Skip to content

Defying Death

Updated Thursday, 22nd September 2005

This extract explores issues about improvements in health care, and our expectation of a longer life. It is taken from a panel discussion that took place as part of 'The Next Big Thing' TV series.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

War graves Graham Lloyd We can now expect to live longer than ever before

If we get ill, we expect to be made better!

As living standards have increased, the discovery of steroids and antibiotics, as well as new techniques for organ transplant and brain surgery, have transformed our expectations of doctors.

Meanwhile, vaccine programmes have wiped the Earth clean of diseases like smallpox and polio.

But new threats continue to emerge ..

High containment facilities like the Centre for Applied Microbiology Research in Wiltshire are at the front line of our defence, diagnosing and developing vaccines against any potential threat.

In the West, lifestyle is now seen as increasingly important. Even so, obesity and lack of exercise are making many of us vulnerable to chronic illnesses.

Millions of people continue to smoke.

Smoking has been linked to cancer since the 1950s and in Britain at least the message is getting through: sales of cigarettes have nearly halved since the 1970s. But in many areas of the world the danger is still not taken seriously.

The 1918-20 flu epidemic killed 20 million people - more than died in the First World War.

John Lloyd and a giant flu virus Virologist professor John Oxford believes it will happen again.

A flu monitoring network run by the World Health Organisation is doing its best to stay ahead of the game with annual vaccination programmes, aimed at keeping the ever changing virus in check. But flu and other pathogens pose a continual threat.

The idea that we could ever conquer infectious disease now seems naïve.

New diseases, like Ebola and Lassa Fever, are emerging all the time.

And to make matters worse, one of our most precious weapons in the fight against bacterial infections - antibiotics - are losing their effectiveness, as pathogens evolve and become resistant to them.


John Oxford John Oxford is professor of virology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine.

An expert in viruses, he believes the study of past epidemics will provide an early warning system for the future.

John took part in the now famous expedition to Spitsbergen, on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, to uncover the bodies of a group of miners who'd died in the 1918-20 flu epidemic which killed 20 million people. The group hoped to extract the virus from preserved tissue samples buried in the permafrost.

John is also interested in the link between flu and encephalitis lethargic, a condition made famous by the film Awakenings which causes victims to sink into a comatose state.

He combines his research on influenza with clinical trials of new influenza and HIV vaccines, and antiviral drugs. He is scientific director of the college research company, Retroscreen Limited.

Ricard Peto 'Smoking kills six people a minute worldwide'

Sir Richard Peto has made his name not only as an excellent researcher, but for presenting his work in terms that anyone can understand.

He is professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, and co-director, with Professor Rory Collins, of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Clinical Trial Services Unit (CTSU) at Oxford's Radcliffe Infirmary. Richard Peto came to Oxford with Sir Richard Doll, one of the scientists who first made the link between cancer and smoking.

The CTSU includes a group devoted to studies in China, where smoking is a growing problem.

He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1989 and knighted in 1999.

Trisha MacNair Dr Trisha MacNair originally trained as a doctor and worked in a variety of hospital specialities.

After swapping her white coat for a microphone, she now splits her time between a young family and her work as a freelance health broadcaster and writer.

Best known for her appearances on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, as well as, she is also studying for a Masters degree in medical ethics and medical law.


Michael Maier Dr Michael Maier is a consultant psychiatrist at Charing Cross Hospital and a senior lecturer at Imperial College, London.

He's a regular guest on the Next Big Thing - and also appears in The Reality of Risk and Predicting Personality programmes.




Colin Blakemore Professor Colin Blakemore is Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, and director of the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience. A renowned neuroscientist, he's also a TV and radio regular and an enthusiastic promoter of science. He is a fellow of the Royal Society.





Further Reading

The River
Edward Hooper
about the controversial theory that AIDS spread as a result of the first polio vaccine campaigns
Oxford University Press, 2000

The Coming Plague
Laurie Garrett
explores the world of new diseases
Penguin Books, 1996

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
Matt Ridley
includes the implications of knowledge of the human genome for disease
Fourth Estate, 2000

Human Virology
L. Collier and J. Oxford
a new and comprehensive textbook about virology
Oxford University Press, 2000





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?