A week of medical marvels

Anthie Karravagelis, Linda Wang and Tessa Evans 19 November 2011

Cambridge University’s reputation as one of the world’s leading scientific institution was highlighted this week as a series of major medical breakthroughs were announced, offering hope to those suffering from serious conditions affecting millions worldwide.

Patients in a vegetative state were offered hope by a new portable brain scanner trialled at Addenbrooke’s hospital this week. Three out of sixteen patients previously thought to be without consciousness have shown identical brain activity to healthy people when asked basic questions and when asked to imagine making movements.

These results suggest that in the future, some comatose patients may still be able to communicate with family and friends, although such breakthroughs may be years away as it takes a long time to analyse data from the brain scan. There are also various ethical issues with the interpretation of brain scan data from vegetative patients, for example it is difficult to apply yes/no answers to complex issues such as whether life was still of value.

Hope was also offered to patients with chronic heart failure, due to the unveiling of the world’s first wireless pacemaker by Cambridge academics. This development will reduce the surgical costs and chances of infection in the treatment of these patients, and could benefit more than 2.2 million advanced heart failure patients who cannot undergo the current therapy.

The battle against Malaria was furthered by a breakthrough by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge. The discovery has been termed the “Achilles heel” of malaria, as the critical component of human red blood cells vital for the parasite to complete its life cycle have been identified. This could potentially lead to the global eradication of the disease which killed 781,000 people in 2009.

Finally, three decades of Cambridge research have culminated in an exciting development in the treatment of patients with Multiple Sclerosis. Clinical trials exploring the use of a new drug used in the treatment of the disease have shown great promise. According to Professor Alastair Compston, Chair of the Steering Committee overseeing the conduct of the study, this may constitute a “transformative treatment for a broad range of people with relapsing multiple sclerosis.”

Anthie Karravagelis, Linda Wang and Tessa Evans