I would like draw medical research scientists, in particular, to a just published report (January 2010) by the ‘The Academy of Medical Sciences (UK)’ entitled ‘Reaping the Rewards : a Vision for UK Medical Science’. The document running to about 50 pages demonstrates how medical research from basic to clinical can and does lead to benefits, not only to the patient, but also to the biomedical industry in the UK. The report also highlights the need for ideas driven basic research, and outlines the key roles played by research funding agencies like the MRC and Wellcome Trust and encourages in particular greater participation by the NHS. While the report specifically focuses on the UK research landscape, it does provide food for thought about the way we fund and carry out biomedical research in Ireland. The recent decision by the Health Research Board of Ireland to essentially forego funding of basic medical research in Ireland is alarming to say the least and is at odds with other similar funding organisations right across Europe.
As the current ‘pandemic’ of swine flu begins to fade both in Ireland and across Europe people are beginning to ask did we really need to spend so much money on importing expensive flu vaccines and was there really a threat to the health of the nation by the H1N1 flu virus. When was the last time you read about swine flu deaths in the newspapers or heard it on the radio or television. I am beginning to think that both WHO and governments over reacted to this ‘pandemic’ and I am not the only one. Wolfgang Wodarg who chairs the EU parliamentary assembly’s health subcommittee says he doesn’t believe swine flu is truly a pandemic. Apart from people with underlying medical conditions very few other people died from this particular flu virus when compared to seasonal flu.
Later in January MEPS from across Europe will meet to hold an inquiry into why the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic. This declaration in turn triggered the Irish government and others across Europe to purchase vaccines at not an inconsequential cost. It could be argued that the purchase of vaccine contracts from several pharmaceutical companies was largely based on fears of a highly virulent H1N1 causing high number of deaths in the country. Several countries are now trying to renegotiate their vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies. Good luck to them!
Top of the Sunday Times best sellers list this week is a book by Ben Goldacre called Bad Science in which he challenges and debunks much medical nonsense. From homeopathy to buying your Ph.D. from dodgy universities that have just mail boxes for addresses, Goldacre shows that even with junior cert science or just plain common sense you can spot bad science a mile off. The book is eminently readable with sections on how bad statistics can be used to support all sort of dubious health promoting claims for supplements. The role of double blind clinical trials so crucial in providing unbiased data in helping us decide whether a particular drug has a real medical benefit or not is explained in plain English .
Goldacre also looks at the thriving business of health supplements and how slick advertising combined with references to scientific publication that appear to support their claims (which they really don’t), can con Joe Public into buying expensive health supplements that do absolutely no good at all. Just look at the range of health supplements that are for sale not only in our pharmacies, but also in specialized ‘health food stores’ in Ireland at the moment. Most of these products have little or no real science to back up their claims and yet people buy them with hard earned money. More about this later….
The book is a wake-up call to those of us you know a little about science and why we seem to be failing to communicate even basic scientific principles to the man in the street, so he/she can make informed decisions rather than being mis led by dodgy advertising claims. Perhaps a lot of us are a little too concerned with turning out laboratory based cutting edge research rather than spending time educating the public on a broad range of subjects that affect everyday decisions.
Just before Christmas Forfas published a report commissioned by itself and the HEA and carried out by Evidence Ltd a wholly owned subsidiary of Thompsons Reuters that specialized in research performance and analysis. The report which can be accessed via this link http://www.forfas.ie/media/forfas091209_bibliometric_study.pdf examines the research output and impact of Irish research between the years 1998 and 2007. The report makes interesting reading and shows for example that research output in this country doubled between these years, when output in the UK, Germany and France remained more or less flat. Ireland’s share of world’s citations is greater than its share of world publications indicating that its output is cited more than average. On a volume basis Ireland is 18th in the world but 8th on impact with a ranking higher than Finland or Australia which is pretty good!
I would encourage people to read the detail in this report as it is likely to influence science policy over the coming years.
While shopping for my Christmas spiced beef in Cork’s English Market this morning, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two rather elderly ladies discussing the nutritional benefits of a glass of Stout and milk, and the health protective effects of a daily vitamin C tablet. While the former has clear nutritional content, although from childhood memories the taste leaves a lot to be desired, the latter has little benefit for anyone with a reasonably well balanced diet. When I enquired of the ladies why they were taking vitamin C, I was told in no uncertain terms that it ‘protected against cancer, warded off colds and flu and gave a daily pep to their lives’. This is not an unusual response as quite a significant percentage of the population are quite happy to pop a daily tablet of vitamin C in the mistaken belief that it somehow has all sorts of vague health protective effects. So what exactly are the benefits of vitamin C, how much do we need and perhaps more importantly why are the above views so prevalent among the Irish population?
The RDA of vitamin C is 75-90mg depending on whether you are a male or female and you really don’t see individuals with scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) these days so widespread in this vitamin in the diet. Most vegetables have lots of vitamin C and unless you want to eat a pure meat diet then you are not going to suffer from a deficiency in this vitamin.
Proper controlled trials have showed no benefits of vitamin C in relation to several cancers. Similar trials have also shown that there are no protective effects against the common cold of flu. So why then do people persist in taking daily doses of vitamin C that are commonly 10 times the RDA and are largely excreted? The answer of course is lack of knowledge and the blame for that in part lies with us scientists who have failed to convey the appropriate information to the general public. This coupled with subtly misleading advertising also encourages people to buy vast quantities of this vitamin on an annual basis. I believe there is a real need in this country to educate the public in simple matters of science so that they don’t as in this case waste their hard earned money on buying into the pretty much unproven health claims for this particular vitamin. Yet I don’t see this being done! Maybe 2010 is the year when we as scientists make this effort.
This week the supreme court ruled that the protection of the constitution afforded to the ‘unborn’ does not extend to human embryos until there are implanted in the womb. This land mark decision opens the door a little further for medical researchers to carry out research work using human embryonic stem cells (hESC). While there is still no legislation preventing research work with hESC, there is a noticeable reluctance by the universities, (except Cork) and funding bodies to entertain support for such research. At the same time we are quite happy to avail of vaccines that use human embryonic cells in their production and or quality control processed. In fact researchers across the country currently use a range of human embryonic and foetal cell lines in the work without any funding of ethical difficulties. This type of double standard and lack of clear joined up thinking seems to be endemic in this country.
There is a clear opportunity in Ireland at the moment to take a lead in hESC research if we are prepared to make decisions. Making difficult decisions is not something we are always terribly good at in this country. Most researchers who want to work on hESC simply wish to import hESC lines that are already produced and readily available internationally. There really is very little difference in using say MRC5 or HEK cells and hESC. All are derived from the same source and the former two cell line have made very significant contributions to human health as they are used routinely in vaccine production as I mentioned above. The benefits of hESC research work are potential very significant and if we as a country don’t grab the opportunity we have we will be play catch up once again in this field of research.