News round-up (12 January 2024)

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12th January 2024 about a 5 minute read

Some exciting scientific news this week, with the development of a new DNA test that can identify 18 early-stage cancers and potentially revolutionise screening methods used in cancer diagnosis. We may have to wait until after the next election to hear evidence to the Covid inquiry on the role of the vaccines taskforce, while the NHS, meanwhile, is collating data on the impact of the doctors’ strike. A study has found that a diet of fast food can increase children’s risk of experiencing heart disease and stroke at a young age.

Covid inquiry postpones vaccine hearing

The Covid inquiry will not start hearing evidence about the development of vaccines until after the general election.

Originally the inquiry was due to hear evidence this summer about the development and rollout of vaccines, including the setting up of the UK vaccines taskforce and the role of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. It has now been postponed, however.

The first phase of the inquiry heard evidence on planning for a pandemic, while the second phase, which is now underway, is looking at the major political decisions taken after Covid emerged. Hearings began in London in October 2023, and the inquiry will now travel to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to take evidence.

In September, the inquiry will begin looking at the impact of the pandemic on the NHS and healthcare.

DNA test can detect 18 early-stage cancers

Scientists have developed a simple DNA test that can identify 18 early-stage cancers.

Early detection of cancer can significantly improve outcomes, but existing screening methods have drawbacks. They can be expensive and invasive, and some have low levels of accuracy.

The test designed by a team of US researchers from the biotech firm Novelna analyses proteins in the blood to identify the cancers, representing all main organs in the human body.

By looking at proteins in blood plasma, the experts were able to differentiate cancer samples from normal ones, and even distinguish between different types of cancers “with high accuracy”, they said. The research also found evidence that cancer protein signals were likely to be sex-specific.

The researchers said their test outperformed others relying on tumour DNA in the blood, and had “a sensitivity much greater” than the Galleri test being trialled on the NHS in the UK.

New parliamentary inquiry into birth trauma

Parliament has launched an inquiry into birth trauma, led by MPs Theo Clarke and Rosie Duffield.

The inquiry, which is being carried out by the all-party parliamentary group on birth trauma, will look into the causes of traumatic births and develop policy recommendations to reduce the occurrence of birth-related trauma. The inquiry is open to parents and professionals in the maternity field, and is expected to report on its findings in April.

Clarke said: “I was amazed that literally within the first five minutes of announcing the call for evidence on social media we already had submissions into our inquiry inbox, probably the quickest response I’ve ever had to anything I’ve announced as an MP in my career.”

She called for birth trauma to be included in the government’s women’s health strategy.

NHS to collect evidence of harm caused by doctors’ strike

The NHS has warned striking doctors that it will start collecting evidence of the harm to patients caused by their refusal to help struggling hospitals.

Under strike protocols, hospital trusts can ask unions to allow doctors to cross picket lines and cover shifts if patient safety is compromised. All known requests relating to the current action, however, have so far been rejected by the British Medical Association (BMA).

On Thursday, senior officials at NHS England wrote to the BMA with steps to strengthen safety protocols and log evidence of all harm occurring when requests are rejected.

In the letter, Professor Stephen Powis, the national medical director, said that health officials will now follow up every case where mitigations have been rejected, in order to compile a picture of the impact on services.

Children who eat fast food face ‘higher risk of heart attacks’

Fast food diets lead children to have stiffer arteries by their teenage years, raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes at a young age, according to new research.

A study based on almost 5,000 children born in the Bristol area in the early 1990s found those whose diets were higher in calories, fat and sugar had less healthy arteries by the age of 17.

The scientists compared details on children’s diets, recorded at ages 7, 10 and 13, with measures of stiffness and thickening in the arteries when they were 17.

Those children who followed Mediterranean-style diets rich in vegetables, fruit, beans and pulses, fish and less meat had less stiff arteries.

Those who had higher consumption of foods with anti-inflammatory properties at age ten, such as a variety of brightly coloured vegetables and fruit, nuts, seeds, spices and seafood, also had less stiffness in the blood vessels.

New rules on when ministers can interfere in local NHS services

The government has published statutory guidance on how and when the health secretary will be able to intervene with changes to local NHS services.

The Health and Care Act 2022 introduced a new ministerial power to intervene in NHS reconfiguration, and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has now confirmed it would come into force at the end of January.

The DHSC has published a form for the public to submit their referrals directly. Requests from organisations and individuals for ministers to call in a reconfiguration can be submitted from 31 January, although the guidance says the DHSC “expects these only to be used in exceptional situations where local resolution has not been reached”.

The new provisions also create a duty for integrated care boards (ICBs) to notify ministers of any substantial changes to local servcies, and for ICBs and trusts to provide ministers with information and assistance when reviewing proposed changes.