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New Scientist The Collection Medical Frontiers

New Scientist covers discoveries and ideas in science and technology that will change your life and the way you understand the world. New Scientist employs and commissions the best writers in their fields to provide in-depth but accessible coverage of the developments that matter. New Scientist: The Collection is a themed compilation of recent articles and special reports from our back catalogue, providing a book-length examination of some of the deepest questions known to humanity.

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New Scientist Ltd
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tomorrow’s medicine today

AT THE beginning of the 20th century, medicine was still more art than science. Penicillin was decades off, surgery crude, immunisation rare, cancer a death sentence and blood transfusions were thought impossible. Even in affluent countries, two-thirds of people died before they were 60.Then came the first world war. As a result of its horrors, new fronts opened up in medical research. Trauma surgery, infection control, transfusions and vaccination were all revolutionised, and scientific medicine as we know it was born.These areas are still undergoing radical developments. And many other medical frontiers have also opened up, transforming our health in ways that would have been unimaginable back then. Life expectancy in the West is now more than 80, and there is every reason to believe it can keep rising.This sixth…

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what’s eating you?

EVAN FRUSTAGLIO was a healthy 13-year-old when he developed a sore throat and fever one Friday. By Sunday his symptoms were worse, so his parents took him to a walk-in clinic. The doctor didn’t prescribe any medications. On Monday Evan collapsed in his father’s arms. He never regained consciousness.It turned out he had swine flu, which was widespread at the time. The drug Tamiflu might well have saved him.This case was not a one-off. Every day millions of people go to clinics and hospitals seeking treatment for some kind of infectious disease. Most often these are respiratory infections, and their symptoms can be identical whatever bacterium or virus is to blame. Usually the best doctors can do is make an educated guess about which bug is responsible. In many cases…

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smelling trouble

One way to diagnose infections fast might be to literally sniff them out. Bacteria emit a range of volatile chemicals that are characteristic of particular strains. Animals – and even some people – can learn to identify these smells.A company called Metabolomx, based in Mountain View, California, is now developing an artificial nose, based on arrays of dyes that change colour in the presence of certain chemicals. The method can already identify some bacteria growing in culture, and the aim is to identify diseases from people’s breath, starting with TB (also lung cancer, see page 118). ■…

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not cleared to fly

During the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the swine flu pandemic of 2009, airports in some countries used fever detectors to try to spot passengers who might be infected. Unsurprisingly this didn’t work terribly well. But what if fast, accurate tests were available? People could be swabbed when they check in and barred from flying if they test positive.Simply keeping people with potentially serious infectious diseases off airplanes would save lives, as microbes spread easily in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. Stopping people flying can also slow the spread of a disease – and that might well buy the world time to make drugs or vaccines for a new disease.Many countries already restrict the travel and immigration of people who are HIV-positive or who have diseases such as TB. Some see…

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written in your blood

(KEVIN CURTIS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)BORN into a working-class family, “Olivia” was abused as a child. Her parents were emotionally distant and offered her little comfort. Now aged 56, Olivia lives near a busy road. She is poor, smokes, drinks much more than is good for her, and has panic attacks.If Olivia really existed, she probably wouldn’t want many people to know all these details about her life – but a tiny drop of her blood could give it all away. The technology now exists to read in our blood all the kinds of information described above, and more. Such tests could tell others much about our health and habits, state of mind and socio-economic status. It could also reveal details from bygone decades, such as experiences from the furthest recesses of…

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wiping the slate clean

(ZAC MACAULAY/GETTY)Subtle traces on your DNA can reveal what’s happened to you during your lifetime (see main story). Although the vast majority of studies have focused on negative life experiences such as childhood abuse, this kind of testing doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.Positive experiences alter our epigenome as well. “Positive events can change you every bit as much as negative ones,” says Rachel Yehuda, a clinical neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. “Biology doesn’t discriminate between the two.”At least some changes to the epigenome are reversible. So when epigenetic marks, as they are known, turn out to have undesirable consequences, we can try to change them. A handful of drugs that affect DNA methylation already exist, and are being used to treat cancers in which faulty…