Jul 16, 2013

Newness for Newness' Sake?


An interesting Daily Mail article by Jerome Burne was resurrected this week, having helped the writer win the 'freelance consumer journalist of the year' award from the Medical Journalists' Association . The article pointed out the potential for high doses of Vitamin B in the prevention or treatment of one of the fastest growing diseases of our time: Alzheimer's. It described a randomised, double-blinded trial involving older people who were experiencing the first signs of memory problems, who were given high doses of B vitamins. The results yielded were remarkable. Scans showed that in the brains of those who'd taken the vitamins, 90% of tell-tale shrinkage was halted.

As Burne points out: Had this involved a drug, everyone would have heard about it. Yet, the Oxford-based trial results were largely over-looked because of an apparent lack of 'newness' factor. Moreover, the paltry $6Mn needed to carry out further research was not to be found, despite the fact that so far, 12 drugs targeting the plaques and tangles denoting Alzheimer's have all failed - at a cost of some $48Bn.

It doesn't take a genius to realise how much money could be saved by using non prescription treatments for one of the most costly areas of health and social care faced in the Western World. By 2020, there will be double the number of people aged over 80 living in the UK. Now, that's a lot more cases of this particularly debilitating and distressing disease to be endured by patients as well as their families.

Just yesterday, I heard from a GP about a man who suffered a heart attack on the doorstep of his surgery. Thankfully for the patient, he had arrived at his destination in time, and the GP administered aspirin as first-line medication, helping to thin his blood. My companions were amazed to hear how such an 'old fashioned' medicine is still commonly administered in such circumstances: 'Surely something shiny and new would be better', was their supposition.

Aspirin and Vitamin B aside, are we throwing out the baby with the bath water when it comes to treatment innovation? The naturally occurring aspirin found in willow bark has been chewed for hundreds of years to treat tooth ache and fever, and Vitamin B may have been discovered decades ago, yet its relevance to Alzheimer's disease IS new.

Those within the pharmaceutical industry acknowledge how much waste is involved in the sector in terms of research that is potentially useful, but never has a chance to be put to good use. In today's climate of financial austerity, surely it's time to re-examine such prejudices, or else suffer further crying shames.

Congratulations on your award Mr Burne, and let's hope such crying shames are one step nearer to being silenced.