November 29, 2014
The Top 10 Most Promising Medical Breakthroughs – Part II
BY Mary Mahoney
Medicine is advancing faster than ever, thanks to a steady stream of discoveries, innovative uses of technology and a new focus on patient care and satisfaction. This three-part series looks at 10 of the most promising medical breakthroughs and how they are changing people’s lives.
An App to Help Cancer Patients
As many cancer patients know all too well, their treatment is often accompanied by side effects so severe and difficult to manage that they interfere with the cancer treatment itself. Oncologists need to tackle both.
A frequent side effect little known to the public is oral mucositis, a painful condition arising from ulcerations in the mouth and throat caused by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It affects about 40 percent of patients receiving these treatments, or almost half a million people a year.
“The painful symptoms of oral mucositis, which often limit a patient’s ability to eat, drink and talk comfortably – or at all – have the potential to derail a prescribed course of radiation or chemotherapy,” said Elizabeth Feldman, a maxillofacial prosthodontist and dental oncologist at the UF Health Cancer Center.
Feldman consulted with DARA BioSciences, which makes Gelclair, a pain-relieving oral rinse gel, to develop a smartphone app called the oral mucositis app to help patients better manage their pain. Tips to allow gums to heal include avoid consuming alcohol, using toothpaste with tartar-control ingredients and wearing using dentures.
Vascularized Lymph Node Transfer
As medical researchers increasingly find ways to safely harvest and transplant tissues from one part of the body to another, the UF Health Cancer Center has begun offering a lymph node transfer procedure that can reduce fluid retention in breast cancer patients.
Dr. Richard Klein, section chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UF Health Cancer Center, introduced the vascularized lymph node transfer – or VLNT – procedure to Florida patients in 2013 after observing its use in France. VLNT has become a welcome solution to lymphedema, a condition in which malfunctioning lymph nodes cause the body to retain too much lymphatic fluid.
“About 15 percent of patients with breast cancer who have had nodes taken out develop lymphedema,” Klein notes. Previous treatments were quite low-tech, involving massage to help drain the fluid, and compressive garments. Both approaches require constant maintenance.
Instead, in a two-hour operation, Klein removes a node from one part of the body and reattaches it in place of the damaged node. Once veins and arteries are reconnected, the node gradually starts to work again.
“It will take about six months to a year for a new lymphatic vessel to grow to carry the fluid,” Klein says. “After that the node is fully functional. We have had many patients completely discard compressive garments. That is a great measure of success.”
Treating Cancer Without Traditional Radiation
There is some good news for cancer patients who need radiation therapy but are concerned it might do more harm than good.
According to The National Association for Proton Therapy, “there is a significant difference between standard (X-ray) radiation treatment and proton therapy. If given in sufficient doses, X-ray radiation techniques will control many cancers. But, because of the physician’s inability to adequately conform the irradiation pattern to the cancer, healthy tissues may receive a similar dose and can be damaged.”
Although proton therapy is also a form of radiation, the beam can be regulated in a three-dimensional pattern of varying intensities that much more accurately targets and conforms to the tumor and only minimally affects surrounding areas.
Proton therapy can treat a number of cancers in various locations in the body.
"Pediatric patients in particular benefit from the decreased dose in to normal tissue,” UF Cancer Center in Orlando said in a recent statement. “Their bodies are still growing, and you want to minimize any side effects.”