December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Themes of the last fortnight have been medical money spinners, stem cell controversy and Doctors 2.0 ...


Themes of the last fortnight have been medical money spinners, more stem cell controversy and Doctors 2.0.

Medical money spinners

The big story of the last fortnight is that cancer research makes money, and lots. For every £1 invested from the government or from a charity, 40p is returned to the UK economy every year after the initial investment. The UK government requires a 3.5p return on the pound every subsequent year, so cancer research is a choice investment by an order of magnitude. The finding was published in BMC Medicine.

For a simple breakdown of the figures check out this BioMed Central blog. Other stand-out stats are that 10p of the 40p return comes in health benefits while 30p comes from developing knowledge and a skilled workforce. The period taken for the analysis was the last 40 years during which time £15 billion has been spent on cancer research in the UK. Similar analyses carried out on cardiovascular and mental health research found that the equivalent figures were 39p and 37p respectively, however, all medical research investments must be long term – the findings show a 15 year lag period before the return on investment is seen.

An excellent piece on the research by Liz Allen was posted on both the Wellcome Trust blog and the BMJ blog. Her article opens with the story that Bill Clinton feels the best decision he made as President of the US was to invest $3 billion in the Human Genome Project. It’s not only made huge contributions to health but the investment has led to over $180 billion worth of investments in genome companies in the US alone. Other examples are the IVF industry, which is now worth £500 million to the UK, and monoclonal antibodies, which came from council-funded research in Cambridge in the 1970s and now fuels an industry worth £250 billion globally.

Of course the real headline here is that over the 40 years of analysis, the cancer survival rate has doubled from less than a quarter in the 70s to around half of all those diagnosed with cancer today surviving – a truly amazing achievement.

Stem cell controversy – again

The outstanding returns on medical research investment makes stem cells a plump target for funding. This promising technology has been in the news several times in the last two weeks, often amid controversy. Brain neurons from aborted human foetuses can be used to treat sufferers of Parkinson’s disease, and although there was a moratorium on the technique in 2003, it’s now been lifted. There’s strong evidence that instead techniques using embryonic stem cells could be used and produce the same replacement brain neurons. But the results would only be realised in a few years time and advocates of the transplant method insist it’s a more developed technique that’s likely to yield new treatments faster. As many as three foetuses are needed to treat a single Parkinson’s sufferer. Is harvesting aborted human foetuses ethical or should we hold on a few years?

Elsewhere, stem cell technology has again been the victim of bogus claims. The latest on the Haruko Obokata fiasco that was in the news earlier this year is that people are calling for the RIKEN centre, where the research was carried out, to be closed. Now Elena Cattaneo and Gilberto Corbellini have given an account of their battle against the Italian group Stamina, who claimed to have a new stem cell treatment technique and won €3 million from the Italian government to undertake a clinical trial. There is no evidence that the treatment might work and Stamina’s founder Davide Vannoni has not trained as a scientist or had scientific work published. Thankfully, there is now a Senate investigation underway with the possibility of the treatments being banned later this year.

There was some non-controversial stem cell news this fortnight too – it turns out it’s much easier than previously thought to programme the fate of stem cells. This should will make it simpler to use them for a variety of medical applications (although beware the words ‘stem cells’ and ‘easy’ in the same sentence). Stem cell technology is in choppy waters right now but when the ship comes in there’s little doubt it will revolutionise some medical techniques, and probably figure prominently in BMC Medicine’s future return on investment stats.

Doctors 2.0

While the value for money of medical research is now proven, what value is there in giving doctors iPads? The new tool would use the Medopad App and transmit relevant patient health data to doctors when they need it. Other perks are that doctors could check a patient’s heart monitor from anywhere in a hospital building and take medical notes just by speaking. Personally, I think that a charge of £60-£90 per iPad per month for the service is a little steep for what sounds like a relatively basic 21st century data delivery tool.

Especially as there are so many other options. In her BMJ blog Tessa Richards reports on the Doctors 2.0 & You conference in Paris. She commended the strong contribution from patients, including E-patient leaders, and noticed growth in the number of apps that help patients quantify their own health.

So successes firing in front line medical research, through to combating bogus treatments, using tablets to help doctors day-to-day and presenting apps that improve patient experience. What a fortnight for medicine!


IMAGE: jjprojects