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Three Key Medical News Stories: 9th January

Welcome to the latest edition of the medical news. Each week we bring you three key healthcare topics that have recently been under the microscope.

This week’s topics:

Artificial Intelligence in Medicine

Child Neglect and Brain Size

New HPV Vaccine

Artificial Intelligence in Medicine

A recent study, published in the journal of Nature Medicine, revealed that artificial intelligence (AI) was ‘better’ at diagnosing breast cancer compared to expert physicians.

This research was the product of an international collaboration, including researchers from Imperial College London and Google Health. The team created an algorithm to analyse scans (mammograms) and compared the accuracy of diagnosis to radiologists.

The AI system was shown to outperform both the previous decisions made by radiologists on the case, and a reassessment by 6 expert radiologists who analysed 500 random mammograms. Moreover, the AI system was far quicker.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, and screening is used to detect breast cancer as early as possible in women without signs of the disease. The current system relies on at least two specialists to analyse mammograms and form a diagnosis, also using information from the patient’s history. Often, this is challenging because of the density of breast tissue.

What can we learn from this?
Although this suggests that there is certainly potential for this technology to aid the early detection of breast cancer much more efficiently, the authors note that further trials are required to confirm its use in the clinic.

This highly controlled study includes cases that are more uniform; in reality, cases would be much more varied. Nevertheless, technology such as this could be utilised for the diagnosis of other cancers. With more data and future trials, we may find a place for AI in diagnostics.

Question to think about: Do you think AI will eventually replace doctors in medical practice, or will there always be a place for clinicians?

Child Neglect and Brain Size

Researchers from King’s College London have shown that young adults who were deprived during childhood have a reduced brain size, as shown by MRI. In fact, the brains of neglected adoptee children were 8.6% smaller than children who were not deprived.

Published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study focused on 67 young adult Romanians who were institutionalised as children, subjected to an appalling level of care. This included physical and psychological deprivation, with minimal social contact.

Structural brain changes were also observed, especially in regions connected to motivation, organisation and the integration of information. This suggests that changes in brain structure could be the link between levels of deprivation and cognitive ability.

In addition to the significant difference in brain size, the study also found that there was a higher incidence of traits such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

What can we learn from this?
This study highlights the profound importance of social care within our society. Other studies have also shown that adopted individuals may still suffer mental health problems into adult life, requiring support.

In fact, the principle investigator, Professor Sonuga-Barke summarised this by stating: ‘…our research highlights the need for a life-span perspective on the provision of help and support, especially during the transition into adulthood.’

The researchers claim that these findings could explain the link between lower IQ and higher rates of ADHD in adults. We may still not know the exact cause of the change in brain size, but it does show that the impact on the developing brain extends beyond just malnutrition.

Question to think about: Taking into account that childhood neglect has the potential to alter brain development, where would you next suggest funding research?

New HPV Vaccine

Recently, it was announced that an upcoming clinical trial will investigate the broadest HPV vaccine discovered to date.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are very common, and often do not cause serious complications. However, in a small number of cases, these infections recur. This can increase the number of cancers, including cervical cancer.

From September 2019, the NHS announced that all 12- and 13-year olds will be offered a vaccination against HPV. Crucially, this vaccine is now given to both boys and girls.

The current vaccine offered includes two doses of a vaccine that protects from four types of HPV. In contrast, the new vaccine would protect against all high-risk types of HPV as well as treating existing infections.

While the current vaccine simply stimulates the production of antibodies, the new vaccine causes the exposure of proteins produced by the virus.

Consequently, this new vaccine helps the immune system to detect and target HPV even if it is ‘hidden’ in the body. This should mean that antibodies will also be produced against an existing infection.

The trial will begin in March and will involve hospitals in Belgium and the UK. Research teams will compare the vaccine to a placebo injection, and the presence of HPV will be tested over a period of 12 months.

What can we learn from this?
If this trial is a success, this vaccine could radically change cervical cancer prevention and vaccination programmes. The new vaccine would mean that treatment would be provided earlier for borderline cases in women who, for example, do not show signs of cancer but do have a HPV infection. Consequently, this could prevent women from developing cancerous cells.

This vaccine will not only have a place in the UK, but could also have a profound global impact. In lower-income countries, there are poorer services for cervical screening programmes or preventative vaccines. If this vaccine works, it has the potential to save many lives.

Question to think about: What are the characteristics of a good vaccine?

Words by: Beatrice Lander

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Article Sources

AI in Medicine:

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-50857759
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03822-8

Child Neglect:

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51010388
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/06/severe-childhood-deprivation-reduces-brain-size-study-finds
  3. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/severe-childhood-deprivation-has-longstanding-impacts-on-brain-size-in-adulthood

HPV Vaccine:

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jan/03/hpv-vaccine-tested-clinical-trial-infections-cervical-cancer

Previous editions of The Medic Portal’s Weekly News:

Weekly Medical News – January 2nd
Weekly Medical News – December 19th
Weekly Medical News – December 12th

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