Russell Taylor: Investing in the healthcare revolution

Russell Taylor: Investing in the healthcare revolution

The human species evolved as a walking and running predator, covering long distances over rough ground and often going hungry.

An exceptionally large brain enabled it to develop so many labour-saving techniques that we are now mainly a sedentary species, eating too much food rich in fats, sugars and salts, and thereby suffering muscular degeneration.

The heart as pump

The heart is the most important muscle in our body since, in conjunction with the lungs, it brings in oxygen and expels carbon dioxide. It is also the most vulnerable to our present lifestyle, quickly becoming fatty and finding it more and more difficult to act as an efficient pump for the body as the arteries become furred up.

Doctors have long recognised this problem, but only in the 1950s-60s did it become possible to solve it. This was through a heart bypass operation. Though generally successful, these were terrifying to the patient, involving opening the ribcage, stopping the heart and transferring its operations to an external heart-lung machine, then operating on the heart itself.

Generally, the patient was ready to go home and resume life a fortnight after the healing process, and the fear of the procedure was soon forgotten in the better-than-before pleasure of life itself. But surgeons were conscious of the costs and risks of the process, and forward-looking researchers had long dreamed of using catheters to penetrate the plaque surrounding the arteries.

Simpler and quicker solutions

Only in the 1980s-90s did this become practical, with the development of the heart stent. This is a stainless steel mesh tube, coated with medicines to help the stent and heart adjust to each other, and then inserted into the blocked artery.

The surgeon guides a catheter – a long and flexible tube – with a stent at its end through a major artery (generally in the wrist or groin) to the heart. Using modern scanning techniques to see what is happening, and where the arterial blockages are, the surgeon then places the stent in the heart and withdraws the catheter. No blood, no anaesthesia, and generally painless and not much more than a day or two in hospital, including diagnosis.

Other problems with our lifestyles

Naturally there is still argument over whether stents or bypass operations are the better solution for the patient, especially where the heart is in a very bad way. However, since the start of this century, stents have become the popular choice – and a variety of stents have been developed to help surgeons both with their diagnosis and action.

But it is not only our heart muscle that suffers from too much rich food. Obesity puts pressure on arms, legs and joints, and today knee and hip replacements are everyday medical treatments. Equally, such abuse puts pressure on other, more internal aspects of the body, and medical researchers are continually looking for solutions to these problems.