Monthly Archives: November 2013

Why You Might Live Forever

Before we turned up to interview our main guest for this programme, we were all asked to confirm we didn’t have a cold, were well and certainly didn’t have anything infectious. We were filming a leading light of medicine who because has had a heart and lung transplant and was very susceptible to any disease.

She is typical of a new frontier of medical advance in which the future of medicine lies not in the hands of traditional medical experts but with bio-engineers and technologists who are shaping the future of our health. 

This new technology builds new body parts from the cells up – enabling patients to receive new transplants from tissues grown from their own bodies. It is a science in its infancy but it has the power to transform the way we think of medicine and ageing.

We arrived on the outskirts of Hyde Park in the newly pedestrianised Exhibition Road. Here sit some of the world’s most famous museums. Look around you and you see the ornate Victoria and Albert Museum, the intricate animal adorned façade of the Natural History museum. Also nestling amongst them is the rather dull grey form of Imperial College London. But behind these doors lies some of the most exciting scientific research being undertaken anywhere in the world.

Dame Julia Polak is founder of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre at Imperial College, London.  Extraordinarily, in 1995 she was also the recipient of a heart and lung transplant, making her one of the longest survivors of the procedure.  An experience, which led her to a pioneering career in the fledgling science of growing new organs from cells.

The new technologies mean scientists can create a three dimensional structure which can be implanted into the patient. There have been some initial clinical trials for the heart and for the bladder.  A group in the states created a three dimensional tissue engineered bladder in the laboratory and implanted into children and eight years on the bladder is still working. 

Dame Julia Polak  admits the new knowledge may mean, in theory, we could live forever. She says: “We are rewriting the book of medicine in that respect. Nobody imagined that you can use even your own cells, grow them in the laboratory and put them back.”

At the moment, most of the new science is still bound within the confines of the laboratory. But Dame Polak seems optimistic about the future:  “Who knows what will happen in five or ten years but there are lots of hurdles to overcome because there are regulatory hurdles, financial hurdles and creating an atmosphere of really multidisciplinary teams including everybody including patients to work together with companies and science. It needs to work on it but it’s happening”

I asked her if in a decades time, it was plausible that she might be able to make me a kidney from my own cells. She clearly sees problems ahead – but my theoretical request doesn’t seem too outlandish.

From London we flew to Stanford University in California to see another new technology which could change the world.

Professor Ada Poon has developed a revolutionary prototype device.  Powered and controlled by radio waves generated outside of the body, it is so small it could move through a patient’s bloodstream, collecting medical data or delivering medication.

This could be the start of miniature robot doctors searching through your body – looking for problems and  fixing them.

It sounds like a movie but it’s probably too unbelievable for fiction. For the whole truth about the possibilities of future medicine – tune into our Horizons programme on robotics and the future of medicine.

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THE SOLUTION TO POLLUTION

It’s not often you come across what looks like a simple solution to a big problem, but in this programme on air pollutants, that’s what we seem to have done.

The World Health Organisation claims that each year around 1.3 million people die because of outdoor air pollution. Another two million suffer premature deaths as a result of air pollutants in their own homes.

Much pollution comes from large industry but it’s wrong to think of that as the whole picture.

For over 30 years, Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan has been conducting ground-breaking research into air pollution.  Director of the Centre for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California. Professor Ramanathan has been working on what are called atmospheric brown clouds or ABCs.

What I found most striking about his work is that it isn’t just about traditional pollutants coming from big chimneys in big factories, this is often about just small families cooking on open stoves or trying to heat their homes in a very small and what would look like a rather benign, ecological way.

He says that much of the avoidable pollution is happening at the scale of an individual house.  People burn firewood, cow dung, whatever they can get their hands on. “That’s roughly 3 billion people in the world who are too poor to access fossil fuels.  And you think it’s just one small person burning one little piece of wood, but when you realise there are hundreds of millions of such homes burning it becomes a huge continental scale problem.

Some months after recording my interview with the professor, I was sitting with an environmental charity in London talking of large scale projects to help cut pollution. Almost as an aside, I was told, the best thing we could do is just give everyone in the developing world a more efficient wood burner. 

