Here you’ll find summaries of our most recent research breakthroughs.

Recent discoveries

New experimental drug offers hope for menopausal women with frequent hot flushes

Women plagued by frequent hot flushes during the menopause could cut the number of flushes by almost three-quarters, thanks to a new drug compound.

In a trial led by Imperial College London, researchers showed that women who suffered seven or more hot flushes a day could reduce the number by as much as 73 per cent, as well as reducing their severity and impact

The menopause is when a woman’s periods stop and she is no longer able to have children naturally. As the levels of oestrogen fall, typically around 45 to 55 years of age, it leads to a number of physical changes, including menopausal flushing and profuse sweating.

For many women, these hot flushes may be little more than an uncomfortable inconvenience. But for some, frequent severe episodes can lead to clothes and bed sheets drenched in sweat, as well as relentless waking from sleep which impacts their working, social and home lives.

In the study, 28 women with severe flushing were given a new drug compound called MLE4901, originally developed by AstraZeneca and licensed to Millendo Therapeutics, to try to relieve their symptoms.

At the heart of the approach is blocking a chemical called neurokinin B (NKB). Previous studies in animals revealed that increased levels of the chemical caused a flushing response in the tails of rats similar to a menopausal flush.

In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, menopausal women aged between 40 and 62 years old – and who experienced seven or more hot flushes a day and had not had a period in at least 12 months – were recruited at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust hospitals.

Participants were randomly chosen to either first receive a 80 mg daily dose of the drug or a placebo over the course of a four week period, before switching to receive the other tablet for an additional four weeks. This ensured the women acted as their own controls during the study, and the effects of the drug were clear.

The researchers found that the compound MLE4901 significantly reduced the average total number of flushes during the four-week treatment period, as well as their severity, compared to when the patients received the placebo for four weeks. It also helped to reduce the impact of flushes on the women’s lives, improving sleep.

The team hopes that this successful early-stage study, published in The Lancet and involving a drug which targets receptors in the brain, could provide hope for women who are affected by flushes and for whom hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is either unsuitable or not preferred by the patient due to safety concerns.

Hormone can enhance brain activity associated with love and sex

The hormone kisspeptin can enhance activity in brain regions associated with sexual arousal and romantic love, according to recent research.

Kisspeptin is a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the release of other reproductive hormones inside the body. The study involved a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in which 29 healthy heterosexual young men were given either an injection of kisspeptin or placebo. In an MRI scanner the men were shown a variety of images, including sexual and non-sexual romantic pictures of couples, whilst researchers scanned their brains to see how kisspeptin affected the brain's responses.

The researchers found that after the injection of kisspeptin, when the volunteers were shown sexual or romantic images of couples, there was enhanced activity in structures in the brain typically activated by sexual arousal and romance.

The team believe this shows kisspeptin boosts behavioural circuits associated with sex and love. They are particularly interested in how kisspeptin might be able to help people with psychosexual disorders and related problems with conceiving a baby.

Volunteers in the study underwent MRI scans at the Imanova Centre for Imaging Sciences and were shown sexual and non-sexual romantic, negative, and neutral-themed images, and images of happy, fearful and neutral emotional faces. Kisspeptin did not appear to alter emotional brain activity in response to neutral, happy or fearful-themed images. However, when volunteers were shown negative images, kisspeptin did enhance activity in brain structures important in regulating negative moods, and study participants reported a reduction in negative mood in a post-scan questionnaires. As a result, the team are also interested in investigating the possibility that kisspeptin might be used for treating depression.

The scientists behind the early-stage study, from Imperial College London, are now keen to explore whether kisspeptin could play a part in treating some psychosexual disorders – sexual problems which are psychological in origin, and commonly occur in patients with infertility.

Scientists have developed a type of HIV test on a USB stick

Scientists at Imperial College London and DNA Electronics, have developed a device that uses a drop of blood to detect HIV, and then creates an electrical signal that can be read by a computer, laptop or handheld device.

The technology monitors the amount of virus in the bloodstream, which is crucial to monitoring a patient’s treatment. The current treatment for HIV, called anti-retroviral treatment, reduces virus levels to near zero but in some cases the medication may stop working – perhaps because the HIV virus has developed resistance to the drugs. The first indication of this would be a rise in virus levels in the bloodstream.

