What the papers say – weekly digest (13/10/23)
Your weekly digest of the top healthcare stories, covering news published from 09/10/2023 – 13/10/2023.
Over two million precious years of life are lost annually to cancer, figures reveal. Half a million are lost to lung cancer, 213,000 to bowel cancer and 197,000 to breast cancer. Cancer patients typically died 14 years early, found a 30-year study by Cancer Research UK. Those with testicular cancer died on average 33 years before their time, and cervical cancer 25 years. Liver, kidney and skin cancers had the steepest increases. Cancer Research UK is urging ministers to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment, invest in research and boost NHS staff and equipment. Dr Judith Offman of King’s College London, who led the study with input from experts at Queen Mary University of London, said it helps ‘’highlight areas where more needs to be done’’.
Severely ill patients could soon be given a blood test that can show in seconds if they have sepsis – the immune system reaction that can kill within hours. The £100 single-use kit – which works using the same technology as Covid rapid lateral flow tests – could also be used to spot the early signs of other diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Sepsis occurs when bacterial infections such as pneumonia, or viral infections, including flu, send the immune system haywire, causing it to attack major organs. About 150,000 people a year are admitted to hospital with the condition, and it leads to about 48,000 deaths, but there is no reliable test for it. The British scientists behind the kit, known as a multiplex test, which could be given to paramedics and hospital teams, say it could be available in the UK by 2025 and save thousands of lives each year. ‘Right now, it takes far too long to diagnose sepsis,’ says Dr Mike Hudson, chief executive of EDX Medical, the firm behind the test. ‘Our blood test could help get people into hospital quicker and reduce the number of sepsis deaths.’
Diabetes experts have clashed amid calls for a radical revamp on how younger women are tested for the disease. Top doctors last week claimed 35,000 women could have been wrongly cleared of having type 2 diabetes because of flaws in testing, and warned that a late diagnosis can put them at risk of developing serious complications such as heart disease. A report by researchers from Salford Royal Hospital suggested younger women may suffer diabetes symptoms with lower blood sugar readings than older women, so have proposed lowering the diagnosis threshold for those under 50. Some 4.3 million people in the UK live with diabetes, and 44 per cent are women, most suffering from type 2 which is often linked to an excess of body fat.
The cost-of-living crisis has been driving bad habits among contact lens wearers that could put their sight at risk. A survey of 1,000 short- and long-sighted Britons found that, in a bid to save costs, 32 per cent are ignoring hygiene guidelines by refusing daily lenses for two to three days, with one in ten stretching out a pair for a week. A third are also swapping sterile cleaning solutions for ordinary water. ‘Water increases the risk of a parasitic infection, which is rare but can result in sight loss,’ says Nimmi Mistry, optician at Vision Direct, which conducted the poll. The survey also found a quarter admitted to missing eye tests due to financial concerns. Ms Mistry adds that contact lens wearers should check with their employer as some companies offer free eye tests for those who work with computer screens.
There was a 12 per cent rise in the number of heterosexual people contracting HIV in England between 2021 and 2022, NHS data has revealed. At the same time, the number of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with the virus dropped by eight per cent. The data released by the UK Health Security Agency in its report on HIV in England, also showed that 98 per cent of those diagnosed with the virus are taking medicine that makes it undetectable in their blood – this means that they are unable to pass it on to others. One reason put forward for the rise in diagnoses in heterosexual people is thought to be increased availability and awareness of testing among this group.
Scalpels with built-in sensors could be used to train surgeons and pave the way for operations performed by robots. The devices can detect the amount of force used and track how medics control the instrument. Experts who have developed the ‘’smart scalpel’’ at the University of Edinburgh said it could assess surgical skills. The device has so far been tested on synthetic materials. The findings are in the journal Communications Engineering.
An American healthcare firm has taken over the NHS’s digital GP services after the collapse of the previous provider, Babylon. Florida-based eMed snapped up Babylon UK after it went into administration in August. Thesale means eMed will take over GP At Hand, a service that holds a contract with the NHS to let patients book appointments and speak to doctors online and by video call. Babylon set up the service in 2017 and it has more that 100,000 users. But the firm, which was listed on the US stock market in 2021 with a value of more than £3 billion, ran out of cash after trying to rapidly expand into the US market.
The Daily Telegraph
Humans are one step closer to getting gene-edited pig kidneys after a monkey given the organ survived for over two years with no health issues. Scientists have been working for decades to grow pig organs that can be given to humans and breakthroughs have been made in recent years. Researchers at Harvard University, in partnership with biotech company eGenesis, bred Yucatan miniature pigs with 69 genetic modifications to prevent organs being rejected when transplanted into monkeys. Data shows that when the organs were surgically transplanted into more than 20 macaques in a lab, half the animals survived for more than a month.
