The speed of science is often excruciatingly slow. But over the last decade we've made significant strides in medical research, disease treatment and the improvement of patients' quality of life. Whether it's a change in public policy or one of the largest scientific undertakings in history, these 10 advances have affected medicine in a big way.
Human Genome Project —
In April 2003, scientists announced they had completed a draft sequencing of the human genome, or all the genes that make up our DNA. This established the order of the more than 3 billion letters in what's often called "the book of life." Gene sequencing has helped researchers identify single genes that cause diseases and, in turn, has aided in creating better treatments. Scientists are now working on the Human Microbiome Project in hopes of better understanding the complex bacterial systems that live in and on our bodies.
Stem cell research —
Stem cells can essentially be programmed to become any type of cell in the body. As such, researchers say they have enormous potential for curing diseases and repairing damaged tissues. In 2006, scientists showed that adult cells -- including skin cells -- can be "turned back" into stem cells, which are called induced pluripotent stem cells. Scientists have also cloned human stem cells and have made promising developments in stem cell therapies for heart repair and eye disease. Learn more here.
HIV 'cocktails' —
Treating HIV used to require a complex regimen of medications -- a schedule that was difficult to adhere to, especially for people in developing nations. Atripla changed that by combining three antiretroviral drugs into one daily "cocktail" pill. The FDA approved Atripla in 2006. In 2013, Gilead Sciences received approval to sell its Stribild pill, which combines four HIV medications into one dose.
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Targeted cancer therapies —
Targeted cancer therapies are drugs that usually work in one of two ways: they either interfere with the spread of cancer by blocking cells involved in tumor growth, or they identify -- and kill -- the deadly cancer cells. These therapies are much more direct than treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, which also attack healthy cells. Targeted therapies have been the focus of cancer research over the last decade; more than 25 drugs have been approved by the FDA. "Eventually, treatments may be individualized based on the unique set of molecular targets produced by the patient's tumor," the National Cancer Institute says.
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Laparoscopic surgery —
Better known as minimally invasive surgery, laparoscopic surgery has become the norm for many operations, including gallbladder removal, hernia repair and appendectomies. Patients who undergo laparoscopic procedures generally endure less pain, smaller scars and a shorter recovery time. Up next for surgeons? An increase in natural orifice procedures, where surgeries are performed through an opening like your mouth or anus.
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Smoke-free laws —
In 2003, there were only 75 cities in the United States with laws that prohibited smoking in workplaces, restaurants and bars. By 2013 that number had topped 560. There are now 28 states that ban smoking in these indoor areas, although some exclude casinos, private clubs and tobacconists. "Smoke-free laws substantially improve indoor air quality, reduce (secondhand smoke) exposure and related health problems among nonsmokers, help smokers quit, change social norms regarding the acceptability of smoking, and reduce heart attack and asthma hospitalizations," the CDC says.
HPV vaccine —
The FDA approved the first human papillomavirus vaccine, called Gardasil, in 2006. The vaccine is delivered in three injections over six months and protects against four HPV strains that can trigger cervical cancer and genital warts. However, research shows only half of girls ages 13 through 17 received at least one dose of the vaccine in 2010. HPV-related cancers remain elevated despite the vaccine's existence.
Face transplants —
The first partial face transplant was done in Amiens, France, in 2005. Five years later, doctors in Spain completed the world's first full-face transplant on a man who severely damaged his face in an accident -- giving him a new nose, lips, teeth and cheekbones during 24 hours of surgery. The first full-face transplant done in the United States was performed on Connie Culp, seen here, in 2008.
Fewer periods —
Birth control packages traditionally supply hormone pills for 21 days and placebo pills for seven, bringing a period once a month. But in 2003, the FDA approved Seasonale, a new kind of birth control that enabled women to have full periods only four times a year. In 2007, the FDA approved Lybrel, the first oral contraceptive designed to stop a woman's period indefinitely. With these drugs on the market, women now have more choices when it comes to when -- or if -- they have a monthly cycle.