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Ideas for Life – Health and Wellbeing

Universities Week: University of Bath

A healthy, happy world – now there’s something we’re all in favour of. But the challenges are tough and changing constantly.

The Ideas for Life survey quizzed members of the public on the issues they saw as most pressing on a global scale.

With analysts predicting that the number of people over the age of 60 will outnumber children under the age of 14 by 2050, a third of respondents mentioned improving wellbeing in old age as a key priority. For more than half, curing major life-threatening diseases was paramount. 

Universities in the UK are tackling the challenges head-on with innovative, effective and inventive ways of battling disease and improving access to healthcare.

From treatments to apps and gadgets – here are just some of the ways students and researchers in the UK are improving health and wellbeing.

Rotten eggs for heart attacks

University of ExeterHow could a poisonous substance that stinks of rotten eggs promote health?

Just as scientists at the University of Exeter, who have designed a new compound that creates tiny amounts of hydrogen sulphide (the compound that makes rotten eggs smell) to dramatically improve a person’s chances of surviving a heart attack – by as much as 70 per cent.

The compound, called AP39, slows down and controls a person's heartbeat so it beats more efficiently.

Combined with CPR, it was shown to help a huge proportion of the mice used in the trial to survive for longer than ten days after they had a heart attack – while just seven per cent survived without AP39.

The scientists say the secret lies in the fact that AP39 protects the mitochondria or ‘batteries’ that drive energy production in cells.

Preventing or reversing mitochondrial damage could also be vital in treating conditions such as stroke, diabetes and dementia.

Mark Wood, Doctor of Biosciences at the University of Exeter, said: ‘Although hydrogen sulphide is well known as a pungent, foul-smelling gas in rotten eggs and flatulence, it is naturally produced in the body and could in fact be a healthcare hero with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases.’

Battery brain test for Alzheimer’s

In 2013, some 44.4 million people worldwide were suffering from dementia. This is expected to rise to 135.5 million by 2050. Even now, in the UK, one in three people over the age of 65 will die as a result of dementia.

This is why projects like the University of Bolton’s battery brain test are so essential.


Using an EEG (electroencephalogram) test – a common brain scan that simply involves attaching small electrodes to the patient’s head – the researchers are developing an early detection tool for the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.

The Neurocognitive Test Battery for Older Adults is a six-month pilot scheme that uses scans to catch early signs of degenerative disease 10 to 15 years before symptoms such as memory loss start to be noticed.

Detecting the disease early would mean that treatment could begin sooner.

Dr Jagger said: ‘One of the fundamental flaws in dealing with Alzheimer’s patients is the lack of a diagnosis at the pre-clinical stage.

‘There is a lot of care after memory loss has been diagnosed, but this study could help find a way to identify the illness much earlier, allowing for better diagnosis and treatment, including preventative drug therapies.’

Light activated sun cream

University of BathWe all know what we do when the some comes out in the UK – grab the nearest bottle of sun cream as we race out the door (if we remember) and hit those rays before the rain starts.

But scientists in the UK warn that a lot of sun block on the market, while highly effective at stopping us from looking like lobsters, does not actually block the most dangerous rays that cause cancer.

Researchers at the University of Bath aren’t just developing sun cream that better blocks the harmful UVB rays that cause malignant melanoma – the deadliest form of the disease and the fifth commonest cancer in the UK.

They’ve created ‘smart’ sun cream which uses an ingredient that provides fuller protection against skin damage when it is exposed to increased amounts of UVA.

Light-activated compounds in the sun cream release antioxidants to neutralise free radicals and at the same time capture excess iron in the skin, meaning they offer protection against both UV and UVB light.

Free radicals damage skin cells by interacting with fat, protein and DNA of the cells, while the release of free iron causes more harmful free radicals to form.

Antioxidants have been used in the past to counteract UVA skin damage, but the iron released usually counteracts many of their benefits.

Medicinal chemist at Bath, Dr Ian Eggleston, said added: ‘The new compounds that we are synthesising provide a highly effective means of protection against both UVA- and UVB-induced skin damage and associated skin cancer, without inducing toxicity in cells.

‘These compounds will be applied as a ‘pro-drug’ to the skin as part of a sun cream, and then activated at the right time and in the right place by UVA.’

And with support from both the British Skin Foundation and the cosmetics company Garnier, who knows – perhaps it won't be long before you’re slapping on some of this science yourself and heading for a healthier bask on the beach.

Apps for eyes

Reading apps and e-readers can be great for book lovers who don’t want to hurt their backs under the weight of hundreds of books – and, thanks to a project at Royal Holloway, University of London, they can be great for people struggling with eye problems too.

The MD reader is an iPad app for people with macular disease – the most common cause of sight loss in the UK, which causes sufferes to lose their central vision.

Royal Holloway: Apps for Eyes
Picture: Royal Holloway

It focuses text into the reader’s best point of vision and presents it in a way that allows them to keep a ‘steady eye’.

Users can download any ePub document, and it will appear as a single stream.

They can then scroll through it – controlling the speed, colour and background of the text as they choose.

And it’s not limited to eBooks either – content can be displayed on a digital TV screen so large font sizes can be used too.

Real time cancer care

Cancer is still the number one cause of death in the UK, responsible for one in four deaths in 2011.

But research is making a real difference, not just helping people recover from the devastating disease, but also giving much-needed support to those living with cancer or undergoing treatment.

The eRapid system designed by the University of Leeds is a web platform that allows patients to track and report their cancer symptoms and side effects

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It also lets researchers gather information about cancer in the UK from patients, making cancer research in the UK as up-to-date and effective as possible.

eRapid stands for ‘Electronic patient self-Reporting of Adverse-events: Patient Information and aDvice’.

On the website. patients fill out a questionnaire about their form of cancer and any symptoms, and receive tailored advice for their health and wellbeing.

The site is programmed to pick up serious side effects, and send out a system of alerts to clinicians when these come through.

Currently the project involves patients receiving chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery in Leeds, Bristol and Manchester.


If you want to study in the UK, click here to find out about courses at UK universities.

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Visit Discover, Create, Innovate for more examples of UK research.

Universities UK logoIdeas for Life were part of Universities Week run by Universities UK in partnership with Research Councils UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and universities, research centres and public bodies across the UK.