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An eventful year in disease prevention

For most people, the year ends with excesses followed by guilt-triggered resolutions that usually die painlessly and unmourned.

health and fitness Updated: Jan 23, 2012 20:34 IST
Sanchita Sharma

For most people, the year ends with excesses followed by guilt-triggered resolutions that usually die painlessly and unmourned. Few worried that their inability to live a cleaner, healthier life may not see them through very many more New Year’s can take comfort in the fact that 2011 was a spectacularly eventful year in disease prevention, early diagnosis and treatment. No new pandemics were reported either, which is as good as it gets in a world where new diseases are emerging each year with alarming regularity.

The biggest health breakthrough of 2011 was undeniably the global HPTN 052 clinical trial for HIV prevention. The study showed people with HIV who begin taking antiretroviral medicines used to treat AIDS when their immune systems are relatively healthy — as opposed to delaying therapy until the disease has advanced — are 96% less likely to infect their partners. The findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August. India was part of the study that began in 2005 and enrolled 1,763 heterosexual couples in Botswana, Brazil, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, the US and Zimbabwe. Each couple included one partner with infection and one without. Infected partners who took medicines as prescribed resulted in the near complete suppression of HIV in the blood (viral load), which drastically lowered risk of their infecting their partner.

An estimated 2.39 million people live with HIV in India, where 4.48 lakh people are getting treated free for the infection under a National AIDS Control Organisation’s programme. HIV wrecks the body’s immune system to the point where it cannot fight off common bacterial, viral and fungal infections, which eventually cause death. Part of India’s success in containing new HIV infection, say international experts, is the wide use of antiretroviral medicines under the Centre’s programme.

Diagnostics, too, gained this year with several early markers for diseases — mainly degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancers such as breast and prostate — being identified. For me, one of the more interesting diagnostic developments was Tecnalia’s biosensor that is capable of detecting tumour markers for lung cancer in exhaled breath in the initial phrases of the disease. Lung cancer is among the top three cancers among men globally, and among the top 10 among women.

Since human breath contains hundreds of organic compounds — acetone, methanol, butanol, hydrocarbons, among others — Tecnalia’s biosensor works by identifying a biomarker that increases 10 to 100-fold in the breath of people with lung cancer. The diagnostic test is non-invasive and if the tool is made affordable and widely available, it can be used even in areas with very basic health infrastructure. Identifying similar markers for other diseases can help identify them in the initial stages when treatment is easier and far more affordable.

And ending this year on a happier note is news about the pill that works better than antidepressants to perk up some people’s lives. Scientists have found that sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, can not just boost your flagging sex life but also heal a failing heart! It was successfully used to treat dogs with diastolic heart failure, a condition in which the heart chamber does not sufficiently receive blood.

Ironically, Viagra works differently in the heart and loosens its stiffened walls. It makes cardiac muscles more elastic by activating an enzyme that causes the “rubber-band” protein titin in the myocardial (heart) cells to relax, report scientists from Ruhr-University Bochum and Mayo Clinic in the journal Circulation this week. Diastolic heart failure accounts for 60% of heart failure deaths.

With Viagra boosting failing heart muscles, who knows, next year’s biggie may be Prozac treating dementia!