New research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows the device is not only very accurate, but can produce a result in under 30 minutes compared to current tests which take at least three days, often longer, and involves sending a blood sample to a laboratory. 

As such, the disposable test could be used for HIV patients to monitor their own treatment and could enable patients with HIV to be managed more effectively in remote locations.

The device, which uses a mobile phone chip, just needs small sample of blood. This is placed onto a spot on the USB stick. If any HIV virus is present in the sample, this triggers a change in acidity which the chip transforms into an electrical signal. This is sent to the USB stick, which produces the result in a programme on a computer or electronic device.

In the latest research, the technology tested 991 blood samples with 95 per cent accuracy. The average time to produce a result was 20.8 minutes.

The team are also investigating whether the device can be used to test for other viruses such as hepatitis. The technology was developed in conjunction with the Imperial spinout company DNA Electronics which is using the same technology to develop a device for detecting bacterial and fungal sepsis and antibiotic resistance.

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Imperial Biomedical Research Centre

Miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy may trigger post-traumatic stress disorder

Women may be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder following a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, suggests a new study from Imperial College London. The findings suggest women should be routinely screened for the condition, and receive specific psychological support following pregnancy loss.

In the study, published in the journal BMJ Open, the team surveyed 113 women who had recently experienced a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy.

The majority of the women in the study had suffered a miscarriage in the first three months of pregnancy, while around 20 per cent had suffered an ectopic pregnancy, where the baby starts to grow outside of the womb.

The results revealed four in ten women reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) three months after the pregnancy loss.

Miscarriage affects one in four pregnancies in the UK, and is defined as the loss of a baby before 24 weeks - although most miscarriages occur before 12 weeks.

In the new study, funded by the Imperial College Healthcare Charity, the scientists sent the women questionnaires asking them about their thoughts and feelings after their pregnancy loss. All of the women had attended the Early Pregnancy Assessment Unit at Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea hospital, West London.

The results revealed that three months after the pregnancy loss, nearly four in ten women (38 per cent) met criteria for probable PTSD. The women in the study who met the criteria for PTSD reported regularly re-experiencing the feelings associated with the pregnancy loss, and suffering intrusive or unwanted thoughts about their miscarriage.

Some women also reported having nightmares or flashbacks, while others avoided anything that may remind them of their loss, or friends and family who are pregnant.

Furthermore, nearly a third said their symptoms had impacted on their work life, and around 40 per cent reported their relationships with friends and family had been affected.

The team are now planning larger follow-up studies, to confirm the findings and help identify at-risk women.

MRSA uses decoys to evade a last-resort antibiotic

New research from scientists at Imperial College London has revealed that the superbug MRSA uses decoys to evade a last-resort antibiotic. This suggests there are potential new ways of tackling the bacteria, such as interfering with the decoys.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is responsible for thousands of deaths around the world each year. However, because the bacteria are resistant to many different antibiotics, treatment options are limited, and often ineffective.

One of the few antibiotics that can be used against MRSA is a drug of last resort known as daptomycin. However nearly a third of MRSA infections are not cured by this drug, leaving patients with a poor prognosis. 

Until now scientists didn’t know how MRSA managed to survive daptomycin treatment but in the latest findings, published in the journal Nature Microbiology, a team from Imperial discovered that MRSA releases decoy molecules that allow them to escape being killed by the antibiotic. The decoys are made of the same type of fat that make up the outer layer of MRSA cells. The antibiotic usually latches onto this fat layer, before drilling a hole through the outer shell and killing the bacteria. However, when MRSA releases these fatty decoy molecules the antibiotic latches onto these instead, and is deactivated. 

The team now intends to focus on understanding more about how these decoys are made and how they can be shut off completely to help daptomycin work better in patients.

Furthermore, tests revealed that a next generation antibiotic, currently in clinical trials, seems to stop production of the fatty decoys.

The work was supported by the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Wellcome Trust

"Virtual physiotherapist" helps paralysed patients exercise using computer games

A simple device can improve the ability of patients with arm disability to play physiotherapy-like computer games, according to new research. The low-cost invention, called gripAble™, consists of a lightweight electronic handgrip, which interacts wirelessly with a standard PC tablet to enable the user to play arm-training games.

