• Question: What do you think has been the most pioneering or important discovery in the world of medical research, ever?

    Asked by galaxia on 27 Apr 2020.
    • Photo: Mery Shahin

      Mery Shahin answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      It is really difficult to pinpoint one most important discovery. Science is all about standing on the shoulders of giants. It advances by small discoveries by multiple people working together and individually and inspiring further generations of scientists. So all big/pioneering discoveries were made possible by the work of hundreds of scientists each solving a small piece of the puzzle and sharing their knowledge with others.

    • Photo: Claire Donald

      Claire Donald answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      Excellent question! For me it has to be the invention of vaccination. When you are vaccinated your body starts to develop protection against a specific infection. This means when you meet the real deal, your body can fight back quickly because it recognises and remembers that infection. Because of vaccination we no longer have the worry about smallpox which was a really horrible viral infection. It has been eradicated. Hopefully many more viruses will be eradicated thanks to vaccination.

    • Photo: Melanie Krause

      Melanie Krause answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      Oh that is difficult…
      I would give two answers here but they are definitely not the only right ones:
      1. The discovery of DNA as the bearer of the genetic code and the discovery of its structure… prior people thought it might be proteins or lipids. The people who were very important here were Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick
      2. The first vaccine ever discovered by Edward Jenner: He realised that he could protect people from the very deadly Smallpox virus by infecting them with the much less dangerous Cowpox virus. Now smallpox is extinct because in the 60s and 70s everyone got vaccinated.. before that Smallpox was the deadliest virus ever on earth and killed between 300 and 500 million people!

    • Photo: Gabriela da Silva Xavier

      Gabriela da Silva Xavier answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      I would say the discovery of the genetic code because so much of what we do in the lab and what we understand of biomedical science has been achieved through decoding the genetic code.

    • Photo: Kim Liu

      Kim Liu answered on 27 Apr 2020: last edited 27 Apr 2020 3:23 pm


      There are some great answers already, and I’m especially pleased by how often DNA and the genetic code has cropped up, which would be my personal choice because it created a new type of science which has revolutionised medicine – molecular biology.

      However, my girlfriend is a doctor, and she has correctly pointed out that milestones in public health probably save as many lives – here is a great infographic which counts the lives saved by various discoveries: https://aperioncare.com/blog/inventions-life-expectancy/

      You’ll see that vaccines are incredibly important, along with blood transfusions and antibiotics. However note invention of toilets, pasteurisation, and water chlorination. I suspect John Snow’s discovery that cholera is transmitted through water, or Louis Pasteur’s work showing microbes and germs cause disease (importance of washing hands) were of also of great importance.

    • Photo: Donna MacCallum

      Donna MacCallum answered on 27 Apr 2020:


      WOW – that is such a good question.

      Hmmm… do I go for the discovery of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) that allows us to amplify specific pieces of DNA OR the discovery of Penicillin (1st antibiotic) and others that allowed us to tackle bacterial diseases OR vaccination? Maybe the discovery that insulin can save the lives of diabetics…

      what do you think?

    • Photo: Luke Bryden

      Luke Bryden answered on 28 Apr 2020:


      As many people have already said, I think the discovery with the biggest impact has to be the vaccine. It is just incredible to think that there was a time people often died from diseases that we can now easily vaccinate against. For example, the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles and rubella) is a routine vaccine developed in the late 1960s that protects us from diseases that can be deadly.

      Many developing countries still don’t have access to the vaccines as easily as we in the UK do, but this is getting better all the time as more people in these countries get the vaccines to protect them!

    • Photo: Freya Harrison

      Freya Harrison answered on 28 Apr 2020:


      I’m going to pick something simple. I think the invention that has had the most medical impact is… the flushing toilet! Being able to get rid of sewage and keep our homes and streets hygienic has a HUGE impact on public health, because so many diseases are spread by bacteria and viruses in poo.

    • Photo: Spyros Lytras

      Spyros Lytras answered on 28 Apr 2020:


      It is very hard to pick one, because there have been so many great advances in the field during the last century! If I were to choose one, that would be the discovery of the genetic code and sequencing (clearly biased, since this is the discovery most relevant to the work I am doing).

      Sanger sequencing (termed after Frederick Sanger) was one of the first methods for determining the sequence of a piece of genetic material. This technique requires a lot of hard work in the lab and can take a long time for sequencing a large genome (such as the human genome). Thankfully, in the past 10-20 years there have been impressive technological advancements in sequencing! What we call next-generation sequencing can get a massive amount of data from a single sample that modern computers can analyse to sequence an entire genome in about a day!

      Being able to see the genome sequences of any pathogen or person, which can essentially be thought as their biological blueprint, has countless applications on medical research some of which I’m outlining below:
      – understanding why some pathogens infect humans and some don’t and seeing which parts of their genomes are responsible for that.
      – understanding genetic disease by seeing what’s different in the genome of people more likely to develop the disease.
      – developing new vaccines. There are modern vaccines (examples of which are candidates for Covid-19) that only contain some part of the viruses genetic material.
      – tracking how pathogens change. For example, scientists are currently putting a great effort in sequencing as many SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for Covid-19) genomes as possible. In this way we can see how the virus changes through time and also track how the virus moves between different parts of the world.

    • Photo: Patricia Brown

      Patricia Brown answered on 28 Apr 2020:


      That’s a difficult one! I’ll just write down a couple, but there are many important discoveries!
      I think one of them would be the discovery and research related to blood transfusions. So many things have been worked out, like the different blood groups and the different components of blood – red and white blood cells, plasma, platelets and other factors – which allowed transfusions to become very useful and a life-saver in many cases.
      Another one would be the mapping of the brain! Did you know that you can undergo brain surgery while being conscious? As it turns out, Dr.Wilder Penfield (in the 1940s-50s) carried out many brain operations while asking his patients how they felt when he stimulated a specific area of their brain. All this research can now be used to avoid damaging important areas when performing brain surgery (like avoiding the speech area, or the regions involved in playing the violin or guitar, for example).
      Check out these links to see how it might look:

    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 28 Apr 2020:


      Really tough question – my answer depends on which day you ask me and what kind of patient I might be dealing with! But….in a very biased way, I think it’s the discovery that biological clocks are essentially maintained by molecular machines – that means that every cell in your body has the ability to keep time (i.e. tell what time of day it is). Knowing this, we can start to understand why every aspect of our physiology (how our bodies work) varies by time of day and how this might be important not only to how and when diseases develop, but also when is the best time to treat them. A Nobel Prize was awarded in 2017 for work that has shed light on one part of this very complicated timekeeping puzzle but there’s still so much more to learn!
      https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2017/press-release/

    • Photo: David Mark

      David Mark answered on 29 Apr 2020:


      Lots of great answers here, in my opinion it was revelations in how important hygiene and infection control are towards stopping people from getting sick. You might find this hard to believe but a few hundred years ago doctors didn’t wash their hands before performing procedures and actually laughed at the idea that it was important. One of the people who proposed that handwashing was important, called Ignaz Semmelweis, was committed to an asylum because of the ridicule and sadly (somewhat ironically) died of an infected wound.

    • Photo: Robert Ives

      Robert Ives answered on 29 Apr 2020:


      In recent (ish) years, the mapping of the human genetic code (known as the human genome project) has enabled scientists to create so many new medicines for diseases such as cancers and eye conditions. It also highlighted how thousands of scientists from all over the world, most of whom did not know each other, were able to work together (collaborate) on what was a massive feat of modern science.

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