News Was The Guardian's 2014 crystal ball accurate?
Was The Guardian's 2014 crystal ball accurate?
Posted On: 30/12/2014
In January 2014, The Guardian took the brave, and possibly foolhardy, step of predicting the six big health breakthroughs of 2014.
We're taking a look at just how accurate the paper's crystal ball turned out to be, and gave each our own Behind the Headlines "Mystic Meg" rating for predictive accuracy.
The Guardian based this prediction on a technique comprising time-lapse imaging cameras inside IVF embryo incubators. As we discussed back in May 2013, there's nothing new about time-lapse technology, but what is new is how it's being applied to solve a problem.
Embryologists need to check how embryos are progressing to judge their viability for reimplantation. But being moved in and out of the incubator is thought to have a negative effect on the embryos.
Time-lapse cameras can record a series of images at regular intervals without embryologists having to remove the embryos from the incubator.
It's hard to know exactly how correct this prediction was, as accurate information on IVF success rates collated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority only go up to the end of 2012.
It would be surprising if there had been a massive boost to IVF rates in the UK during 2014. While the time-lapse imaging technology can only be a beneficial development, access to the technology remains limited.
Inevitably, "lab factors" are only part of the complex process of fertility and baby making. Better lab techniques are only likely to have a small, incremental benefit.
We think The Guardian was correct in spotting the potential of time-lapse imaging to increase IVF success rates – it's just too early to tell what impact it may have.
A major study looking at the feasibility of screening for ovarian cancer at the population level (in the same way as had already been done for breast cancer) was launched in 2001.
The screening method made use of a multi-stage process that we looked at in August 2013. A blood test was used to measure levels of a protein called CA125, which is associated with ovarian cancer.
The results of this test were used to assess whether women were at high risk of developing the cancer. Women thought to be at high risk would then be offered an ultrasound scan.
The women were followed up over time to see how accurate their screening information was. Results of the trial were expected to be published in 2014.
Publication of the results has been pushed back to 2015, so we can't comment. However, recommendations on ovarian cancer screening from the UK National Screening Committee haven't changed.
A little unfair on the The Guardian perhaps, but they should know better than to expect academics to meet a previously set deadline.
The prediction is based on a "historic breakthrough" trumpeted back in October 2013. A UK team of researchers were studying the effects of a new drug on a type of neurodegenerative brain disease.
The scientists infected mice with a prion disease. Prion diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (aka "mad cow" disease), cause a build-up of abnormal proteins in the brain.
This causes brain cells to switch off the production of normal proteins. Without these normal proteins the brain cells die, causing memory and behavioural problems.
This build-up of abnormal proteins is a similar pattern to what occurs in humans with Alzheimer's disease, though there is no evidence that prions are associated with the condition.
Researchers found the new drug prevents this switch turning from "on" to "off", stopping brain cell death. Encouragingly, mice treated with the drug did not develop the memory and behavioural symptoms of prion disease.
This is the first time researchers have prevented brain cell death. Current drugs for Alzheimer's can only reduce the speed at which cell death occurs.
The study was warmly welcomed by other experts in the field, with the general consensus being this was innovative research that could lead to new treatments.
However, we've drawn a blank in finding follow-up research. This could be the result of a lack of funding, a painful peer review process, or simply because more long, hard work is needed – we just don't know.
A source close to the research team tells us new research is expected to be published in the first half of 2015.
As with ovarian screening, The Guardian was right in recognising the potential implications of the research, but too optimistic in predicting how quickly a real-world benefit would appear. It can take as long as 15 years to go from proof of concept in mice to a drug that is ready to go on the market.
The Guardian's prediction is based on a novel surgical technique known as natural orifice translumenal endoscopic surgery (NOTES).
NOTES is based on a simple idea: rather than creating cuts in the body to gain access to underlying organs, you instead use the natural orifices of the body, such as the mouth, urethra and vagina.
This novel approach has the advantage of potentially reducing postoperative pain and having a lower risk of complications such as infections.
While very much in its infancy, NOTES has proved to be a viable, safe and effective technique.
Research published in 2014 suggests it can be used for a wide range of surgical procedures, such as gallbladder removal, hysterectomies and the removal of cancerous colon or rectal tissue.
There are also many ongoing clinical trials comparing the safety and effectiveness of different NOTES procedures, compared with traditional incision-based surgery.
While the use of NOTES in the NHS remains limited, we wouldn't be surprised if the technique eventually becomes standard practice for some common types of surgery, such as gallbladder removal.
"Ninja" polymers are a type of synthetic molecule that has been created by a research team at IBM. They are tiny particles a thousand times smaller than a grain of sand.
The particles are given an electrostatic charge, which helps them target fungi and bacteria, essentially causing them to explode. The particles should then dissolve harmlessly in the body.
IBM has commissioned a short animation showing the particles in action.
Researchers say the "ninja" polymers will be the ideal weapon in treating drug-resistant infections – particularly antibiotic-resistant strains of infection, such as MRSA (a so-called "superbug").
As the particles attack bacteria or fungi physically, rather than chemically, there is no risk of them causing drug resistance, which is the pressing concern with our current generations of antibiotics (and, to a lesser extent, antifungals).
The research team published new research in 2014, showing a successful proof of concept that ninja polymers can destroy infections such as S. aureus and E. coli.
But this was lab work and not research involving humans. While the lab results are promising, it's unclear whether the particles (made, according to The Guardian, from recycled drinks bottles) are safe for human use.
The lead researcher, Jim Hedrick, estimates it will be at least a decade before drugs based on this technique are available at your local chemist.
The science is good, but The Guardian seriously underestimated how long it will probably take to have workable, effective and safe "ninja drugs".
It goes without saying that faecal transplants are a pretty off-putting idea, but the concept is simple and less nauseating than you'd imagine.
Faecal matter (or "poo" to us non-medics) containing typical gut bacteria is taken from a healthy volunteer.
It is then placed in a capsule to make a probiotic pill, which is swallowed by a patient (who will usually be being treated for a C. difficile infection).
The bacteria inside the faecal matter helps to change levels of bacteria inside the gut, creating a more healthy environment.
C. difficile is a bacterium that can cause chronic diarrhoea, which can be life threatening in vulnerable people.
A small study we covered in October 2014 involved 20 people with C. difficile-associated diarrhoea. Participants were each given 30 capsules of frozen faecal matter containing gut bacteria from four healthy donors.
Results were encouraging. No serious side effects were reported in the small group, and diarrhoea was cured in 14 of the 20 people assessed over an eight-week period.
All six non-responders were re-treated and four were then cured, taking the total to 18 out of 20 that no longer suffered from diarrhoea. Participants' self-reported health scores also improved.
Larger studies are expected to take place in 2015.
While the 2014 study was small, it did have an impressive cure rate of 90% – better than many drugs that are currently on the market.
The biggest challenge of using faecal transplants is probably persuading people to actually take them.
Perhaps a branding exercise could help. Rather than "poo in a pill", they could be marketed as "100% organically natural human-sourced friendly bacteria capsules" – or, in the words of one biologist, "carbon-rich aggregate particles (CRAP)".
Of course, it's easy to criticise the work of others (which is pretty much Behind the Headlines' raison d'être).
But we are brave enough to put our money where our mouth is, and will shortly be publishing our own health and medical news predictions for 2015.