In a new study published in PLOS ONE, researchers from Imperial College London have shown that using the device increased the proportion of paralysed stroke patients able to direct movements on a tablet screen by 50 per cent compared to standard methods. In addition, the device enabled more than half of the severely disabled patients in the study to engage with arm-training software, whereas none of these patients were able to use conventional control methods such as swiping and tapping on tablets and smartphones.

The research tested the gripAble™ device with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust stroke patients at Charing Cross Hospital, who had suffered successive strokes with arm paralysis over six months. The researchers assessed their ability to use gripAble™ to control mobile gaming devices such as tablets that could be used for rehabilitation and compared this to their use of conventional methods such as swiping and tapping.

The researchers collaborated with Human Robotics Group at Imperial College London to develop the device.

The gripAble™ device is designed for patients to use unsupervised in hospital and at home. The team is now carrying out a feasibility study in north west London to test the use of the device in patients’ homes.

Feeding babies egg and peanut may prevent food allergy, according to a new study

Research by scientists from Imperial College London has analysed data from 146 studies on the effect of feeding allergenic foods to babies.

The study, found feeding children peanut, between the ages of four and eleven months, may reduce risk of developing peanut allergy. In addition, the team analysed milk, fish (including shellfish), tree nuts (such as almonds) and wheat, but didn't find enough evidence to show introducing these foods at a young age reduces allergy risk.

Allergies to foods, such as nuts, egg, milk or wheat, affect around one in 20 children in the UK. They are caused by the immune system malfunctioning and over-reacting to these harmless foods. This triggers symptoms such as rashes, swelling, vomiting and wheezing.

The results showed that children who started eating egg between the ages of four and six months had a 40 per cent reduced risk of egg allergy compared to children who tried egg later in life. Children who ate peanut between the ages of four and eleven months had a 70 per cent reduced peanut allergy risk compared to children who ate the food at a later stage. However, the authors cautioned that the analysis didn't assess safety, or how many of the babies suffered allergic reactions from the early introduction. They also cautioned against introducing egg and peanut to a baby who already has a food allergy, or has another allergic condition such as eczema

The Government is considering these important findings as part of its review of complementary feeding for infants to ensure its advice reflects the best available evidence. Families should continue to follow the Government's current long-standing advice to exclusively breastfeed for around the first six months of age because of the health benefits to mothers and babies.

The study was funded by the UK Food Standards Agency who commission research to understand the causes and mechanisms of food allergy and intolerance. The study was also supported by the Imperial NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, and the MRC-Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma.

Low blood pressure may be associated with heart attack risk in some patients

Low blood pressure may increase the risk of heart attack in patients with coronary disease, suggests a new study. The team behind the research, from a number of international institutions including Imperial College London, recommend doctors think carefully when treating patients with coronary artery disease for high blood pressure.

In the study, published in the Lancet, the researchers followed 22,672 patients with coronary artery disease, also known as heart disease, who had high blood pressure and were treated for hypertension. The patients were recruited in 45 countries between November 2009 and June 2010 and followed for up to five years.

The results suggest a blood pressure above 140 mmHg and above 80 mmHg was associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. However, the team also found that a blood pressure below a systolic blood pressure of 120 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure below 70 mmHg were both associated with an increased risk of mortality, heart attack and hospitalisation for heart failure, independent of potential confounding factors.

In contrast, the results suggested that for stroke, the lower the blood pressure, the better the outcome.

The team suggest randomised controlled trials will be necessary to confirm the optimal blood pressure values below which harm outweighs benefit. They add this study may impact clinical practice as it strongly suggests caution when treating patients with coronary artery disease with blood pressure lowering drugs.

Potential new test for bacterial infections including meningitis and sepsis

Imperial College London scientists have identified two genes that are switched on only when a child is suffering from a bacterial infection. This could allow doctors to quickly distinguish between a viral or bacterial illness, and identify early cases of potentially deadly infections.

The international team of scientists, led by researchers at Imperial College London and funded by the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre, hope to now use the findings to develop a rapid test for use in hospitals and doctors' surgeries.

