Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fantastic Voyage?

Fantastic Voyage - nearing reality
 I've not been able to resist comparing the technological breakthrough announced by a London-based research team with the classic Sci-Fi movie Fantastic Voyage.

Now August is known in media circles as the silly season - just when journalists are desperate for a story about an amazing medical breakthrough.

So there is a danger we grab at any breaking story and hype it up. How significant is the news from London?

Well it's still a long way from the 1966 movie, which starred Raquel Welch.The movie and a later movie inspired by it Innerspace involved the miniaturisation of human beings in their physical form. Nobody believes that will ever be possible.

magnetised stem cellBut it's a big step towards the dream. The dream is that doctors will one day be able to board a vessel and navigate inside the human body to make repairs at cellular and atomic level.

They have been getting progressively closer, using wires and fibre optic cables. What's been done now doesn't involve wires and is much smaller in scale. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre - that's one millionth of a millimetre. So in laboratory conditions, doctors have successfully injected individual cells - stem cells - and guided them to a specific destination.

The technique has been tested as a treatment for the arteries but it is also the ultimate destination for cancer researchers - the possibility of planting drugs directly inside a cancer or directly on a cancerous cell circulating in the blood stream.

According to  Professor Quentin Pankhurst, of the London Centre for Nanotechnology: “Magnetic particles have been used as MRI contrast agents for more than a decade, and are both safe and convenient for use in the body.

"Using them as tags on cells and using external magnets to capture them in the bloodstream is, however, an entirely new prospect which may open the door to many new possibilities for targeted cell and drug delivery.”

So the new technique gives doctors a way of steering the craft, the Proteus, in the movie. It doesn't yet give them an improved way of piloting it ie a new set of eyes within the body.

But it's now possible to think of the Fantastic Voyage taking place through VR ie that a doctor will sit in a cabin manipulating cells, drugs and minuscule surgical tools within the body. It may not be long coming!

Here's the Englemed report on the research.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Press officers

A few years ago when I worked on a newspaper I found myself in the office of a press officer of a large hospital. On the wall was a list of all the stories I had written - and one or two by other people - rated according to whether they were positive or negative about the hospital. Sadly most were negative.

I believe that's the way professional media relations people work. They tot up column inches and subtract the negative from the positive.

I wonder how people like that are coping with the 21st century. My feeling is that many are coping badly. Chatting to professionals sometimes you find it is not their fault. Often their bosses are more concerned about whether they appear in The Times or some prestigious local paper than if they are really getting the message out.

This is a longish preamble to the fact that I am using the dog days of August to tidy up our own list of contacts, in particular I am chasing down those people who have ceased to send us stuff , have never contacted us or have failed to respond to previous requests. In time I may even name and shame.

Because Englemed is a new-fangled beast, a web-based agency, created from scratch on the web, not everyone takes us seriously. Some are more comfortable dealing pretty well solely with the Press Association and the BBC - with Reuters and the national newspapers on an occasional basis. After all we have only been around for, well, longer than a decade.

Sometimes the opposite happens and an energetic press officer moves from one job to another taking their contacts list with them and we find ourselves getting news from an entirely new source. Too often, sadly, the opposite happens and news just dries up, often from quite busy organisations. Someone's had a "tidy up" and we mean nothing to them - they may not even have worked in the health and medical sector before.

Who loses? They do, because they lose the chance to convey stories to a large audience and often we can pick up those off-beat stories that do not make the national "press".

Thursday, August 13, 2009

We're on Twitter!

We've now gone on twitter! Our user name is jon@englemed and nickname is @ukmednews. You find us by searching for ukmednews

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mouth cancer alarm

Here's Hazel Nunn, of Cancer Research UK, talking today about the dramatic increase in rates of mouth cancer in the UK. Full report here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Is dairy healthy?

milk, cheese and dairy products - are they healthy?A few years ago, a common sight on English door-steps was that of garden birds pecking through the tin foil tops of milk bottles. It no longer is - for the milk in the bottles no longer contains a top layer of cream. This is mainly because most families have moved to semi-skimmed or even skimmed milk, low in cream.

There have been other changes. On the table you may find cream and butter substitutes. One popular butter substitute is made from olive oil, another from pine tree oil. As we have frequently reported, olive oil and similar vegetable oils are the height of healthy eating. Farm products - milk, butter, cheese, cream, meat and eggs - are regarded with suspicion or as occasionally luxuries or treats, even though they have been a staple part of human diet for thousands of years.

In the 1970s the withdrawal of free school milk from schools was a big issue. When free food was returned to schools in the 1990s, it was fruit, not milk.

Now a remarkable study in the journal Heart suggests this view may be flawed. The evidence is powerful because it has been collected over 70 years and is based on a pioneering study of British eating habits. Researchers set out to relate the fate of the people in the study to their childhood eating habits - which had been well documented. The findings show no evidence that children who were stuffed with full-cream milk products had unhealthy hearts or circulation. And in fact they had the lowest death rates of any of their generation - and also enjoyed low death rates from stroke.

And the chances are that these children enjoyed a full cream diet. In the 1930s, if you could afford it, you could have a full cream pudding on your table every day - notably blancmange and rice pudding. There was also sago pudding, tapioca pudding, ground rice pudding.

Now, of course, this study does not compare the 1930s diet with a more modern diet. But it does chronicle a generation of Britons that has lived for longer and more healthily than ever before. It may be that those brought up on semi-skimmed milk and olive oil butter substitutes will do even better.

So for this 1930s generation, a childhood rich in full cream did no harm. One possibility is that it also had a big impact on the health of the bones - rendering dairy eaters less prone to bone breakages, falls and orthopaedic operations. That might explain their reduced death rates.

The big question about the research is whether dairy products were the only healthy factor in the children's diets. Maybe they consumed more milk and cheese because their families were wealthier than others. Perhaps a healthy level of calcium in the diet was an indication of a proper diet - as opposed to the restricted diet that poorer families might have lived on in the turbulent 1930s.

The detailed breakdown of the findings tends to bear this out. About 25 per cent of the children ate at least twice as many dairy products as others. These tended to come from high status social groups and to be taller and better fed than other children, getting about 20 per cent more energy than others in their daily diet. However they did not necessarily eat as many vegetables or as much fat as other children.

So although it is true that the high calcium levels in the children's diets probably reflected their families' greater wealth than others, it does not disprove the benefits of calcium and milk products. For, if wealth leads to better health, there must be a way this is achieved. And it is the high intake of dairy products - of all those milk puddings, rather than of fruit and vegetables - that stands out as a key feature of these 1930s families.

The researchers write: "Dairy products are important contributors to children’s intake of protein, vitamins and minerals and they play an important role in the maintenance of bone health.

"The beneficial effects of dairy and calcium intake suggested by this study were seen at estimated intake levels that are similar to the currently recommended intake amount for dairy and calcium in children."

More reports on diet and health here.