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Eight extraordinary medical breakthroughs during The Queen’s 70-year reign

Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee marks 70 years of extraordinary service to the nation in parallel with advances in medicine, science and healthcare.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, the Royal Society of Medicine is looking back at just a few of the discoveries, innovations and breakthroughs since The Queen ascended the throne seven decades ago.

1. Decoded the structure of DNA

In February 1953, Francis Crick announced that he and his Cambridge colleague James Watson had “discovered the secret of life”. With the help of an X-ray diffraction image - taken in 1952 under the supervision of Rosalind Franklin and given to Watson and Crick by Maurice Wilkins – the pair had correctly identified DNA’s double helix structure. In 1962, after Franklin's death, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

2. Heralded the modern era of mass vaccination

The modern era of mass vaccination was heralded with the licensing of two measles vaccines in 1963. According to the World Health Organisation, 4-5 million lives a year have been saved through immunisation. Vaccines for around 30 diseases have been developed since then, with the COVID-19 vaccines being the most recent.

3. Conceived the first baby through IVF

On 25 July 1978, Louise Brown was born in Royal Oldham Hospital in the UK. She was the world’s first baby to be conceived by in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Since then, more than 8 million babies have been born via IVF and other advanced fertility techniques.

4. Eradicated smallpox

The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed in 1977 and, in 1980, the World Health Organisation certified the global eradication of the disease. It followed an unprecedented global immunisation programme and wiped out a contagious, disfiguring and deadly disease that had affected humans for thousands of years and killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

5. Cloned Dolly the Sheep, ushering in a new age of stem-cell research

In 1996, Dolly the Sheep was born. She was the first mammal to be cloned from a cell taken from an adult mammal. Her legacy, though, has not been animal cloning but advances in stem-cell research. After Dolly, scientists realised that ordinary cells could be reprogrammed as induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be grown into any tissue. Dolly is widely considered to have sped up the discovery by 20 years.

6. Mapped the human genome

An international scientific effort to identify, map and sequence all the genes of the human genome formally began in 1990. The project was declared essentially complete in 2003, although this only included about 85 per cent of the genome. The remaining genes were mapped in the 20 years that followed. The endeavour has major applications across science, medicine and healthcare, from molecular medicine to human evolution.

7. Carried out the first full face transplant

The first full face transplant was carried out by a team of 30 Spanish doctors in 2010, on a man who had been injured in a shooting accident. The pioneering technique is extremely complex and takes months of planning but is usually completed in a single operation, compared with the dozens of surgeries necessary to complete a facial reconstruction using grafts. Considerable risks and ethical concerns remain – particularly regarding the impact of lifelong immunosuppressants for beneficiaries – but it is acknowledged as a considerable breakthrough in the field of reconstructive surgery.

8. 3D-printed a heart from human cells

3D bioprinting is considered one of the most promising advances in 21st century medicine. The technique can be used to reconstruct tissue from various regions of the body, including bone, skin, cartilage and muscle. While 3D-printed implants, such as stents, have been successfully transferred into patients, creating fully functional organs is more complex. 3D-printing a viable organ for human implant is still some way off but, in 2019, Israeli researchers constructed a rabbit-sized heart out of human cells.

The scale of medical advances over the past seven decades has been so vast that it would be impossible to list all breakthroughs here. We invite you to share your own opinions on the most important developments by emailing or commenting on the video below.

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