British arthritis researchers honoured with major award

Two British researchers who pioneered treatments which have helped millions of people with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases have been awarded the prestigious 2008 Dr Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research.

Emeritus Professor Sir Ravinder Maini and Professor Marc Feldmann, who have been carrying out research together at Imperial College London since the 1980s, were selected for the US$100,000 award by an international committee including Nobel Laureates and other world-renowned scientists.

Their research has led to the development of new drugs which tackle the inflammation and tissue destruction caused by rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases including ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

The treatments they developed, now used by millions of people across the world, have proved effective in most patients, even those resistant to all previous treatments. They also protect the joints from further destruction.

The breakthrough came for Professors Maini and Feldmann when they discovered how autoimmune diseases such as arthritis cause the immune system to fight itself. Their work showed that the key lay in molecules responsible for cell communication, known as cytokines.

US president signs landmark gene law

In the United States The Coalition for Genetic Fairness commended President George W. Bush for signing into law recently the first civil rights legislation of the new millennium, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). GINA is the first and only federal legislation that will provide protections against discrimination based on an individual’s genetic information in health insurance coverage and employment settings.

“This is a tremendous victory for every American not born with perfect genes – which means it’s a victory for every single one us,” said Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter. “Since all of us are predisposed to at least a few genetic-based disorders, we are all potential victims of genetic discrimination.”

“Now that GINA has been approved and signed into federal law by the President, American health care consumers and employees will no longer have to fear the adverse effects of being tested to determine their risk status for genetic diseases,” said Joann Boughman, Ph.D., executive vice president of the American Society of Human Genetics and a member of the Coalition's executive committee. “Once this legislation has taken effect, clinicians will be able to order genetic tests for patients and their families in a manner that ensures the full realisation of the advantages of personalised medicine, while also easing patients' concerns about the risk of genetic discrimination by insurance companies and employers based on this data.”  

Noncommunicable diseases now biggest killers  

The global burden of disease is shifting from infectious diseases to noncommunicable diseases, with chronic conditions such as heart disease and stroke now being the chief causes of death globally, according to WHO’s authoritative World health statistics 2008 report published in May. The shifting health trends indicate that leading infectious diseases – diarrhoea, HIV, tuberculosis, neonatal infections and malaria – will become less important causes of death globally over the next 20 years.

“We are definitely seeing a trend towards fewer people dying of infectious diseases across the world,” said Dr Ties Boerma, Director of the WHO Department of Health Statistics and Informatics. “We tend to associate developing countries with infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. But in more and more countries the chief causes of death are noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.”

The statistical report documents in detail the levels of mortality in children and adults, patterns of morbidity and burden of disease, prevalence of risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, use of health care, availability of health care workers, and health care financing. It also draws attention to important issues in global health, including:

● Maternal mortality: in developed countries, nine mothers die for every 100,000 live births, while in developing countries the death rate is 450 and in sub-Saharan Africa it is 950.

● Life expectancy trends in Europe: life expectancy in eastern Europe increased from an average of 64.2 years in 1950 to 67.8 years in 2005, representing an increase of only about four years compared with 9 to 15 years for the rest of Europe.

● Healthcare costs: 100 million people are impoverished every year by paying out of pocket for health care.

● Coverage of key maternal, neonatal and child health interventions: four out of 10 women and children do not receive basic preventive and curative interventions and at current rates of progress it will take several decades before this gap is closed.

The World health statistics 2008 report can be downloaded from the WHO website:

New programme set up to unravel puzzling diseases  

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched a new clinical research programme that will aim to provide answers to patients with mysterious conditions that have long eluded diagnosis. Called the Undiagnosed Diseases Program, the trans- NIH initiative will focus on the most puzzling medical cases referred to the NIH by physicians across the US.

“A small number of patients suffer from symptoms that do not correspond to known conditions, making their care and treatment extraordinarily difficult. However, the history of biomedical research has taught us that careful study of baffling cases can provide new insights into the mechanisms of disease – both rare and common,” said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, MD. “The goal of NIH's Undiagnosed Diseases Program is twopronged: to improve disease management for individual patients and to advance medical knowledge in general.”

The new programme is the culmination of efforts by William A. Gahl, MD, PhD, clinical director at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI); John I. Gallin, MD, director of the NIH Clinical Center; and Stephen Groft, Pharm D, director of the NIH Office of Rare Diseases (ORD). The first patients are expected to be seen in July 2008. ● For more information visit:

Sanofi gives 60m H5N1 vaccine doses to WHO  

Vaccine giant Sanofi Pasteur is donating 60 million doses of H5N1 avian flu vaccine over the next three years to a World Health Organisation pandemic stockpile, the company announced 16 June.

With an earlier donation of 50 million doses from GlaxoSmithKline, the Sanofi announcement brings commitments to the stockpile to 110 million doses of vaccine, enough to vaccinate 55 million people, according to the Canadian Press.

Wayne Pisano, Sanofi’s president and CEO, said: “The H5N1 virus is currently circulating in some of the poorest regions of the world and an outbreak of pandemic influenza would most likely hit populations living in areas with limited access to vaccines.

“This donation of H5N1 vaccine aims to address the needs of those most vulnerable populations.”  

First world allergy report warns prevalence increasing  

The World Allergy Organization (WAO) has published its first report – The State of World Allergy Report – on the extent of allergy and chronic respiratory diseases worldwide on the 18 June 2008. The WAO called for immediate collaboration to tackle the current escalation in allergy cases.

In the last 20-30 years, the prevalence of allergic diseases has increased significantly - a trend that shows no signs of abating. It is estimated that 400 million people worldwide experience allergic rhinitis and 300 million people worldwide have asthma with estimated economic costs exceeding those of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined.

One of the most alarming findings from the report is that while the incidence of allergy and associated diseases has increased significantly, the number of healthcare professionals trained in the diagnosis and treatment of allergy has decreased, leaving many patients undiagnosed and untreated. The report is a first step in addressing this issue.

Key points in the report include:

● Allergies are a major problem in the 21st Century - it is predicted to worsen as this century moves forward.

● Due to a changing world climate, higher standards of hygiene and rapid industrialisation of developing nations, allergies are becoming more prevalent, more complex and more aggressive, with patients frequently suffering multiple allergic disorders that are no longer confined to specific seasons or locations and may be caused by a multitude of natural and synthetic substances not in our environment 20 years ago.

The report is available at:


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