Risto Renkonen: Is science useful?

The medical field is full of examples demonstrating older and also quite recent scientific achievements in improving human welfare.

Life expectancy is the number of years people born today will live on average, should the current mortality rate remain unchanged. For centuries, all the way up to the early 20th century, the average life expectancy of Finns remained constantly low. Despite dips caused by the two world wars, this figure has since doubled, rising from approximately 40 years to 84.1 years for women and 78.4 years for men.

What has made this astounding progress in the West possible within a century? Among other things, the improved methods of food production and storage discovered through scientific research. Thanks to science, we understand the role of bacteria and viruses in infectious diseases and have learned the concepts associated with hygiene and the prevention of infections with vaccinations. New wonder drugs, such as sulpha, penicillin and later many other antibiotics were made widely available from the 1940s onwards, enabling many infectious diseases to be cured, many of which had up to that point been fatal.

Maternity and child health clinics, a Finnish innovation, share instructions as well as preventative advice on feeding and hygiene, and guide those in need to hospital care.

Without modern antibiotics and the provision of intensive care, the successes attained in cancer therapy and organ transplantation would not be possible. Scientific research has brought us to the point where most Finns who get cancer recover and where almost 500 organ transplants are performed every year in the Helsinki University Hospital of the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa, the only effective remedy for many serious diseases.

So the question is: is science ‘finished’? When such enormous strides have been taken, have we reached the apex or should we aim higher still?

Research cannot and must not be stopped – new knowledge and skills are constantly needed. The threat of losing the efficacy of antibiotics is a good example, as bacteria are evolving resistance to them: WHO has ranked this phenomenon as one of the most severe threats to human health today. At worst, all antibiotics can lose their effect, making many currently treatable infections life-threatening once again. Only through research will we be able to prevent a decline measured in decades in the treatment of infections.

In addition to scientific research, we need the medical industry to collaborate on providing genuinely new and efficacious drugs to patients currently without any treatment. Only very recently was the news released on the excellent results gained in a phase III clinical trial on Darolutamide, a novel drug for treating prostate cancer developed by the Finnish pharmaceutical industry in cooperation with Finnish and international scholars. Every patient suffering from a serious disease for which effective drugs are yet to be discovered yearns for such breakthroughs.

If we want to continue to improve the health of even more people in the future, science truly remains in demand. This is why we need a great number of international researchers and sufficient resources for conducting research.

In medical research and the strategy for research-based teaching, the entire focus is on patient welfare. In other words, succinctly put by the Finnish Medical Society Duodecim: “Today's research becomes the effective treatment of tomorrow.”


Twitter: rrenkone

Risto Renkonen

Dean of the Faculty of Medicine

University of Helsinki

In the series Science Advocates, people describe the significance of research and research-based teaching for themselves. Read the other instalments on the Researchmatters website (scroll down).

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