Blog posts

Give HIV the Finger – National HIV Testing Week 2017

HIV testing week

It is the time of year again for HIV Testing Week!

Coordinated by HIV Prevention England (HPE) since 2012, National HIV Testing week has focused on three main aims:

  • improving awareness of HIV testing, particularly among communities at high-risk
  • increasing opportunities to take the test in clinics and other community settings
  • reducing the number of people diagnosed with HIV at a late stage

This year’s theme is ‘Give HIV the Finger’ – a cheeky reference to the free finger-prick test that people can receive by post, to provide a blood sample for testing without attending a clinic.

HIV in the United Kingdom

According the latest surveillance from Public Health England (PHE), just over 5,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2016; this is an 18% drop compared with 2015.[i] 54% of diagnoses were among gay and bisexual men; 19% and 22% among heterosexual men and women respectively. Late diagnosis is an important predictor of morbidity and premature death in people with HIV. In 2016, 42% diagnoses were made at a late stage of infection when treatment is less effective. (more…)

Lung volume reduction – new hopes and missed opportunities in COPD


COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, has traditionally been thought of as an irreversible and somewhat hopeless condition. Many patients with COPD may be missing out on the possibility for a dramatic improvement in their condition. They deserve better.

COPD, is a common and important condition. There are 1.3 million people with a diagnosis of COPD in the UK and it’s now the third leading cause of death worldwide. The main symptoms are breathlessness, cough and sputum production.

The term COPD encompasses a range of pathological processes, usually caused by smoking or inhaling other noxious materials. It includes chronic bronchitis – inflammation and damage to airways as well as emphysema – destruction of the lung tissue itself and damage to the blood vessels in the lung. In emphysema the walls of the alveoli (air sacs) break down. The lung tissue loses its elasticity and becomes baggy, and air gets trapped in the lungs making breathing uncomfortable. In some people the condition is caused by alpha one antitrypsin (A1AT) deficiency; the inherited lack of a defensive enzyme, which makes their lungs much more vulnerable.

There are treatments including inhaled medication, pulmonary rehabilitation and flu vaccination, and for people who continue to smoke, smoking cessation is the most effective. Despite the best standard care the condition is progressive and conventional treatments cannot so far reverse the underlying process. (more…)

Alcohol Awareness Week: seeking a responsible alternative


Most of us are aware that chronic, heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking leads to a plethora of health issues including liver damage and addiction. However, many of us are still unaware of the dangers associated with even moderate alcohol consumption or the cumulative effects that alcohol can have on our health. So just what are those regular trips to the pub, or the frequent cocktails after work really costing us?

Research into effects of alcohol provide a range of results. Some research (funded by the alcohol industry) has even been claimed to demonstrate that alcohol consumption is actually beneficial to our physiological health. Conversely the International Agency for Research into Cancer has demonstrated that the more alcohol you drink directly increases the risk of seven common cancers including: mouth, throat, oesophageal, larynx, breast, liver and bowel.

Similarly, new research published in the British Medical Journal has revealed a potential link between moderate drinking and shrinkage of the hippocampus, a brain region associated with memory. These results suggest a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a potentially permanent alteration in brain structure. (more…)

The Pathology Museum’s top treasures

Tucked away in Charing Cross Hospital is Imperial’s best-kept secret: The Pathology Museum. Housing a 2,500-strong collection of anatomical specimens, the Pathology Museum contains some rare and unique artefacts dating from 1888, including the first hysterectomy performed in England.

Carefully curated by the Human Anatomy Unit (HAU), the specimens are grouped together based on organ systems, creating a well-arranged display of human pathology. The museum’s primary function is to help educate medical and biomedical students to diagnose diseases. The museum also hosts a number of conference and short courses in pathology for experienced professionals.

The collection incorporates specimens from across the Faculty of Medicine’s founding medical schools, there are an astonishing 4,000 further specimens not on display. This vast archive provides a snapshot of the historical foundations of the medical school. (more…)

Understanding our achy breaky hearts

Broken heart syndrome, officially known as takotsubo syndrome, is an acute type of heart failure, where the bottom of the heart stops beating in situations of extreme stress. A condition predominantly affecting post-menopausal women, it has been dubbed broken heart syndrome owing to the frequent occurrence during bereavement after the loss of a loved one. However, this is just one example of the various circumstances in which takotsubo syndrome can occur. Indeed, any stressful event can lead to a surge in adrenaline which can result in takotsubo syndrome. This could be physical or emotional, and includes trauma such as car accidents, drug abuse, and even happy events such as weddings!

This varied list of triggers and the association with a ‘broken heart’ has attracted interest from the media. Furthermore, the specific localisation of the poorly contracting region of the heart and patient demographics are also very interesting from a research standpoint. Often when describing my PhD, the concept of a ‘broken heart’ understandably resonates with people. (more…)

World Polio Day: edging closer to eradication

Imagine you are running a marathon. You have reached the final mile of a long and arduous journey. You turn the last corner expecting to see the finish line, and instead you see a huge vertical ascent. The finish line is waiting at the top, hundreds of metres above you.