This would enable conditions such as meningitis, septicaemia or pneumonia — which are caused by bacterial infections — to be caught more rapidly. Such a test would also prevent children with viral infections being unnecessarily prescribed antibiotics, which are only effective against bacteria. This would help combat the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

At the moment, when a child arrives at a surgery or hospital with fever, doctors have no quick method of distinguishing whether the child is suffering from bacterial or viral illness. Diagnosis relies instead on taking a sample of blood or spinal fluid, and seeing if bacteria grow in this sample. However this can take more than 48 hours. A quicker diagnosis would help to identify deadly conditions such as meningitis, septicaemia and pneumonia.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), looked at 240 children with an average age of 19 months, who arrived at hospitals with fever across the UK, Spain, the Netherlands and the USA. The research team are now working on further studies to confirm the findings in larger numbers of children.

Procedure associated with increased risk of premature birth and neonatal loss

Researchers from Imperial College London are urging surgeons to reconsider using a particular type of thread for a procedure to prevent premature birth.

New research has found this thread was associated with an increased rate of premature birth and baby death compared with a thinner thread.

The study analysed 671 UK women who received a cervical stitch procedure to prevent miscarriage or premature birth. The procedure, which is performed on around two million women a year globally, is offered to women deemed at high risk of miscarriage or premature birth. Surgeons use one of two types of thread for the stitch - the majority use a thicker woven thread, and around 20 per cent use a thinner thread.

The study results, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, suggest the thicker thread is associated with a three-fold increase in rate of baby death in the womb when compared to the thinner thread, and is associated with an increased rate of premature birth.

To understand the difference in outcomes between procedures using the two threads, the team conducted a second study with 50 women who were due to have the cervical stitch procedure. Half received the thinner thread, while half received the thicker thread.

The results suggested that women who received the thicker thread had increased inflammation around the cervix. There was also increased blood flow, which is associated with the cervix opening before labour. Crucially, the team also found women who received the thicker thread had more potentially harmful bacteria in the vagina and around the cervix.

The research was funded by the Genesis Research Trust and the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre.

Flu vaccine may reduce risk of death for type 2 diabetes patients

The flu vaccine may reduce the likelihood of being hospitalised with stroke and heart failure in people with type 2 diabetes, according to research done by Imperial College London. The study also found patients who received the influenza vaccination had a 24 per cent lower death rate in the flu season compared to patients who weren't vaccinated.

The team, who published their findings in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) studied 124,503 UK adults with type 2 diabetes between 2003 and 2010. Around 65 per cent of these patients received the flu vaccine.

The scientists found that, compared to patients who had not been vaccinated, those who received the jab had a 30 per cent reduction in hospital admissions for stroke, 22 per cent reduction in heart failure admissions and 15 per cent reduction in admissions for pneumonia or influenza. The researchers suggest that the results indicate the vaccine may have substantial benefits for patients with long-term conditions.

The research was supported by the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care Scheme (CLAHRC) Northwest London and the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre (BRC).

Robotic rectum may aid prostate cancer diagnosis

A robotic rectum, developed by scientists at Imperial College London, may help doctors and nurses detect prostate cancer. The technology, which consists of prosthetic buttocks and rectum with in-built robotic technology, helps train doctors and nurses to perform rectal examinations by accurately recreating the feel of a rectum, as well as providing feedback on their examination technique. The device contains small robotic arms that apply pressure to the silicone rectum, to recreate the shape and feel of the back passage.

Rectal examinations are necessary to diagnose conditions such as prostate cancer and involve placing their index finger into the anus, and feeling the prostate gland. Although plastic models exist to help train staff, these do not feel like living flesh and tissue. Therefore to help doctors and nurses practice how to perform these examinations - and to avoid patient discomfort as much as possible, the team have created a robotic 'trainer rectum'.

The team are continuing to perfect the device, by collecting data from real prostate examinations in patients. They are also are now working towards building an affordable prototype for medical schools.

Cravings for high-calorie foods may be switched off by new food supplement

Eating a type of food supplement, based on a molecule produced by bacteria in the gut, reduces cravings for high-calorie foods, according to a study by Imperial College London and the University of Glasgow.

Bacteria in the gut release a compound called propionate when they digest the fibre inulin, which can signal to the brain to reduce appetite. However the inulin-propionate ester supplement releases much more propionate in the intestines than inulin alone.