A patient dubbed the ‘’real bionic woman’’ has become the first human to be fitted with a controllable limb fused with both her nervous and skeletal systems. The Swedish woman, named Karin, 50, was fitted with her intelligent artificial limb some years ago after losing her right hand in a farming accident more than two decades earlier. The 50-year-old engineer said her bionic arm, developed by Prensilia, an Italian company, reduces her phantom pain and has been ‘’life-changing’’ in regaining her independence. The study was published in the journal Science Robotics.
Rishi Sunak is being urged to ban disposable vapes amid fears restrictions to protect children will not go far enough.Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, called on the Prime Minister to ‘’be decisive’’ as he launched a consultation on measures to tackle youth vaping. Proposals published today (Thursday) will say the Government is ‘’considering restricting the sale of disposable vapes’’. Health officials say all measures remain on the table, and that the consultation document, which will set out plans to restrict product flavours, to remove those which most appeal to children, will rule nothing out.
The NHS ‘’discriminates’’ against the elderly with an age cap on screening for cancer, a campaign group has said. An online petition to remove the cut-off point on routine checks for cancers of the breast, bowel and cervix is gaining momentum with almost 100,000 signatories. Invitations for cancer checks currently end at 64 for cervix, 71 for breast and 74 for bowel, although people can still come forward for screening of their own accord. Janette Smith, who is leading the calls alongside Silver Voices, a campaign group for the elderly, said that her breast cancer had only been caught after she asked to be screened at age 76. A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘’Screenings for breast, bowel and cervical cancers do not have arbitrary upper-age limits.’’
Girls are battling a lack of self-worth as they hit adolescence, research has shown. A study of more than 21,000 found there was little or no difference in girl’s confidence compared with boys by age 10. But the Girlguiding Impact Report said they were 17% less likely to say they had high confidence aged 12. By 15, that rises to almost a quarter. Childline said the findings were ‘’sobering and echo the concerns that our trained counsellors hear on a daily basis’’. Kieran Lyons, from the charity, said: ‘’Every year, thousands of girls contact the service about issues that are affecting their mental health and wellbeing. They include pressures around their appearance, as well as harassment and abuse that they face online and in the classroom.’’
GSK has agreed to settle four lawsuits that claimed heartburn drug Zantac caused cancer, as the drugmaker joins a growing push from pharmaceutical giants to end costly litigation. One settlement was struck a month before a case was due to go to trial in the California state court on Nov 13. The other three cases were also in California. In all four, the company has not admitted any liability. Last week, fellow British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca agreed to pay $425m (£352m) to settle US lawsuits that claimed two of its heartburn drugs caused kidney damage.
A trial that found the diabetes drug Ozempic can treat kidney problems sent shares in a leading dialysis company plunging. Fresenius Medical Care’s share price dropped by as much as 24pc, erasing more than $2.5bn (£2.2bn) in market value. This followed an announcement from Ozempic-maker Novo Nordisk about the early success of its kidney failure trials.
Food regulators have slashed the recommended safe daily dose of cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabis extract present in thousands of high street products, citing adverse effects. In a reversal on previous official guidance, The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and its Scottish counterpart updated their advice on what was once hailed as a wonder ingredient. They are now recommending healthy adults limit their intake of CBD from food to 10mg a day, down from the previous limit of 70mg a day. The FSA said there was ‘’no acute’ safety risk’’ with consuming more than 10mg of CBD a day based on the data it had assessed, but ‘’there is evidence of some adverse impacts on the liver and thyroid’’ over a period of time.
Ultra-processed foods including chocolate bars should be labelled as addictive substances to help to tackle soaring obesity rates, a team of scientists have argued. Writing in the British Medical Journal, they said that junk food could be just as addictive as alcohol, tobacco or gambling and should be taxed and labelled to reflect this. Their analysis of international data suggests that 14 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children are addicted to food, causing them to lose control over consumption and eat too much. They said ‘’not all foods have addictive potential’’, but that the composition of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) mean that they can disrupt ‘’brain reward systems’’ and be addictive. Previous research has linked UPFs to heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, depression and diabetes. Campaigners in the UK are calling for tougher regulations to restrict their advertising and new national guidelines warning of their harmful effects. The government has recently delayed a series of policies to tackle junk food, including a ban on advertising before 9pm and a ban on buy-one-get-one-free deals. Two in three adults in the UK are obese or overweight.
The number of people going to A&E with complaints such as sore throats, coughs and even hiccups has jumped in the past year, figures show. Hospital emergency departments are seeing more people with insomnia, earache, nasal congestion, backache and nausea, and have also reported a rise in those attending specifically to request medication. Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: ‘’The rise in A&E admissions is piling even more pressure on to an already stretched NHS. Minor ailments… can and should be managed through more appropriate services.’’