Such is the plight of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. In 1988, the year the initiative was launched, polio paralysed an estimated 350,000 people worldwide – roughly 1,000 each day. Over the last three decades, a globally coordinated vaccination campaign has fought the disease back to a few remaining refuges in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. In 2017, wild poliovirus has caused just 12 cases so far.

As we mark the fifth annual World Polio Day, the finish line of the eradication marathon is firmly in sight, but getting there will be a tough climb.

Why has polio proven so hard to vanquish? First and foremost, the disease’s final strongholds are regions of immense political unrest, and news of deadly attacks against vaccination workers are all too familiar. Every step towards polio’s eradication is one that requires those at the front line to put their lives at risk. (more…)

World Osteoporosis Day: love your bones!

As a young girl I spent many long afternoons in piano lessons.

Years later, I remember very little from the lessons – but I do vividly remember the teacher. She was very strict, had hair like candy floss and a severe hunch. She always made the lessons run long, but she would give me a chocolate bar if I helped her hang out her washing afterwards. She needed my help because she couldn’t reach the washing line anymore. One day I asked my mum why she had a hunched back and she told me it was because she had osteoporosis. At the time I didn’t really comprehend what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. One day she fell and broke her hip, and sadly, not long after that she passed away.  As you read my story, I am sure it sounds familiar to a lot of you. Maybe not with a piano teacher, but with a relative, family friend or neighbour. The reason I say that is due to the rising prevalence of osteoporosis – one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50 are affected. (more…)

Think peach: the true symbol of breast cancer awareness

It’s that time of year once again: Instagram and Twitter will adopt a light shade of pink, companies will adorn their products with the ubiquitous pink ribbon, all to remind us of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To a breast cancer scientist such as myself, October always brings out ambiguous emotions. On one side, it serves as a reminder of all the great research and results that we have achieved. Statistics show that things are getting better for many women, as mortality rates have halved in the last 20 years. October also prompts many of us to remember that there is nothing better than prevention when talking about breast cancer. Early screening measures have revolutionised outcomes for women; it’s very likely that almost 50% of the lives that were saved depended on catching the cancer earlier.

The other major breakthrough was the development of targeted therapies for the most common molecular subtype of breast cancer (luminal subtypes) accounting for 70% of all new breast cancers. Years of rigorous clinical trials with these drugs have helped reduce the number of women that develop secondary disease (metastatic) – the consequence of the primary breast cancer cells spreading to other organs. This is where my ambivalence stems from; far too many women still have their breast cancer relapse. Outside of the beautiful pink narrative which Samantha King – author of Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy – called “the tyranny of cheerfulness”, breast cancer remains the second largest cause of cancer-related deaths in women. (more…)

One small step in wearable tech: one giant leap in osteoarthritis detection and management

When deciding what to do in life, it was clear that I wanted to help people live better, however becoming a doctor wasn’t for me. I found my way through studying biomedical engineering, which developed my passion for the biomechanics of human movement. I see this as a means to understanding the underlying mechanisms of musculoskeletal disease. Through detailed assessment of patients’ movement function we can understand the implications of disease progression and propose solutions to mitigate the developing disorders. To a curious mind like mine, this is a fascinating way to achieve my aspirations. The idea of being able to find explanations as to why things happen to our bodies is amazing and the fact that it can improve people’s quality of life makes it all the more satisfying.

Debilitating disease

I joined Imperial as a research associate in the Musculoskeletal Medical Engineering Centre. As a postdoc researcher in the centre, my goals are to tackle ways that could improve symptoms as well as gain a better understanding of knee osteoarthritis development. Osteoarthritis (OA) – the most common form of joint disease – is a disabling musculoskeletal disorder that can affect our joint function. OA progression is slow and if measures are not taken, joint replacement will eventually be necessary. Joint replacements are costly, invasive and have a limited lifespan that may not last for the duration of patients’ lifetime. Moreover, patients’ satisfaction after surgery is poor, calling for early management strategies. (more…)

Vaccines are vital


Originally published on the MRC Insight blog and reproduced under CC BY 4.0, here Peter Openshaw, Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial and President of the British Society for Immunology, says we cannot afford to be complacent about vaccines.

As a clinician working in research, I want to improve peoples’ health. The NHS was set up to focus on treating people with disease. But how much better would it be if we could prevent people from getting sick in the first place?

This is where vaccines come in. As vaccinologists, we use our scientific knowledge to design new or improved vaccines to stimulate the immune system. This creates natural protection against infections and prevents disease.

New and improved vaccines

The current vaccines we have are excellent and safe but many could be better. There are also new ways to use vaccines and lots of diseases which do not yet have effective vaccines.

The science of vaccinology advances monthly. There are hundreds of new vaccines at different stages of testing, many of which could lead to improved human health and wellbeing. In response to this fast-changing landscape, the MRC and BBSRC have recently funded five collaborative networks to drive UK vaccinology forward for the benefit of global health. (more…)