Scientists asked 20 volunteers to consume a milkshake that either contained inulin-propionate ester, or the fibre inulin. After drinking the milkshakes, the participants underwent an MRI scan, where they were shown pictures of various low or high calorie foods such as salad, fish and vegetables or chocolate, cake and pizza. The team found that when volunteers drank the milkshake containing inulin-propionate ester, they had less activity in areas of their brain linked to reward - but only when looking at the high calorie foods.

In a second part of the study, the volunteers were given a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce, and asked to eat as much as they like. When participants drank the inulin-propionate ester, they ate 10 per cent less pasta than when they drank the milkshake that contained inulin alone.

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Imperial Biomedical Research Centre and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Global economic crisis linked to additional cancer deaths

Unemployment and reduced public-sector health spending following the 2008 crisis were associated with increased cancer mortality, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Imperial College London. The study, published in the journal The Lancet, is the first global analysis to look at the effect of unemployment and changes in public-sector healthcare spending on cancer deaths, and suggests universal health care coverage may protect patients from the health consequences of rising unemployment and reduced public-sector healthcare spending. The study team used data on unemployment, public health care spending and cancer mortality in over 70 countries, representing over 2 billion people from 1990 to 2010.

The study found that rises in unemployment were associated with an increase in deaths across all cancers but the association disappeared when universal health care was taken into account. The association between unemployment and cancer mortality was strongest for treatable cancers, and the authors say that this reinforces the importance of having access to care. The researchers then extrapolated the findings for countries in the OECD and estimated that the economic crisis was associated with an additional 263,221 deaths in the OECD, of which 169,129 were in the European Union.

Magic mushroom compound tested for treatment-resistant depression

A small scale study into treating depression using psilocybin, the psychedelic compound of magic mushrooms, has found it can be safely administered. The study team, from Imperial College London, say this could pave the way for future randomised-controlled trials to establish the efficacy of the compound in treating depression.

To investigate the safety and feasibility of using psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, researchers from Imperial conducted a strictly monitored study that was published in The Lancet Psychiatry. Twelve people with moderate to severe treatment-resistant depression who had not responded to at least two courses of antidepressants were recruited. The volunteers went through a thorough screening process before they were allowed to participate. Criteria used to rule out participants from taking part included people with a history of suicide attempts, those with diagnosis of a psychotic disorder and other significant medical conditions. Participants were fully supported at all times before, during and after they received psilocybin.

All participants showed some decrease in symptoms of depression for at least three weeks. Seven of them continued to show a positive response three months after the treatment, with five remaining in remission after three months. However, there are some limitations to this study, in addition to the small sample size. Previous studies have shown that using psychedelics can leave one open to suggestion, which could have been part of the positive outcomes seen here. It was also not possible to control for the psychological support received throughout this study.

Superbug infections tracked across Europe

For the first time, scientists have shown that MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant 'superbug' infections can be tracked across Europe.

In a study published in the journal mBio, researchers at Imperial College London and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute worked with a European network representing doctors in 450 hospitals in 25 countries to successfully interpret and visualise the spread of drug-resistant MRSA. The team combined whole-genome sequencing with a web-based visualisation and mapping tool to create Microreact.orgThis enables infection control teams across Europe to easily share information and to form a dynamic picture of the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The research team read the whole genomes of MRSA samples to identify which bugs are related to each other, and which are resistant to antibiotics. Using this approach, the scientists were not only able to show the rise and spread of MRSA across Europe, but also provide a quicker way to identify new hotspots of resistance. In the research, the scientists show that combining the drug-resistance profile of a bacteria with its whole-genome DNA sequence allowed them to build up a series of drug-resistance ‘DNA photofits’ for resistance to specific drugs. In the future, such an approach may help doctors decide on the best treatments more quickly and help bring drug-resistant outbreaks to an end.

New app helps sickle cell anaemia patients keep medical records

Researchers at Imperial College London have designed a new app to help sickle cell anaemia patients keep track of their condition.

The SiKL app is a personal medical record for people with sickle cell disease and their carers. The app aims to make sure that people with sickle cell disease have their medical record to hand so that they can communicate their health information whenever they might need to, whether in a routine healthcare encounter with a clinician or during an emergency.

