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Weekly News Summary – 7th August 2017

Hello and welcome to our news summary blog at The Medic Portal. This week we will be discussing health stories on the following themes: developments in foetal DNA editing, inadequate funding for mental health care, and progress in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Developments in foetal DNA editing

For the first time, scientists have succeeded in removing faulty DNA from an embryo. This breakthrough, in which they successfully eliminated a gene causing hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, has implications for the prevention of around 10,000 genetic diseases. By entirely removing the gene from the bloodline, this therapy has the potential to eradicate many genetic diseases worldwide.

Such editing has been attempted previously, but unsuccessfully, leading to incomplete eradication of the faulty genes and development of new mutations. In this new study, 72% of the embryos developed without any mutated genes.

However, such progress raises ethical dilemmas about the morality of foetal DNA editing. One of the biggest debates is whether embryonic DNA should be altered at all. It argued by some that such alterations are irresponsible, promoting a dangerous “race for the first genetically modified baby”. On the other hand, some question the morality of not acting when we have the technology to prevent fatal diseases.

However, with stringent limitations on embryonic testing, it is unclear whether technology can progress far enough to elevate these debates into anything but academics.

Inadequate funding for mental health care

New figures show that many mental health patients in the UK are spending years awaiting discharge from acute units, with the longest waits spanning over three years. This has been blamed on poor funding as well as lack of suitable accommodation, as many patients require supported housing following discharge.

This means that some patients, who are not fit to be discharged, are sent away in an attempt to free up bed space. There are currently very limited bed spaces for acutely ill patients, leading to cases of grossly inadequate care. Notably in recent news, a suicidal 17-year-old was detained for 6 months before a suitable bed was found for her.

This news follows a trend of under-funding for mental health care across the UK. The government does, however, appear to be taking steps to combat these issues. This week, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced plans for the recruitment of thousands of new mental health workers in England.

Progress in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease

New research has shown promising results in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder leading to problems with walking, tremor, stiffness, and eventually mental health problems such as depression and dementia. It is linked to low levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Currently, medications can manage the symptoms, but not stop the progression, of the disease. Interestingly, a drug currently used in type 2 diabetes, has been shown to have significant effect on disease progression.

The effect is significant enough to make the researchers confident that this drug is doing something to treat the underlying disease process, rather than simply masking the symptoms. The researchers have warned that it is still early days and many further trials need to be conducted to assess the long-term safety of using this drug in Parkinson’s. However, these results are very encouraging and give hope that Parkinson’s disease may, one day, be a treatable condition.

Words: Mariam Al-Attar

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