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Breakthroughs that break out!

By Gary Bryant

We've seen it in the news time after time, "Researchers discover promising new breakthrough that may someday…'  The keyword here is 'someday'. Just what happens to all of those breakthroughs that we never hear about again? Is there simply a pile of broken promises littering the floors of research labs around the nation, or have these new discoveries somehow slipped into our healthcare system, and are now quietly saving lives?

The answer to both these questions appears to be- yes.

Not every drug sees itself mentioned on the cover of Time or Newsweek. Yet there is much effort put forth by large pharmaceutical companies to do just that. After all, 'buzz' is good for business, investment and brand recognition. Fortunately, reality usually wins out, harmful drugs usually don't get to store shelves, less effective ones fall by the way side, and the world keeps spinning.

What you may or may not know, is that some of these fallen breakthrough drugs, while not having lived up to their initial promise, do find a place in our medical arsenal, often with unanticipated but welcomed results. A few drugs, like aspirin and statins, far exceed our initial expectations.

Aspirin was first patented on March 6, 1889 by the German company, Bayer. Its primary ingredient, salicylic acid was originally extracted from willow plants – evidence suggests it was even used during the lifetime of Hippocrates. Today, mounting evidence indicates that aspirin is not only a welcome pain reliever for headaches and muscle pains, but it also acts as an effective anticoagulant- a blood thinning agent- that reduces the likelihood of stroke and heart attack. Just last month, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a study that showed aspirin was safer and more effective than warfarin for preventing certain types of strokes.

Statins, cholesterol lowering drugs marketed under brands like Lipitor, Zocor and Crestor among others, have shown to be another group of wonder drugs. In addition to lowering cholesterol, there is growing evidence that statins also help protect against Alzheimer's disease. One new study indicates that statins help in reducing fats and proteins in the blood that have been linked to atherosclerosis. A clinical study in Great Britain showed that the use of statins may be beneficial in reducing the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

While these are the most well know examples of breakthrough drugs breaking out, others include: Methotrexate, sold under the brand Rheumatrex, was original intended for cancers, but is now widely used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Don't forget glucosamine (a nutritional supplement) that seems to reduce osteoarthritis pain. As for bretylium, new research indicates that this drug once used to treat ventricular fibrillation shows promise for heart-attack patients.

Diuretics or 'water pills,' are shown in recent studies to lower blood pressure more effectively that newer drugs - including calcium channel blockers and ACE inhibitors.

One pioneering effort under way at the University of Washington, involves a compound called artemisinin.  Derived from the herb Artemsisia annua, and used by the Chinese to effectively fight malaria since the 1970s, artemisinin is now the focus of exciting new cancer research being conducted by Henry Lai and Narendra Singh, both UW bioengineers. These scientists have combined artemisinin with transferrin, a blood component that transfers iron to the cells. According to Dr Lai, "Our research results indicated that the new artemisinin compound  is 34,000 times more potent in killing the cancer cells as opposed to their normal cousins."

The list goes on. Arsenic trioxide, approved for treating a rare form of leukemia, may also work in treating an incurable form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. Suramin, a drug once used to treat parasitic infections is being studied as a treatment for cancer.

The search for new cures is often fraught with disappointment and suspicion, but the search goes on none-the-less. While we leave the science to the chemists, doctors and physicists, we as health consumers, have a responsibility to ourselves and families to be as informed as we possibly can about our own health and the treatments and medicines that are available right now.

Gary Bryant, a consumer health advocate, is the executive producer of the award winning web resource, He is also the author of Searching The Web for Health, A Guide to Reliable Medical Information on the Internet



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