The app works by generating a one-screen summary of a patient's recorded details that can be shown to a healthcare professional to determine appropriate treatment. The app is also aimed at making everyday life for patients easier with features such as medication reminders.

The team at Imperial worked with the Sickle Cell Society, patients from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust clinics and participants from the TalkLab Initiative, a collaborative project bringing together clinicians, parents and young patients to improve healthcare in North London, to help test and develop the app.

Download iOS version from the App store

New genetic form of obesity and diabetes discovered

Researchers at Imperial College London have discovered a new inherited form of obesity and type 2 diabetes in humans.

The team found the new defect by sequencing the DNA of an extremely obese young woman and members of her family. In addition to an increased appetite leading to severe weight problems from childhood, she had type 2 diabetes, learning difficulties, and reproductive problems.

They found that she had inherited two copies of a harmful genetic change that meant she could not make a protein called carboxypeptidase-E (CPE). This is an enzyme that is important in the proper processing of a number of hormones and brain transmitters controlling appetite, insulin and other hormones important in the reproductive system.

The patient was clinically evaluated by consultant endocrinologist Dr Tony Goldstone, who runs a specialist genetics obesity clinic at Hammersmith Hospital.

Pancreas cells’ genetic instructions open doors to diabetes treatment

Scientists at Imperial College London have mapped the genetic instructions for pancreas development, providing information that could aid research into diabetes treatments.

In a study published in Nature Cell Biology, researchers mapped regions of the genome that are active in early pancreas development. These include not only genes, but also the sequences that don’t encode proteins, called non-coding regions. Until recently most of the non-coding genome was thought of as unimportant.

The results identify a new pathway that regulates pancreas development. The findings will be valuable for efforts to grow pancreas cells in the lab from stem cells. In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system kills the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, called beta cells. Growing new beta cells in the lab and transplanting them could be an effective treatment in the future.

Mapping the non-coding regions that regulate pancreas development could also provide insights into pancreatic cancer and other diseases that may arise from errors in the cells’ genetic programme.

The research was supported by the National Institute for Health Research Imperial Biomedical Research Centre.

Head injury patients show signs of faster ageing in the brain

People who have suffered serious head injuries show changes in brain structure resembling those seen in older people, according to a study.

Researchers at Imperial College London analysed brain scans from over 1,500 healthy people to develop a computer program that could predict a person’s age from their brain scan. Then they used the program to estimate the “brain age” of 113 more healthy people and 99 patients who had suffered traumatic brain injuries.

The brain injury patients were estimated to be around five years older on average than their real age.

The study, published in the Annals of Neurology, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study changes in brain structure. The researchers used a machine learning algorithm to develop a computer program that could recognise age-related differences in the volume of white matter and grey matter in different parts of the brain.

The researchers believe the age prediction model could be applied not just to TBI patients, but might also be useful to screen outwardly healthy people.

The researchers received funding from the EU Seventh Framework Programme and a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) professorship for Professor David Sharp. The research was also supported by the NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre.

New therapy for rare degenerative disease

Friedreich’s ataxia is a rare inherited disease that attacks the central nervous system. Within 15 years of diagnosis, people living with the conditions usually need a wheelchair. In 2014, our NIHR Biomedical Research Centre funded a team that provided the first clinical evidence of a potential new therapy for the condition. The first-in-human study found that a molecule called nicotinamide can help restore the levels of a protein known to be deficient in people with Friedreich’s ataxia. Several patients reported improvements in motor function. The work is now being developed into a larger-scale study.

MRI scans unlock signs of accelerated ageing

By studying the brain scans of patients with serious head injuries our traumatic brain injury team has identified patients at risk of future neurological problems. The research carried out over the last five years used MRI scans to study rates of brain shrinkage known as atrophy.

Patients’ brains showed increased atrophy, which translated to an additional five years of normal ageing. The amount of atrophy increased with the time since injury, indicating that accelerated ageing may have been triggered by the injury. Patients were recruited from the major trauma centre at St Mary’s Hospital.

This new technique allows patients at risk of neurodegenerative problems after traumatic brain injury to be identified more accurately, and forms part of plans for large scale tracking of patients after their injury and to ensure appropriate treatment.

