Sunday, 13 June 2010

Stitches, Smash, Science and the Red Skins!

Last week I had a number of stitches removed from a small wound on my back. It was a relief, both to have them removed, but also to be able to have a proper shower. What amazed me was that the stitches were a delightful pastel blue colour and so thin. Things had clearly changed since my day, when all that was available was the ubiquitous black suture.

The company Johnson & Johnson was founded more than 120 years ago on the then unique idea that Doctors and Nurses should be able to use sterile sutures, dressings and bandages to treat peoples’ wounds. At the time, J&J employed nine glassblowers whose major role was in the manufacture of sterile sutures and ligatures for surgery. They were the largest producer of sterile surgical dressings in the world, and were the largest manufacturer of catgut ligatures in the world, producing an astounding 10 million feet per year. In 1917, these ligatures were stored ready to use in glass containers.

It was J&J who also Your Future in Nursing, a training programme that combines the interactivity of video computer gaming with real-life nursing scenarios. This programme allows both new and future nurses to practice their skills as nurses in a risk-free virtual environment in order to develop the communication skills required in making the transition from classroom to bedside.

It was my colleague Sue Bernhauser who noted that such programmes are important as over the next 15 years and beyond, nurses will need to respond to the challenges arising from changes in demography, disease patterns, lifestyle, public expectations and new technologies. Cleary the changes planned for pre-registration nurse education must equip nurses to lead and deliver both compassionate care and ensure that the practitioners of the future have the skills and knowledge to work in a modern healthcare system. Sue is the Dean of the School of Human and Health Sciences, University of Huddersfield, and Chair of the Council of Deans for Health.

It was said that Huddersfield was the place that the Smash aliens landed. For younger readers, Smash was a rather disgusting idea where one poured hot water onto a powder to get instant mash potato. In the 1970 advertisements, the aliens arrived to make fun of people who still used the old fashioned potato to cook with. And such discussion continues. A three year trial has just begun at the Sainsbury Laboratory to field test a genetically modified variety of potato that would be resistant to ‘late blight’ The global annual cost of crops lost to the disease is estimated to be £3.5bn.

The Sainsbury Laboratory is part of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, established in 1967 by David Sainsbury (now Lord Sainsbury of Turville), from whom all of Gatsby’s funds have come. Gatsby acts as an enabler for projects across a small number of selected fields. These include: Plant Science; Neuroscience; Science and Engineering Education; Africa; Mental Health; Arts.

The Sainsbury Laboratory Project is aimed at testing the potato plants' resistance to naturally occurring pathogens which cause blight. The genes, taken from inedible wild plants that grow in South America, were used to produce a genetically modified Desiree variety. For me a better overall potato than the Desiree, is the Rooster. The Rooster is a red-skinned but slightly duller colour than the Desiree with floury yellow flesh. It has become Ireland's number one variety of potato; in 2002, it accounted for 33% of Irish potato production. The Rooster is extremely versatile, and can be used for chipping, mashing, boiling, baking, and roasting. A Rooster can also be a Chicken of course!

Whilst I am not sure where I stand on the wider GM debate, I do acknowledge that human beings have constantly striven to improve and change that which is provided by nature. I am very glad that it was the modern synthetic sutures that had been used on my wound and not those hard old fashioned cat gut varieties!