The Blog

Jubilee Medicine: 60 Years of Great British Achievements

Today's public has access to their Queen unlike any other. She is a brand, and so the jubilee is the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the great work that our 'company' produces. For such a tiny island, the United Kingdom's track record in science and medicine is outstanding.

Watching Alastair Sooke's BBC programme on painting women rulers on Saturday (2 June), you get a real sense of how, historically - most often for propaganda purposes - it was of paramount importance that the monarchy be portrayed as something unobtainable, often painted as very obvious parodies of themselves; a clear sign of how influential royalty was in the centuries leading up to the reign of our current monarch.

That isn't to say that Elizabeth II is no longer influential. Sooke says, "there are more images of Queen Elizabeth II than any other person in history."

Today's public has access to their Queen unlike any other. She is a brand, and so the jubilee is the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the great work that our 'company' produces. For such a tiny island, the United Kingdom's track record in science and medicine is outstanding. We hold claim to some of history's greatest achievements, and retain some of the world's most skilled doctors and researchers. This is a short tribute to some of our most notable achievements over the past 60 years.

1953: Francis Crick and James Watson build a model describing the structure of DNA

Working out of Cambridge, Crick and Watson's modelling of the structure of DNA was a crucial step towards our understanding of genetics. Understanding how genes are stored allows us to accurately determine what their individual roles are, and how we might tailor treatment for when they're faulty.

ProSavin, for example, is currently being trialled as a more agreeable treatment for Parkinson's disease. The process uses a stripped down virus to deliver dopamine-producing genes to the brain. Dopamine is essential to a properly-functioning nervous system, and is depleted in those with Parkinson's.

1968: Sir Roy Calne performs Europe's first liver transplant

Whilst not a world first, it was Calne's combined efforts towards producing effective immunosuppressants that gave real hope to those receiving a donor organ. Going beyond the technical difficulties of transplanting organs, Calne, who has strong links to Cambridge and is an honorary consultant surgeon at Addenbrooke's hospital, continues to push the importance of effective immunosuppressants, so that transplant patients may live longer with their donor organs.

Amongst other achievements, Calne performed the world's first combined liver, heart and lung transplant in 1987.

1971: Sir Godfrey Hounsfield invents the CT scanner

Along with colleague Allan McLeod Cormack, Hounsfield, an electrical engineer, was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize for his part in the invention of the computed tomography scanner.

Now standard in many trusts across the country, a CT scanner is essentially an x-ray machine that takes a particular organ or body part and slices it into planes for diagnostic interpretation.

Whilst MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is used most often for more detailed scans involving fine tissues and the brain, CT scans are still the preferred means for detecting tumours in the rest of the body.

1981: Sir Martin Evans cultivates mice embryonic stem cells with a view to treating diseases in humans

The most versatile stem cells are derived from fertilised human embryos, most often left over from IVF treatment. However, adult stem cells have been found throughout the body in the placenta, bone marrow, brain and retina.

Identifying stem cells and actually using them effectively is difficult, and the practice is fraught with opposition, but the possibilities for this pioneering area of medicine to treat any number of tragic conditions, as well grow entire organs is immense.

Click here for an introduction to stem cells.

1996: Dolly the sheep born in Scotland

Named after the generous mammaries of Dolly Parton, Dolly was the first mammal ever to be cloned using an adult cell.

Her birth was an obvious landmark in science and medicine, but exactly how the process that led to her being works, is still not completely understood. The ability to clone a patient's own organs for transplant could solve Calne's immunosuppressant troubles, but Dolly's relatively short lifespan (just 6 years) calls into question the fragility of clones.

2009: The Commonwealth Fund Survey commends the NHS for its efficiency and patient care

As a current British citizen, you have access to free healthcare envied the world over. Not divided by rank or social status, the National Health Service is recognised as one of the best systems available to the sick and injured.

This recognition of the NHS is a testament to the efforts of those employed by it, and not, I'm afraid to say, of the government that controls it. Why, as a home to some world-leading medical professionals, would the government be so aggressive in chipping away at one of its most valuable assets?

2012: Scientists reveal breast cancer is ten separate diseases

At first, this seems like little more than an achievement confined to the laboratory, further proof of how brilliant our scientists are, but practically, this discovery could have far more practical gains for those suffering from cancer in the future.

This result, which comes as part of a collaboration between Cambridge University, Cancer Research UK and the University of Columbia, could help explain why some tumours respond to treatment, whilst others don't. It means that in future, doctors may be able to tailor treatment specifically to a patient's own type of breast cancer. However, it is important to understand that much work is still to be done, and that at present, women with breast cancer are still receiving the very best treatment available.