Stem cells show promise for stroke

A stroke therapy has shown promising results in the first trial of its kind in humans. Five patients received the treatment, which uses stem cells extracted from their own bone marrow. The study was conducted by our doctors, working with scientists at Imperial College London. The therapy is thought to trigger the brain to produce new brain cells. Six months later there were no ill-effects in participants, and all the patients showed improvements in clinical measures of disability.

The findings were published in August 2014 in the journal of Stem Cells Translational Medicine. The next step is to do more tests and work out the best dose and timescale for treatment before starting larger trials. 

Infant milk formula does not reduce risk of eczema and allergies, says new study

A type of baby formula does not reduce allergy risk — despite previous claims to the contrary  according to research led by Imperial College London.

The study, published in The BMJ, reviewed data from 37 different trials into hydrolysed baby formula  a type of baby formula treated with heat to break down the milk proteins. The idea is that giving this formula to children at risk of conditions such as milk allergy and eczema, instead of standard formula, can reduce the chance of infants developing the conditions.

However the new research showed there was no statistically significant reduction in risk of these conditions amongst babies using hydrolysed formula. The paper also revealed conflicts of interest in many of the studies due to financial links with baby formula manufacturers.

In the paper, which was funded by the UK Food Standards Agency, the team analysed studies that included over 19,000 participants. This new study is the most complete and robust assessment of all the evidence to date, says Dr Robert J Boyle, senior lecturer in paediatric allergy at Imperial College London.

The study found there was no significant reduction in risk of developing eczema, wheezing, or food allergy (including cow's milk allergy). Some of the trials also investigated risk of developing type 1 diabetes, but no link was found.

Dr Robert Boyle, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London and Director of the Paediatric Research Unit at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, led the research.

Researchers and Google DeepMind collaborate on app to support busy medics

Researchers have developed an app to help medics manage the thousands of individual clinical tasks that need to be organised daily across a hospital.

To keep patients well, nurses and doctors need to carry out tasks ranging from blood tests, to administering intravenous antibiotics and reviewing acutely unwell patients. These tasks continue to be allocated to staff by pager, a technology over 60 years old. The smartphone app designed by Imperial College London researchers, called Hark, is designed to improve the process by helping to prioritise the different clinical tasks that medical staff must perform.

Going forward, the Hark team will join forces with Google DeepMind to develop the technology further and allow it to scale up across the NHS.

The app is the brainchild of Professor Ara Darzi and Dr Dominic King, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London. It was developed over the course of five years in collaboration with medical staff at St Mary’s Hospital, part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

New imaging technique could detect fatty deposits that cause heart attacks

Scientists have found a new way to detect and visualise fatty plaques in arteries that can rupture and cause a heart attack or stroke.

The team at Imperial used a new imaging technique, called fluorescence molecular tomography, to determine the amount of a substance called oxidised low-density lipoprotein (OxLDL), within plaques in mice.

OxLDL is known to play a major role in atherosclerosis in humans and is present in high quantities in plaques most likely to lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Fatty plaques are particularly dangerous in the walls of the arteries that lead to the brain or heart because if they rupture, a deadly blood clot can form and block the blood supply, causing either a heart attack or stroke. Each year in the UK over 100,000 people die after suffering from these events.

If doctors can identify these plaques, they could treat them using targeted drugs or by implanting a stent in the affected areas.

The research was led by Dr Ramzi Khamis from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London.

New app advises and reminds pregnant women about vaccinations

A new app to guide and remind pregnant women about vaccines recommended during pregnancy has been launched by researchers.

The Maternal Immunations (MatImms) app is aimed at pregnant women to guide them about infections that could be harmful to them and their baby, such as flu and whooping cough, and which could be prevented by getting vaccinated in pregnancy. 

Researchers and clinicians from Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust teamed up to develop the app after becoming concerned about the low uptake of certain vaccines amongst pregnant women.

The app includes a personalised vaccination schedule based on the woman’s due date, which can be synced to her phone’s calendar, with reminders about when to get her own vaccines and when to vaccinate her baby during the first year of life.

It provides different levels of information about vaccines in general and takes the user on a journey by explaining specifically how women in pregnancy can protect their babies through vaccinations. It explains the concept of protection through maternal antibodies and the general function of the immune system and the placenta. The app also tackles concerns about vaccinations with information on their ingredients and safety records, and it contains links and videos to other websites for further information.