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Health in the headlines: pioneering advances in medical science

hand in_a_jar_14_08_12We take a look at the pioneering advances in medical science and breakthrough research that are seeing health and medicine reach new heights…

The last few years have been pivotal for the progress of medical advances all over the world. In 2010, surgeons in Spain carried out the world’s first full-face transplant, while in 2011 HIV researchers in the US found a way to lower an infected person’s risk of passing the virus on sexually by 96%. In the UK, experts are breaking medical boundaries of our own with continued advances in treatments and technologies for a variety of chronic and life-threatening conditions, funded by the government, charities and private organisations alike.

1. UK’s first artificial heart
You may suspect some people of having a heart of stone, but this new medical revelation has seen a man have a fully functioning plastic heart fitted into his chest. Matthew Green, 41, from London was the first person in the UK to receive what’s known as the Total Artificial Heart in July 2011, which is designed as a ‘bridge-to transfer’ device while a patient waits for a heart transplant. Over 900 people across the world have already received the device since its approval in 2004, but Matthew is the first recipient of the artificial heart here in the UK.

This pioneering development in medical science has overshadowed its 1980s predecessor, the Jarvik-7 – an artificial permanent heart replacement which was connected up to a washing-machine-sized pump. Now the latest artificial heart is only accompanied by a 6kg backpack and a few discrete cables. New heart technology is not stopping there: a French heart surgeon, Alain Carpentier, is aiming to create biosynthetic materials that will prevent clotting and allow blood rate and pressure to be controlled in a new generation of artificial hearts. This revolutionary technology is not only helping transplant-requiring adults; the world’s smallest artificial heart, made of titanium and weighing only 11g, was implanted in a 16- month-old boy in Italy in May 2012 to keep him alive until a heart transplant became available.

2. The first multiple sclerosis pill
The neurological condition, multiple sclerosis (known as MS) affects around 100,000 people in the UK, and so it’s not surprising that the world’s first pill for the disabling condition has sparked excitement among medical staff and MS patients alike. The new drug, Fingolimod, which was approved by the NHS rationing body in March this year, is an oral once-a-day pill designed to replace the current treatment of medication and interferon beta injections. This oral treatment is revolutionary for people with MS, and will prove life-changing for patients who relapse when using the traditional methods – in addition, the pill can also slow progression of the disease. ‘The decision increases treatment choice. Because this is a highly effective oral agent it may change the way MS is managed in the UK forever,’ says consultant neurologist, Dr Eli Silber, who leads the MS service for south London based at King’s College Hospital.

With it mainly being people aged 20 to 40 diagnosed with MS, quick and effective treatment is imperative says Eli. ‘With more active forms of MS, we have a limited window of opportunity to make a difference to patients’ lives – many are young people who are raising families and starting their careers.’ During the trial of the pill, patients saw a 50% cut in disabling relapses compared to when using interferon beta injections, and the likeliness of the disease progressing to a more severe form were cut by approximately one-third. It appears that the drug works by binding to the surface of immune cells, trapping them in the lymph nodes and preventing them from attacking cells in the central nervous system, which is what usually causes nerve damage.

3. Skin cancer tablet
A breakthrough pill, called Vemurafenib, could double the survival time of patients battling advanced skin cancer. The twice-daily pill, which went on sale in the UK in March 2012, was shown to increase the proportion of patients surviving to six months by 84% in an international study. Another trial found that the pill could even extend the lives of those whose skin cancer had spread to other organs – as much as eight to 10 months in some instances. This pill is essential to the UK, where over 11,000 people are diagnosed with malignant melanoma (skin cancer) each year; this figure is set to rise due to the penchant for foreign holidays to escape the British weather. Although many tumours are removed before the disease spreads, for 20% of skin cancer patients this is not the case, and their prognosis and survival time is usually poor.

Even though it will require assessment by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) before it becomes widely available on the NHS, it is thought it will become a crucial development in the quest to cure skin cancer. Cally Palmer, chief executive of London’s The Royal Marsden Hospital, commented on the drug: ‘This is an important and significant step forward for the treatment of patients with advanced melanoma.’

4. First corneal replacement treatment
New stem cell research could see corneal blindness reversed following a pioneering corneal replacement treatment carried out in the UK. The first trial of its kind in Britain saw Sylvia Paton, 50, from Edinburgh and one other patient undergo treatment which involved the removal of damaged corneal tissue followed by transplanting stem cells from deceased donors on to the cornea.

Although the results will not be determined until approximately February 2013, the treatment is still an important step forward in the medical pursuit of reversing blindness. Sylvia, who prior to the operation only had 10% of the vision a sighted person has, believes that it could make a difference to her and others like her. Speaking to The Independent, she said: ‘It has the potential to save sight, protect and give back vision to people like me. Even if only a little of my vision is restored, it would be better than nothing. Plus it means that the team has gained valuable experience. Until now there’s really nothing that could be done to combat the effects of this type of blindness.’

5. Human brain cells created
Scientists in Edinburgh were originally renowned for the creation of the world’s first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep. But now, a new breakthrough has stolen the limelight: they have created brain tissue. The tissue was made using a scrap of skin from patients suffering with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, and was identical to the neurons found in the patients’ brains. ‘A patient’s neurons can tell us a great deal about the psychological conditions that affect them, but you cannot stick a needle in someone’s brain and take out its cells,’ said Professor Charles ffrench-Constant, the director of Edinburgh’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine. ‘However, we have found a way round that. We can take a skin sample, make stem cells from it and then direct these stem cells to grow into brain cells. Essentially, we are turning a person’s skin cells into brain. We are making cells that were previously inaccessible. And we could do that in future for the liver, the heart and other organs on which it is very difficult to carry out biopsies.’

This revolutionary advance will allow scientists to further understand neurological conditions such as MS, Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron disease (MND) and a host of mental illnesses. This project will allow them to eventually test new medicines for these conditions on the brain cells, it is hoped. Professor Andrew McIntosh, who is involved with the project, states: ‘Our lines of brain cells would become testing platforms for new drugs. We should be able to start that work in a few years.’

6. Growing ‘off the shelf’ veins
Veins and arteries could soon be mass-produced on an industrial scale, according to new research from Cambridge University. Following four years of work, scientists have managed to grow the main cell types that are used to create a blood vessel’s walls, in a laboratory environment. The study, which published the revolutionary findings in Nature Biotechnology, confirmed that their technique of using patients’ own skin cells to create veins and arteries was 90% effective and could lead to their use in transplant operations in the future. ‘This research represents an important step towards being able to generate the right kind of smooth muscle cells to help construct these new blood vessels,’ says Dr Sanjay Sinha, from Cambridge University. ‘They could be used to build an artificial artery or stem cells could be injected into the heart.’

First over-the-counter HIV test approved in the US
A revolutionary new DIY HIV test looks set to go on sale in the UK within the next few months.

The OraQuick test will be available in pharmacies and homeware shops and works by testing saliva from a swab. Results are produced in 20 to 40 minutes, and it is hoped it will help diagnose people who may not realise they are HIV-positive (an estimated 20% of the 1.2 million affected). The tests, which will retail for £38 or less, are especially important as it is estimated there are about 50,000 new cases of HIV in the US each year. Tom Donohue, founding director of HIV/Aids organisation, Who’s Positive, says: ‘This test will allow anyone to empower themselves to know their HIV status when, how and with whom they want to.’

This article was first published in at home’s ’Ask the Doctor with Dr Chris Steele’ in Sept 2012. [Read the digital edition here]

Picture credit: Shutterstock 

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