Over the last few weeks, we’ve covered a number of positive health stories about potential breakthroughs in the treatment of deadly diseases including cancer. The potential good news continues this week, with the announcement of a new combination of drugs that scientists say may eliminate all tumours in up to 20% of people with melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. The combination therapy in question consist of two drugs already used separately to treat skin cancer, called ipilimumab and nivolumab. Both of the drugs fall under a class of treatment known as immunotherapy, which tackles cancer by aiding the body’s immune system to target cancerous cells that it would otherwise avoid. While around 53% of people on just one of these drugs survive after two years, a study involving 142 patients found that 69% of those on a combination therapy including both drugs survived for two years. The study also found that many people taking this treatment experienced significant side effects, though; a further study with many more patients is already under way.
A similarly encouraging story that you may have seen this week concerns the early positive signs from the development of a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists have had successes with injecting a natural protein called IL 33 into the brains of mice bred to experience brain changes similar to those experienced by Alzheimer’s sufferers. Within a week of having the injections, the mice showed signs of improved memory and cognitive function when compared with similar mice who had not received the treatment. This follows research that found that IL 33, which is made by the body to defend against disease and infection, is found in decreased quantities in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Trials on human participants are due to begin soon.
Finally, the dispute over junior doctors’ contracts rages on. Junior doctors are preparing for their biggest and potentially most disruptive strike to date, with a full 48-hour walk-out (including, for the first time, emergency services) next week on Tuesday 26 and Wednesday 27 April, so tensions are high on both sides of the dispute. Junior doctors and the British Medical Association continue to disagree with the government on both the substantive terms of the contract (which would see Saturdays re-designated as “normal working hours” for junior doctors) and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plan to “impose” the contract on junior doctors and their NHS employers against their will.
This latter point – the imposition of the contract – has become particularly significant this week: a group of junior doctors have gone this week to the high court to initiate a judicial review into the legality of such an imposition, while political pressure on him to make clear whether he does indeed have the power to impose a contract is growing. While Hunt insisted in parliament that “the secretary of state does have that power and we are using it correctly”, it seems that Hunt has been contradicted by a letter from his own government that talks of introducing a new contract rather than imposing one. That terminological difference could turn out to be very significant indeed in the resolution of this dispute, with junior doctors insisting that Hunt is now stuck between a rock and a hard place: as one of the junior doctors bringing the lawsuit against Hunt has said, “is Jeremy Hunt wilfully misleading the nation by suggesting he has the power to impose a contract, or is he incompetent and leading doctors to strike unnecessarily? Junior doctors have been asking these questions for months and we are desperate for an answer.”
As always, let us know what you think of these stories – or any other developments you’ve read about in the world of health this week – in the comments section below. Have you had any experience of melanoma or Alzheimer’s disease, for example? And how do you see the dispute over junior doctors’ contracts ending (if at all)?