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Drum roll, please …

by Guest Author on 12 Jun 2013

Birthdays call for parties, so last week the Cheltenham Science Festival threw us an (early) 100th birthday bash, complete with cake, balloons and … the results of our Centenary poll on medical advances.

As Science Museum Executive and former Editor of New Scientist Roger Highfield tweeted later in the day, there’s something slightly surreal about singing Happy Birthday to a research funding body in the company of Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

But that’s how we rounded off our event at the Cheltenham Science Festival on Saturday before tucking into some birthday cake. Jim was part of the panel there to discuss the results of the MRC Centenary poll, which was launched in January asking just two questions:

Q1: What medical advance from the past 100 years has had the greatest impact?

Q2: What do you think will be the most important medical discovery in the next 100 years?

Quentin Cooper, Presenter of Radio 4’s Material World, argued the case for mass immunisation having the most impact in the past 100 years, citing his father’s polio and the fact that by the time that Quentin was born, the threat of the disease had been almost eliminated. ‘Geek songstress’ Helen Arney plumped for MRI scanning for diagnosing disease, suggesting that before its advent, this had to a certain extent relied on “just poking around with sticks”.

Roger went for the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, which Jim, perhaps unsurprisingly, agreed with, calling it “the last great discovery that you could explain to a 10-year-old” and lamenting that the original DNA model was not saved and instead broken up. But he conceded that aside from DNA, antibiotics had probably had the most impact on health in the past 100 years.

But what did the public think? They agreed with Jim and antibiotics were the most popular choice, though there were also mentions of the lidded dustbin, Calpol and the sewage system.

Looking to the future, Roger saw potential in synthetic biology, the combination of biology and engineering to produce biological ‘devices’. Combined with stem cell science, he said, this could usher in a new stage in human evolution where it will be more difficult to tell humans and machines apart. Fellow panel member and Science Broadcaster Adam Rutherford agreed, suggesting that in the future we will build using biology rather than more familiar materials like wood and metal.

Quentin argued that treatments for dementia, and other diseases that are increasing as the population ages, will have the most impact in the future. Plenty of respondents to the poll also hoped for a cure for dementia, though it was a cure for cancer which won out in the end and proved the most popular choice.

Chair of the panel, Science Writer and Broadcaster Vivienne Parry, also mentioned that a number of respondents hoped to see a way to tackle antibiotic resistance in the future — a reminder that the effects of medical discoveries can never be anticipated wholly.

One person who filled in the poll looked forward to a silent dentist’s drill, while others wanted a way of consuming cheese, chocolate and other culinary delights without any damaging effects on the body. We might have to agree after all that birthday cake.

Katherine Nightingale

The MRC Centenary poll will remain open until the end of 2013, so please continue to add your answers.


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