Interestingly that’s exactly what the professor is doing with a pilot project in  India. My colleague Rajini Vadyanathan went to the village of Palwal about two hours drive from Delhi to see how a piece of new technology, called the Biolite stove, could revolutionise the problem.

Inside the stove there is a fan inside which force feeds oxygen onto the flame and eliminates the smoke. The second difference is that the stove generates electricity from the heat of the flame

Thermal electric generators have be around for a long but never before have they been applied to a cook stove It uses the differential in temperature between the heat inside the flame and the cold air outside the flame and that differential creates electricity through a semi-conductor. 

It’s not cheap and costs around forty dollars, but the company making the stove hope they can convince villagers the innovation isn’t just an environmentally beneficial product but one which makes economic sense for them as well.

It creates roughly two watts of power in one day’s cooking.  You have enough power to fully charge a mobile phone and provide an evening’s worth of light. 

Although still in the testing stage, six thousand stoves have now been deployed across India and Africa as part of large scale field trials taking place over the next twelve months.

In a world dominated by environmental warnings, the good news here is that air particles don’t stay in the air for more than a week or two. So if we stopped emitting them tomorrow then in a couple of months the problem has disappeared of its own accord?

Professor Ramanathan says “I think the key thing to know is my optimism comes from scientific facts. The other beauty of this beast, air pollution beast, is that individual actions can help.”

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Why The Population Might Not Keep Growing

It looks like he pinched me - but he didn't.

It looks like he pinched me – but he didn’t.

 

For years I have been using a way of creating fun but informative graphs which consist of little coloured bubbles jumping up and down a screen showing how increases in wealth have increased the amount of time people live in different parts of the world.  When I was told to jump on a plane and go to Sweden for the day to interview a Sweedish Statistician , I was amazed to find I was interviewing the man behind the little coloured bubbles I had been using for so long.

I am not the only one fascinated by the bubbles or the man who invented them. Hans Rosling was voted one of the world’s top one hundred influential people by Time Magazine last year. He is professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and he’s been an adviser for the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.

Rosling’s GapMinder website is used by analysts all over the world to understand how different data connect with eachother. The nerve centre of his operation is a very modest flat in a rather grey concrete part of Stockholm. The backroom of the flat works as a very sophisticated TV studio and he sometimes is filmed using an ordinary decorator’s roller to paint graphs on his office wall to create web videos to explain his view of what is happening in the world.

One of his most famous arguments is over the extent of population growth. With much talk recently of the concern of ever expanding population, Rolsing’s analysis implies that many have ignored some important facts.

At the global level, a massive demographic shift is happening. Fertility rates around the world have fallen and the number of children has stopped growing. It’s a silent but profound change.

Today almost one in ten people are over 60 years old. By 2050 it will be one in five.

Rosling says that “The most drastic change in demographics the last 40 years is the fall of fertility rate in the world form 5 down to almost 2 births per woman, but in spite of this, world population keeps growing and the main reason is the fill up of adults between 30-75 from the big birth groups the last 30 years at the same time as the number of children has stopped growing.”

In 1960 there were 3 billion people in the world. By 2008 there were 6.7 billion people in the world. By 2050 it’s expected there could be 9 billion people in the world. But at this point Rosling believes the population will stabilise. The reason that population, he believes, doesn’t inexribly rise, is that as healthcare gets better and child mortality falls, people don’t have as many children and therefore there is a kind of self-correcting mechanism which comes into play.

What’s so engaging about Rosling is that he understands the importance of academics and scientists lie not just in the work they do, but in their ability to explain it to others. Even if you disagree with his analysis it’s hard not to welcome a voice that people understand. He adds to the debate in this important area of world development.

In our programme he explains his view of what could happen with the use of polystyrene people and a 3D world map. His obvious fun with his subject isn’t an act – he is a genuinely engaging character and is much the same talking about fertility rates as he was when we went for a Chinese Buffet afterwards.

He is the best example of a man who knows that the power of knowledge and insight comes not just from the analysis itself – but from the ability of others to understand and act on it.

 

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