Has the march of progress halted, or is that just a misconception?

There are a lot of myths in the world of science and medicine. I often hear of complaints from people that ‘nothing has happened in science in ‘x’ amount of years’.
Well that to me is complete hokum. The problem comes with the public interpretation of medicine and science, and how the media portrays it. For example, the was a revolution in stem cell research a year ago, where human pancreases could be grown in vitro (essentially, in a dish/tube from specialised stem-cells). The press were all over this story and then a few weeks later… nothing. This boils down to the misrepresentation of the press of medical and scientific breakthroughs.

Not only was the research in its infancy, but additionally the media was purporting that this was now, or soon to be, a breakthrough in medicine and would shortly change lives within a few months. This was outright misrepresentation of the truth. The reality was that the technology was a ‘proof-of-concept’ and was far from maturity. As I mentioned in a previous article, medicine and science works on a trickle-down system. At first there may be an amazing breakthrough (that in reality would have been years of slow understanding and building of knowledge) within the science community – but was simply just a proof that such an idea was feasible.

There is a reason that these things are published by the scientific community: – to make other scientists aware, and to allow forthcoming scientists to understand what is happening in the broader world. It is not always designed for public consumption, and the science community is forced to capitalise on the interest of the media to allow for greater funding.

Recently, there was a major failure a major Alzheimer’s trial that was, until recently, getting a lot of press coverage. The premise was that a 5-HT antagonist (serotonin – a chemical that acts as a messenger in the brain) called interpirdine, was set to be a breakthrough drug to help people with the condition. In reality though, it was a failing drug trial from the offset, showing only anecdotal evidence from the offset, but as the nature of drug trials for breakthrough cures in major diseases, it is often filled with a fair amount of malarkey and spin. The reality of the trial was the drug failed, in a sample of 1,200 people, to make any more than placebo-level improvements, and this was published by Axovant on the 26th September.

The media spent a long time before hand building up false hope, which leads inevitably to a zeitgeist of disappointment, and disillusion with the science world. It is a slow and steady process, and every day we are learning more and more – a few years ago stem cells were a confusing pile of optimism, but now we are slowly understanding how to control them, optimise them, and apply them to many medical and scientific problems such as Parkinson’s, Diabetes, and so forth.

As the years march forth, inevitably so does science, but it is also worth noting that every day we face larger and newer issues – from new superbugs to fresh understandings of quantum physics. New answers herald new questions, and that is a good thing. Curiosity breeds evolution of ideas, thoughts and humanity’s progression, and leads to larger more amazing breakthroughs in all facets of the science world and beyond.

I think it is worth taking what we read with a pinch of salt, and just remind ourselves – we are living in the future. Not 50 years ago did we have the first heart transplant, and now we live in an age where we can have artificial hearts, rendering the heart as a decaying organ (very slowly and gradually) a thing of the past. We live in exciting times, and we should always remember that. Today, we find how stem cells work and can grow a pancreas in vitro and vivo – tomorrow, who knows?

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Daniel Simmonds

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