Caring for life: a Scots passion

30 Jun 2007
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For a small country, Scotland has always punched above its weight, and nowhere is this more true than in the field of life sciences. Many of the greatest advances in the history of medicine have been made by Scots or in Scotland.

For a small country, Scotland has always punched above its weight, and nowhere is this more true than in the field of life sciences. Many of the greatest advances in the history of medicine have been made by Scots or in Scotland.

The success of anaesthesia is in large part due to the pioneering work of the Edinburgh Obstetrician (and personal physician to Queen Victoria) James Young Simpson's experiments with chloroform. In the early Victorian period, and for all of history beforehand, surgery was gruesome and painful: patients who required it were as likely as not to die of shock from the experience. Others had attempted to induce unconsciousness during surgery and dentistry with chemicals such as nitrous oxide and ether, but these were often dangerous, unstable, and difficult to control. Simpson established chloroform as a safer alternative. Its popularity was boosted when Queen Victoria chose to be anaesthetized with chloroform for the birth of her eighth child, the Prince Leopold, in 1853.

A new cleanliness

The sterile cleanliness of a surgical theatre is something we take for granted today, indeed, it is hard to imagine it being otherwise. But in fact, it is descended from ideas developed in Glasgow that were revolutionary in their day. Prior to the innovations of Joseph Lister at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, surgeons would practise their art wearing their ordinary daytime clothes, without wearing gloves or even washing their hands; theatres were dirty and crowded; and surgical instruments were used with only cursory cleansing between patients. In all but the direst circumstances, patients were much more likely to die as a result of infections acquired as a result of their surgery than they were from the condition it was intended to alleviate. Lister, inspired by the discoveries of the French microbiological trailblazer Louis Pasteur, began applying carbolic acid an early microbicide to surgical instruments, patients' wounds, and surgeons' hands. The results were astounding, and Lister published his discoveries in in 1867. His methods were quickly adopted by others and gradually improved to the level of hygiene we are familiar with today.

In 1928, a Scottish biologist made an accidental discovery that would transform the world. Returning from holiday, he found that the bacterial cultures he had been working on were contaminated with mould, and noticed that in the area around where the mould was growing, the bacteria refused to grow. The biologist was Alexander Fleming, and the discovery was penicillin, the first modern antibiotic. With further research, and assistance from Howard Florey and Ernst Chan with whom Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine, penicillin became perhaps history's greatest single medical discovery. Bacterial diseases that blighted the world were, almost overnight, curable. The availability of penicillin to the Allied forces in the Second World War saved the lives of countless soldiers and civilians who would otherwise have died from infected wounds. Estimates of the total number of lives saved worldwide by Fleming's serendipitous breakthrough go as high as two hundred million.

Modern breakthroughs

Following the development of effective drugs to combat bacterial infections, attention turned to the other major category of infectious diseases: viruses, and once again Scotland led the way. In 1957 Glaswegian virologist Alick Isaacs discovered interferon, a naturally occurring substance that inhibits viruses' reproduction. Interferon is still not fully understood, but is effective in treating certain diseases such as hepatitis C, and is one of the only drugs available that directly combats viral infections.

More recent Scots innovations in the life sciences include Prof Sir David Lane's 1979 discovery of the p53 tumor suppressor gene, which gave new insights into the mechanisms by which cancers begin; Prof John Mallard's work developing the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanners, which allow doctors to look inside living bodies without surgical invasion and see organs' processes as they happen; Sir David Jack's development of the salbutamol (best known by the brand name Ventolin), which provides vital relief to millions of asthma sufferers, and the anti-ulcer drug ranitidine (marketed as Zantac); medical ultrasound, a Glasgow development which swept the, world was developed in the 1960s by Professor Ian Donald at the University Department of Midwifery; Sir James Black's invention of beta-blockers, which are used to treat heart conditions and earned their creator the 1988 Nobel Prize for Medicine; and, of course, the world's most famous sheep, Dolly, created like no other mammal before her by cloning from an adult cell at the Roslin Institute in 1996.

Having given so much to the world, the Scottish life science community could be forgiven if they chose to rest on their laurels: but that is not in the nature of a scientist nor of a Scot. Biomedical innovation in Scotland continues apace as Scottish researchers, with keen assistance from government and industry, gaze ever deeper into the mysteries of the living organism and make the world a better place.

A strategy for Scotland

2005 saw the launch of an ambitious fifteen-year plan to support Scotland's large and growing life science sector. 2020: Life Sciences Strategy, as it is known, focuses on four key goals: the right people; the right resources; greater focus; and greater collaboration. To achieve this goal, action is being taken in areas such as attracting more young people to careers in the life sciences, making more and better public and private funding available for promising research, and encouraging cooperation between academia and the private sector. A major plank of the strategy has been the formation of the Life Sciences Alliance, an advisory group bringing together expertise from science, industry and government in one place.

Also underway is the Scottish Translational Medicine Research Collaboration, a major cooperative venture involving four of Scotland's top universities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow), NHS Scotland and the multinational pharmaceutical corporation Wyeth. The project's main aims are: to improve the detection and monitoring of diseases including cancer, heart disease and depression through the use of 'biomarkers' (protein molecules and similar substances) that can be measured easily and simply; and to speed up the process by which new treatments developed in the laboratory get off the bench and into clinical use, benefiting patients. The bulk of the cost of the £50 million project is being met by Wyeth, with additional funding of up to £17.5 million coming from Scottish Enterprise. Wyeth's decision was awarded the title of one of three 'Best Investments in Europe' at the La Baule World Investment Conference in France.

Initiatives and investments like these are boosting confidence in Scotland's life sciences industry. Although home to only a little over 1% of Europe's population, Scotland produced 20% of Europe's initial public offerings (IPOs, the first public sale of shares in new companies) in the life sciences. The attention of international investors is helping Scotland to continue in the proud tradition of Simpson, Lister and Fleming, using new knowledge to save lives and improve welfare around the world.

Interested in finding out more about Scotland's life sciences industry?

Find out more about James Young Simpson

Find out more about Sir Alexander Fleming

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