weaknesses are.

Some of these technologies are already here. An Israeli company has already come up with a pill-sized camera that can be swallowed and transmits thousands of images of the esophagus and intestines directly to the doctor's computer.

It might all sound like science fiction but in the last 10 years, scientists have started to unlock secrets of the human body that may make these technologies possible.

In just over 13 years, the human genome has been unlocked, for example, and thanks to technology, the project was completed two years sooner than expected.

By essentially mapping out every gene and chromosome in the human body, scientists can now look at individuals who are sick, and those who are not, and compare their genes, looking for abnormalities that might have caused disease.

Once the problem is pinpointed, the cure is one step closer.

Maybe -- stem cell research promises to give scientists the ability to grow new organs for people with liver or kidney disorders, grow new limbs for amputees, and functioning eyeballs for the blind.

Scientists in South Korea have cloned a human embryo, and removed its stem cells. These cells are the building blocks of life, and have the ability to turn into any tissue in the human body.

But while the advances promise the potential to cure cancer, AIDS, and maybe even the common cold, they also present problems.

Stem cells are an example of the debates these technologies can cause.

South Korea has provided financial backing for its scientists to research stem cells. But in the United States, President Bush has put very strict limits on federal funding for stem cell research.

And this is not likely to be the last roadblock, says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin. She's concerned about funding for these projects, and the possible religious and ethical debates they may cause.

"I think we're going to see some real change, but its not like we're going to flip a switch and overnight we're going to cure hundreds of thousands of people," she said.

And discoveries raise more issues than questions of funding or ethics.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is concerned with what happens if a person's genetic information gets into the wrong hands?

"People will have trouble keeping a job, or even getting a job if their genetic information gets to an insurer, a potential employer or even an employer," said Snowe, who has drafted legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on his genetics.

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