Britain’s biggest trade unions have demanded a national plan to remove all asbestos from public buildings. Twenty-eight unions, representing more than 4.5 million workers, have written to the leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties demanding they make commitments in their manifestos for the next general election to remove asbestos within 40 years. Sir Stephen Timms, who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, which made the recommendations about the way asbestos is handled, said: ‘’Too many families are being torn apart by the completely avoidable deaths caused by asbestos. Setting a 40-year deadline for removing all workplace asbestos and creating a central digital register of all asbestos in non-domestic buildings are the first crucial steps in addressing the problem.’’
A Chinese drugs company has struck a £2.5 billion sale agreement with GSK to promote the British group’s blockbuster shingles vaccine in the world’s second biggest economy. Zhifei will have exclusive rights to import and distribute Shingrix in China for an initial three years starting in January and will promote GSK’s vaccine through its network of more than 30,000 vaccination points. The deal includes the potential to extend the agreement and an option to expand the collaboration to co-develop and commercialise GSK’s Arexvy vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus, a key new product in its pipeline. The collaboration with Zhifei comes at a sensitive time for political relations between London and Beijing. China is an emerging pharmaceuticals powerhouse and has become an important market for multinationals to expand global sales, including AstraZeneca, Britain’s biggest drugs company. GSK also has a complicated history in China, having been embroiled in a bribery scandal a decade ago. The company was fined about £300 million by China in 2014 after being found guilty of paying bribes to boost sales of medical products.
An artificial intelligence system that analyses speech could help to diagnose and monitor schizophrenia, a study suggests. About one in 100 people will be given a schizophrenia diagnosis at some point in their life, according to Mind, the mental health charity. However there is no simple diagnostic test and the condition has always been identified by a doctor talking with a patient. This can make it difficult to monitor a patient’s progress and to find the underlying causes. The hope is that the new system will be able to diagnose it by looking at how a person uses language. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 52 participants, half of whom already had a diagnosis. The others did not have the condition and were used as a control group.
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, is preparing to ‘’turbocharge’’ the supply of weight-loss jabs on the NHS. He is understood to have spoken to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government spending watchdog, about potential positive economic effects from funding appetite-suppressing drugs. While health chiefs have argued that spending on preventing ill health will save money, the Treasury have been sceptical. A source close to Barclay said the OBR’s doubts had stopped the drugs being rolled out nationwide. The watchdog has revised its views and now ‘’recognises that health is a much bigger factor in economic drag’’, said a senior government source.
Owning your own home can slow down the ageing process mainly because it is less stressful than renting, research showed. Cold, mould and overcrowding in rental housing damage the body’s cells and tissues, increasing the risk of age-related diseases including cancer and dementia. Analysis led by the University of Essex and University of Adelaide concluded that renting in the private sector had a greater impact than unemployment on speeding up ageing. Scientists took blood samples from 420 adults participating in the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which collects detailed information on housing over several years. They measured levels of several chemicals in the blood that indicate DNA changes showing someone’s ‘’biological age’’ – meaning the decline in functioning of the body’s tissues and cells, irrespective of a person’s actual age. Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Dr Amy Clair, the lead author, said the ‘’stress-induced acceleration of epigenetic ageing’’ due to poor housing may cause diseases.
Five years after cannabis-based medicines were legalised for use on the NHS, the predicted flood of prescriptions has failed to materialise. As of August this year, fewer than five NHS patients were being prescribed medicinal cannabis. Privately, however, prescriptions are soaring. From November 2018, when the law was changed, to November 2022, there were more than 141,000 private prescriptions. Campaigners complain they are being denied NHS prescriptions because the guidance for doctors is too restrictive. One user, Ashlie, posted on X: ‘’I have five chronic pain conditions, ME, depression, anxiety, PTSD, CPTSD and an as yet undiagnosed neurological condition. I have tried cannabis oil and cried at how normal I felt! I can’t afford it long term.’’ The cost of prescriptions varies, from about £130 to £250 a month. This is on top of the price of a consultation: anywhere from £50 to £200. It is feared that people will resort to buying unregulated cannabis products online. King’s College London is seeking 3,000 cannabis users and 3,000 non-users to take part in a £2.5 million study on why and how the drug leads to paranoia and psychosis in some people but not others. It is hoped the project will pave the way for patient screening and wider medicinal use.
GSK is preparing for an overhaul of its research division that will affect hundreds of scientists across the UK, America and Belgium. Under the plans, the pharmaceutical company will replace its single research unit with separate teams embedded in three speciality areas: vaccines and infectious diseases, respiratory and immunology, and oncology. Research teams specialise in earlier-stage science before passing promising treatments on to development teams.