As the world continues to undergo one of the biggest healthcare upheavals in a generation, it seems to be an appropriate time to look back on an era of exponential growth in scientific knowledge that began with the last major pandemic—and forward to the era of increasingly individualised treatment that lies ahead.
The special report “Medicines that Changed the World” casts a retrospective eye over a century of transformative medical discoveries that have revolutionised the treatment of the most prevalent non-communicable diseases (NCDs). In the process of this evolution, diseases that were once life threatening have become largely manageable.
Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses and cancer together account for the lion’s share of NCD prevalence globally. Developing treatments for all four of these conditions has not only improved life-expectancy and quality of life for people with the diseases, but also gradually built our knowledge about the human body and basic cell biology. Yet, while treatments have been increasingly effective, they also have become more costly. This, in turn, has made them harder to access for many of those living with NCDs, and especially those in low- and-middle-income countries (LMICs).
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on global health inequalities, including the extent to which those with NCDs and those from disadvantaged groups are more likely to contract the covid-19 virus and are at greater risk of dying from it. Competition between countries for covid vaccines has revealed how difficult it can be for many to access essential medicines, an inequality of opportunity that is a major obstacle to bringing the epidemic of NCDs around the world to a halt and stopping premature deaths.
Once the covid-19 pandemic recedes, recovering healthcare systems will face new challenges: development of treatments for those suffering the after-effects of long Covid and other consequences of the virus; and an expected growth in cases of NCDs, just when the health infrastructure is at its least resilient. Simultaneously, the development of new medicines are on a transformative journey, as the current acceleration in development and use of RNA technology demonstrates. NCD treatments will not be left behind. The launch of new classes of medicines for treating NCDs, especially for cancer, offers hope to those with chronic conditions. But it will also put pressure on national health budgets. Only by tackling the problems head-on, with comprehensive, joined up strategies, will the most innovative new treatments be able to fulfil their promise. •
TEXT – Andrea Chipman – BANNER ILLUSTRATION Luke Best
Read the full report below