OU science student Gary Smith has astonished the world of medicine with a theory that could help to cure diseases including cancer.
The 40-year-old project manager was learning about inflammation as part of S807 Molecules in Medicine when he struck on a hypothesis so extraordinary that it could have implications for the treatment of almost every inflammatory disease - including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, rheumatoid arthritis and even HIV and Aids. The theory is potentially so ground-breaking that it has attracted attention from doctors and medical researchers from as far afield as America, Russia and China.
Gary's theory questions the received wisdom that when a person gets ill, the inflammation that occurs around the infected area helps it to heal. The MSc student claims that in reality, inflammation prevents the body recognising a foreign substance and therefore serves as a "hiding place" for "invaders". The inflammation occurs when the at-risk cells produce receptors called AT1 (scientifically known as angiotensin II type 1 receptors). But while AT1 has a balancing receptor (AT2) which is supposed to switch the inflammation off, he says that in most diseases this does not happen.
"If we could halt AT1 with an existing type of drug known as an angiotensin receptor blocker, then we can not only switch off the inflammation but also allow the body to recognise disease through either normal means or by helping the body with cancer vaccines, drugs whose effectiveness is currently blocked by the inflammation," he says.
The Coventry-based student, who has been studying with the OU on and off for 20 years, says his theory could change the approach to treating such diseases. "Cancer has been described as the wound that never heals and justifiably so," he said. "All successful cancers are surrounded by inflammation. Commonly this is thought to be the body's reaction to try to fight the cancer, but this is not the case."
The theory has already received a lot of attention from the scientific community - not least because of its additional potential impact on infectious diseases. "This is the even more exciting bit," says Gary. "Infections such as MRSA, the common cold, the flu, herpes, and HIV also cause inflammation. The inflammation is not the body trying to fight the infection, it is actually the virus or bacteria deliberately causing inflammation in order to hide from the immune system. Blocking the inflammation with the same AT1 blockers not only stops the damage but also allows the body to fight the invader.
"It's possible this could hold the key to beating so many conditions and illnesses. I want people to know about it and act upon it. If they do, it really could make a difference."
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