Top Docs 2011

From face transplants to computerized glasses that help blind people “see” to a groundbreaking development in the fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease, here are 14 stunning medical breakthroughs.

 A Current Affair

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Illustration by Adam McCauley

One of the most challenging aspects of treating patients with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is figuring out whether the treatments are working at all. That’s because patients are often too weak to endure the strength and breathing tests that measure the deterioration of their muscle function. The problem was maddening for Seward Rutkove, the neuromuscular disease chair at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “I was obsessed with the idea that we needed new ways to evaluate muscle health,” Rutkove says. Years ago, he encountered the work of two Northeastern University physicists who were examining how muscle tissue responds to electrodes. Working alongside them, Seward developed a technique, electrical impedance myography (EIM), that determines a muscle’s condition by sending an imperceptible electrical current through it. EIM testing works on almost any muscle in the body, providing doctors with a quick way of knowing whether ALS medications are effective — a benefit that could cut the cost of medical trials in half. In February Rutkove was awarded a $1 million prize for his findings from Prize4Life, an organization that promotes and funds scientific innovation for treating ALS. With the prize money and a team of scientists from MIT, he’s developing a handheld EIM device that will give doctors newfound muscle in treating the disease.  —  J.N.

Your iPhone Will See You Now

Thanks to the work of Boston-area researchers, your smartphone just might save your life one day. When it comes to the following medical problems, there’s an app for that.


Northeastern University researcher Heather Clark and her team have developed what’s quite possibly the most badass blood test the disease has ever seen. It’s a tiny tattoo packed with a glucose-sensing dye that, when hit with a special light from your handy iPhone attachment, reveals your blood-sugar status. Bye-bye, finger pricks.


New this year from Mass General: an app and a tiny machine that will take biopsies of miniscule tumors and analyze and summarize the results within an hour. That means no pathology lab, virtually no wait for results — and no invasive digging for samples. The hospital’s now at work on a smartphone blood test for cancer.

Mental Health

“You seem stressed, is everything okay?” It’s not a text from your mom, it’s a little smartphone counseling courtesy of the Daily Data app from MIT startup Released this year, the app analyzes accelerometer data and the frequency of your calls, texts, and game-playing to monitor your mood (and even your chronic diseases).

Bogus Meds

Sproxil dealt a major blow to the $200 billion counterfeit-drug industry with a new app that sniffs out fake medicines. The Cambridge tech firm partnered with drug companies to put scratch-off codes on their packaging. Enter the code into the app, and a text will appear a few seconds later verifying the drug’s authenticity.


Last year, MIT’s Media Lab gave us the iPhone app for eyeglass prescriptions. This year, they developed a $5 iPhone app that can detect cataracts — and their spread and severity — earlier than even professionally trained specialists can find them. Oh, and the app can do it all in five minutes or less. — S.F.