There are few true “breakthroughs” in science. Even something that seems like a dramatic discovery is almost always the product of years of research, testing, retesting. And mice. Lots of mice.
That doesn’t mean these long-fought advancements are no less “breakthroughs.” But where on the continuum of progress does a technology earn that title? When it’s first discovered? When it seems like it might actually work? When it’s finally available and in use? Our answer: All of the above, as long as the finding has a significant current or potential impact on how you live.
Here are the biggest breakthroughs of 2012—some of which you can use right now, and some that could save your life in the decades to come.
1. The At-Home HIV Test
The FDA in July approved the first-ever at-home HIV test. About 1 in 5 people infected with HIV in the U.S. don’t know they have it. By making HIV testing quickly and cheaply available, the OraQuick test could help those who have the disease identify the need for treatment, while slowing the infection’s spread. The test is 99.98 percent accurate in detecting people who do not have the virus. However, it’s accurate only 92 percent of the time among HIV carriers. Still, the FDA decided the benefits outweighed the risks. ($39.99, oraquick.com)
2. Prosthetic Limbs Controlled by Thoughts
Mind-controlled prosthetics may someday be used to allow people with degenerative diseases and amputated limbs live more independent lives. This year, the technology served a much more humble purpose: It allowed Jan Scheuermann, who is paralyzed below the neck, to feed herself some chocolate. The University of Pittsburgh team’s robotic arm, dubbed Hector, picks up and reads the electrical impulses in Scheuerman’s brain and translates them into human-like movements. It’s the first of an entirely new line of prosthetic technology, the researchers say.
3. The Rise of Mobile Medicine
The idea of an iPhone app for your health is nothing new, but 2012 saw an influx of mobile technology intimately connected with personal health monitors. With the help of corresponding sensors, apps can now track your blood pressure, heart rhythm data, and blood glucose levels—and the technology is already saving lives. Read the Men’s Health special report How Mobile Apps Will Revolutionize Health Care, then download our picks for The Best Mobile Health Apps.
4. The Colon Cancer Breath Test
Someday testing for cancer may be as easy as blowing into a tube. In a study published this winter, Johns Hopkins Hospital researchers were able to detect compounds associated with cancer in the breath, and predicted with 75 percent accuracy which patients had colon cancer. The test may eventually apply to other forms of cancer, too.
5. Birth Control for Men
Birth control for women received most of the attention politically this year, but on the research front, male birth control made some big advancements as well. One study found that a hormone gel applied for 6 months significantly decreased sperm count in subjects to 1/15 of normal levels. Researchers are currently tinkering with the formula, hoping to decrease levels even further. In another study from the University of Edinburgh, researchers were able to inject a virus that disrupted the gene that matures sperm, rendering mice infertile. The ultimate goal: A drug that temporarily does the same thing in humans, the researchers say. Until then, stick to the 10 Best Condoms for Men (and Women!)
6. Mice That Age Slower
University of Pittsburgh researchers were able to slow the aging process in mice by blocking a key protein responsible for aging. Meanwhile, Mayo Clinic researchers identified another protein that appears to ward off cancer and other age-related problems in mice. Their mice also lived 15 percent longer when treated with the protein—without any side effects. The developments could lead to drugs that prevent cancer and other diseases, researchers say. We’re hoping for even bigger outcomes—like the ability to look like Jamie Foxx at age 167.
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