For those of you hoping to live a longer life, a number of breakthroughs in the past few weeks suggest that serious advances in treating skin problems, heart disease, and cancer are just around the corner.
Of mice and men
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine announced that they have reversed the effects of aging on the skin of mice by blocking a protein related to skin aging.
Now, working on mice isn't exactly the same as working on humans, but according to one scientist, the implication is that "the aging process is ... potentially amenable to intervention." This is music to the ears of cosmetics- industry leaders L'Oreal and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) , which are constantly searching for new ways to rejuvenate people's skin.
Directly related to this news was another story out of Stanford that another group of researchers had generated a database that catalogs how gene expression changes in mice as the animals age. The study might assist in pinpointing when it is appropriate to use mice as a model for human aging and when it isn't.
On a more practical level, this suggests that pharmaceutical companies will have a better understanding of whether those drugs that are effective in treating disease in mice will also be effective in humans. For companies such as Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK ) , the advance could help bring new drugs to the commercial marketplace more quickly.
If the idea of younger-looking skin or new drugs getting to market faster doesn't get your heart pumping, perhaps the next two stories will. The first was a report in Nature that researchers at three universities had successfully transplanted living embryonic cells in the cardiac tissue of mice that had suffered heart attacks. This treatment caused the mice to become resistant to cardiac arrhythmias.
In the long term, if such an advance can be used for humans, the market for any number of medical-device companies working to detect arrhythmias, including Medtronic (NYSE: MDT ) and Boston Scientific (NYSE: BSX ) , could diminish over time.
Before that might occur, however, I predict that a variety of new products will make their way to the commercial marketplace to help patients and their doctors better monitor their hearts -- and thus avoid heart attacks in the first place.
As evidence of this possibility, I submit news that researchers in the Netherlands have developed a new wireless cardiac "patch" that allows doctors to continuously monitor a patients' heart and record electrocardiograms while they are on the go.
Taking aim at cancer
And in addition to addressing heart disease -- the leading cause of death in America -- there were also two innovations that, when taken together, could lead to the faster diagnosis and more effective treatment of cancer.
The first breakthrough occurred at UCLA, where researchers found that aggressive cancer cells are significantly softer than normal cells. Using atomic-force microscopy, the researchers were the first to mechanically probe the physical properties of cancer cells, and this suggests that such nanomechanical tests might soon be used in cancer diagnosis. If so, this could benefit atomic-force microscopy manufacturers Veeco (Nasdaq: VECO ) and Agilent (NYSE: A ) , whose equipment could soon be widely employed in the lucrative cancer-diagnostics market.
The other development, from a clinical trial, was that in combination with chemotherapy, thermotherapy -- the heating of cancer cells with microwave energy -- significantly reduced the size of tumors.
Like most breakthroughs in the health-care industry, it's unlikely that this advancement will make its way to market in the next few years, but it's clear that science will continue to make great progress in treating the effects of aging, heart disease, and cancer.
And even if investors aren't interested in the immediate implications of these new advances, they should at least begin contemplating the effect these breakthroughs will have on life expectancy and adjust their long-term investment horizons accordingly, because many people could be living much longer than they now expect.
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