Although Behind the Headlines often spends time explaining mistaken or misguided news reports, the joy of this service is when there are genuinely exciting medical advances to report.
Over the past year there have been many important and fascinating stories, and it is a credit to the national press that so many of them have been so well understood and so well reported. Here’s our pick of some of the best stories from the many brilliant health articles and impressive studies published in 2011.
Heartwarming gene therapy
By far the most heartwarming breakthrough in medical science involves the story of seven-year-old Jack Crick (presumably no relation to the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix). Jack was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) – an inherited genetic mutation that causes an inability to fight off infection – severely limiting his chances of surviving more than a few years. The condition is often referred to as ‘bubble boy syndrome’ due the need to live in a germ-free plastic isolation bubble, as even a normally minor infection could prove fatal.
Some excellent reporting by both the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph explained how James and 13 other children with SCID are now able to live normal lives following stem cell gene therapy. After being treated by the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital the children have seen the function of their immune cells restored, meaning that risk of serious infection is massively reduced. The therapy also has implications for a variety of other genetic disorders of the blood, such as beta thalassaemia.
Gene therapy has also been a major topic in health news, including as a potential way to treat Parkinson’s disease. This news from March was also well reported and could provide a genuine breakthrough.
Synthetic pumps and pipes
Some people are said to have a heart of gold, others, a heart of stone. Now there’s someone with a heart of plastic. Thirty-year-old Matthew Green, who had end-stage heart failure, was given a 'total artificial heart' in June as a stop-gap measure while he waits for a suitable donor organ. This amazing story was one of the most widely covered in 2011, receiving some excellent explanations of both the medical and personal implications of the experimental treatment.
What’s more we could soon be seeing more of the circulatory system made artificially, after scientists successfully ran a trial using synthetic veins (made from human and dog muscle cells) transplanted into other animals. However, current experimental research does not support The Daily Telegraph ’s report that the new veins can be “safely transplanted into any patient”.
The molecular scalpel
In July, the BBC heralded a potential new drug that could help significant numbers of children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) a debilitating condition for which there is currently no cure. The drug, known as AVI-4658 in the lab, was instead given the much snappier title of the 'molecular scalpel' by the press, as it helps to ignore or 'cut out'” genetic defects that prevent the body producing a protein (dystrophin) that causes DMD. The researchers reckon that around 83% of people with DMD could be helped by this molecular scalpel technique.
Simple baby heart defect test
At the more everyday, less cutting-edge end of medical science, we have confirmation that a simple, routine test is a great way of detecting heart defects in newborn babies before they leave hospital. An infrared sensor is used to detect the level of oxygen in the blood in the fingers or toes, with a low oxygen level suggesting a congenital heart problem. This widely reported and large study has now shown the test is superior to other safe and simple methods of detecting congenital heart defects.
A shot in the arm for vaccines
Some of the most exciting developments this year have happened in the world of vaccines. These have the potential to save thousands, if not millions, of lives worldwide and include:
- Steps towards a 'universal flu vaccine' as scientists find an antibody that fights the two main types of influenza
- a possible HIV vaccine (and the good news is that HIV rates are already dropping in the UK even without an effective vaccine)
- a meningitis B vaccine, which although only theoretical, would be a great advance because it would treat the most common strain of the disease. However, the Daily Mail ’s assertion in June, that the vaccine “will be available within months” appears a little hasty.
Listening to The Cure?
If you’re sick of hearing Christmas carols and cheesy 70s seasonal pop anthems you may be perplexed by a finding from August. A small, but important study found that people with depression who had music therapy sessions alongside standard treatment showed improvements in measures of depression, anxiety and general functioning than those only receiving normal treatment. This research was generally well reported, although The Independent ’s headline suggested that music therapy is a cure, which is not the case.
But the bad news is …
Not all health news reports exciting discoveries about new tests and treatments. Unfortunately, our increasing knowledge and use of healthcare often highlights new dangers. In July, doctors isolated a new strain of a sexually transmitted bacteria, H041, that they have dubbed "superbug gonorrhoea" because of its resistance to antibiotics. Fortunately, the Daily Mirror ’s warning about an ‘epidemic’ of this superbug gonorrhoea has proved wide of the mark, so far, but serves as a good reminder to practise safer sex.
What does the future hold?
In 2012, we expect to see more of the same, with great advances made in these and other areas. We also predict better reporting of medical science in the mainstream media, and we hope that we helped in your understanding of health news.