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The importance of medical research

By Malaikah Khan

Let’s try and go back in time to the 18th century. Britain was acquiring colonies abroad left, right and centre while back at home, the rich and poor were two disparate crowds due to the unequal distribution of wealth. Now picture this. You are a working tradesman – not uncommon when more and more people were being employed in industry – going about your everyday life. If, one day, you’d started to notice flu-like symptoms with large flat spots appearing across your body, you’d start to be concerned. Perhaps you’d take a day off. If these spots morphed into pus-filled blisters the next day, you’d really be starting to curse your luck. And if you were really unlucky, your immune system would start to fail causing any number of fatal sequelae leading to an unfortunate demise.

While we still may not have a treatment for smallpox, it has become the only infectious disease to have been declared eradicated by WHO. This is all thanks to Edward Jenner, who in 1796, developed the first successful vaccine against smallpox, after realising that milkmaids who caught cowpox were protected against developing smallpox in the future.

Though this may sound very far removed from our reality, only two years ago, a vaccination against COVID-19 was developed which reduced transmission by leaps and bounds, allowing some semblance of order to be restored to the world. These feats of science have been made possible by time, effort and money put into research.

Medical research helps to provide the evidence base behind medical treatments, investigations, and diagnosis criteria among many other things. It helps make discoveries that improve quality of life for patients living with certain medical conditions, as well as innovating drugs to completely eradicate people of other conditions. The ever-evolving nature of new discoveries means that the NICE guidelines are always changing to provide care providers with the most up to date information and to provide patients with the most effective care.

The importance of research is often highlighted in medical curriculums too. Many medical schools in the UK include pure research-based blocks, as well as emphasising research as an avenue during student-selected components of the curriculum such as electives, SSCPs and intercalation options. All these options help us to develop the critical thinking and analytical skills associated with medical research. It helps especially to be able to do them in a safe environment where the purpose is to learn as opposed to producing outputs from the research.

Among the many institutions and organisations conducting research, the Medical Research Council (MRC) remains the backbone supporting medical research. The MRC is a council of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and supports research across the UK, with a focus on projects that improve clinical practice and population health. Being a public body, the MRC uses taxpayer money to invest in research which is then carried out in various places including hospitals, universities, and research establishments.

As medical students, we’ve all sat in lectures by professors in their fields, excitedly explaining their own research to us in detail. Though this may feel redundant at a time we’re looking for simple answers to complicated questions, the privilege of getting exclusive access into the cutting-edge work being done across so many medical fields is more exciting than we give it credit for.

We can often find ourselves on the outskirts of research, struggling to find a way in. With organisations like the MRC who focus mainly on funding projects for people who are in solely research-based jobs, it can be difficult to break into that field as clinicians, especially at such early stages in our careers. Though that’s not to say that we can’t find our own ways in.

This series of articles will offer a valuable insight into doing research as a medical student and include features from a range of students who have gotten involved through different aspects of the medical curriculum. Medical research has been, and continues to be, the way forward for progressing patient care, and we hope to make it just that much more accessible through this series.

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