Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Got a spare £50m? Fernando Torres or regenerative medicine - your choice...!

I'm more than aware that in writing a blogpost comparing extravagant expenditure by football clubs to the money needed to support vital medical research I may make comparing apples and oranges feel like, well comparing apples and apples, but here goes nonetheless - forgive my rather tortured premise if you may...

As the January transfer market in football players came to a close, two dramatic signings caught the spotlight - firstly, Andy Carroll moved from Newcastle United to Liverpool for a (then) British record transfer fee of £35 million - not to be out-done, Chelsea promptly smashed that record by signing Liverpool's Fernando Torres for £50 million.

I don't plan to discuss the merits of the player transfers themselves - much... I can't resist the temptation to question the pricing of the two Carroll and Torres; the former is injured, is talented but surely isn't more valuable to his new owners than the explosive David Villa is to Barcelona, and has a chequered off-field temperament; and the latter has had a terrible 12 months, failing to impress in Spain's World Cup triumph and scoring just nine goals in this lacklustre season thus far.

Regardless of whether Liverpool and Chelsea overpaid for their particular new acquisitions, the question that occurs to me is whether any footballer can truly be "worth" £50 million (or £50,000,000 - writing it out makes it hurt more...). Undoubtedly they "cost" that much, it's a question of whether they're worth it...

I ask because the £50 million figure also made another appearance in the news this week, albeit in a different context. The Twittersphere informed me that the British Heart Foundation has launched a new appeal, in support of research into encouraging regeneration of heart muscle following injury from heart attack.

The appeal aims to raise £50 million so the BHF can fund ground-breaking research into why the human heart fails to regenerate muscle cells following ischaemic injury (i.e. cell death after being starved of oxygen), whereas the heart muscle of lower animals such as the zebrafish does its own repair job.

Clearly the aim is to understand the mechanisms behind regeneration of heart muscle in organisms like zebrafish, and to try and devise treatments for oxygen-starved human heart tissue using either by activating repair pathways which we may have but don't use, or by delivering stem cells to the heart and hoping they develop into mature, functioning muscle cells that replace the injured tissue.

The latter is a much-explored option, with encouraging reports from early clinical studies using adult-derived bone-marrow stem cells - and more recent trials have shown that not only is the injection of such stem cells well-tolerated, but that it can lead to improvements in clinically relevant outcome measures such as the volume of blood pumped by the heart at each beat (ejection fraction).

Exploring mechanisms of tissue regeneration in lower animals is not exactly a surefire way of developing new treatments for human diseases that involve cell death - it has been known for decades that salamanders regenerate limbs following injury, but little progress has been made in translating that knowledge into treatments for patients - to date at least.

And yet the BHF's appeal strikes a chord not only with its undoubted ambition, but with its solid scientific basis too - there is little doubt that an increased knowledge of the developmental and regenerative pathways in zebrafish, pufferfish (Fugu), salamanders and all sorts of other organisms will shed light on whether humans retains a capacity to repair our own heart muscles, and if so then how we can tap into said capacity.

As the recent Science is Vital campaign showed so successfully, even blue-skies research with little predictable benefit is of immense value - which is even more true of research of the sort that the BHF aims to back with their new campaign as it could well lead to a much-needed treatment for conditions that are both life-threatening and increasing in prevalence. Such research needs to be backed by public and private funding, as it has the potential not only to push back the boundaries of human understanding but to improve the quality of lives of millions of people.

Which brings us back neatly to Fernando Torres. I'm not suggesting that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich should have spent his oligarchical spoils on fulfilling the BHF's appeal in full (well, perhaps I am after all...), it's just that his extravagance on the Spanish striker throws the appeal into sharp relief -  I wonder if those fortunate enough to have hearts healthy enough to power a top career in professional football appreciate just how little of their collective 'net worth' in the transfer market would adequately fund leading-edge research for those suffering from the burden of disease.

The two lots of £50 million - one spent on a footballer, the other needed to pay for medical research -   demonstrates neatly that we as a society have the wherewithal to fund quality research into matters of life and death, but sometimes our priorities can be somewhat muddled...

1 comment:

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