Medical practice

The Behind the Headlines 2013's Top 5 of Top 5s

As we move towards the end of the year, like all news sources, we fall back on that classic space filler – the list story. So without further ado, here is the official Behind the Headlines Top 5 of Top 5s stories of 2013.

The top 5 'Good work team!' stories of the year

We can often get bogged down in pointing out dodgy sub-group analyses, spurious extrapolations of samples sizes containing just four men and a dog, and RCTs pointing out the benefits of chocolate on blood pressure that turned out to be funded by a chocolate-making conglomerate.

So it's important not to lose sight of the fact that there are many hardworking researchers producing invaluable work, framed in the best traditions of evidence-based medicine, that does make the world a better place.

Here’s our top 5 of the year:

New malaria vaccine could save millions of lives

As much of the health news we read is dominated by lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, it's easy to overlook the real killers, such as malaria. This deadly disease kills more than 600,000 people annually, most of them children.

Encouragingly, US researchers may have come up with a workable vaccine against Plasmodium falciparum – the most deadly of the malaria-causing parasites. It's early stages, but possibly an exciting development.

'Historic breakthrough' in Alzheimer's research

In October the media rightly reported on a historic breakthrough into a potential treatment and possible cure for neurodegenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's. A compound was found to successfully prevent brain cell deaths in mice with an Alzheimer's-type condition.

Early treatment may hold key to HIV 'functional cure'

Sometimes you can make progress not by looking at new evidence, but re-examining existing evidence. This was the case with some French researchers who, while looking at case reports, found that some patients who were aggressively treated with antiretroviral therapy soon after diagnosis were effectively "cured" of HIV.

Nut eaters may have a longer life expectancy

There are cohort studies and then there are cohort studies. A study involving more than 100,000 people over the course of three decades certainly deserves a place in this top 5.

Plus, it delivered some good news. Regularly eating (unsalted) nuts is strongly associated with a reduced risk of premature death.

Flu research may lead to universal vaccine

For most of us it's just a deeply unpleasant experience, but for the more vulnerable, flu can be a killer. So the news that a proof-of-concept technique that involves targeting the core of the virus (which is unchanging) rather than the shell (which is constantly mutating) has proved successful is certainly welcome.

The top 5 'Don’t wait up for that call from Stockholm' stories

All medical research is valuable. It's just that some of it is less valuable than others. And to be honest, we cannot see any of the researchers involved in the following studies picking up the Nobel Prize for Medicine any time soon.

Claims angry Lego faces could upset children

An international team analysed the faces of 3,655 Lego figures (aka minifigs) from 1975 to 2010 to see if they were getting "angrier". No, we don't know why either.

Fans of bondage and S&M report better mental health

A Dutch study assessed the mental health of people into bondage-discipline, domination-submission and sado-masochism (BDSM) compared with those with more "vanilla" sexual tastes.

It claimed to have found a link between BDSM activity and better mental health.

What people get up to in the bedroom is none of our business, but the study design was painfully flawed.

Insomniacs 'find it harder to concentrate'

A US study found that people with chronic insomnia found it harder to concentrate during the day. In other news, Pope: Catholic; Pacific Ocean: a bit wet.

Cocaine may affect the way the body stores fat

Developing a cocaine addiction may cause you to lose weight. Don't try this at home.

Study examines penis size and male attractiveness

In this unique piece of research, women were asked to look at computer-generated naked men with different sizes of penises and then asked to assess their attractiveness. Turns out they liked them big, but not too big. As the Greeks say, everything in moderation.

The top 5 'Call that reporting?' stories

We look at a lot of health journalism: some of it excellent, some of it good, some of it downright terrible. Here are our top 5 examples of the latter:

Misguided claims alcohol in pregnancy helps baby

"A glass of wine every day in pregnancy could be good for your baby," was the entirely incorrect and irresponsible headline in The Daily Telegraph published in June. The study in question suggested that alcohol may be less harmful than previously thought rather than "good" (there's a not-too-subtle difference).

Health benefits of holidays 'exaggerated'

The Mail Online breathlessly reported that, "Going on holiday really is good for your health ... and the benefits last for months". Were they reporting on a peer-reviewed study? No.

The "research" was commissioned by the holiday company Kuoni Travel Ltd. As we argued at the time, this "represents a financial conflict of interest so big you could see it from space".

Antibiotics may help ease chronic back pain

In March many papers carried a quote from neurosurgeon Peter Hamlyn, who claimed that research into the use of salt water injections for lower back pain was "the stuff of Nobel Prizes …[and] is going to require us to rewrite the textbooks".

This would be the same Peter Hamlyn who runs a private clinic offering, er, salt water injections for lower back pain. (Fair play to The Independent, which was the only paper to highlight the potential conflict of interest).

No credible evidence that people are 'born lazy'

"Couch potatoes can't help being lazy – they were born that way," claimed the Mail Online website. A rather sweeping statement for a study that involved no humans, only rats.

NICE says GPs 'should be nicer' to fat people

In October, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published draft guidelines that recommended that GPs should be "respectful and non-blaming" when discussing people's weight problems.

With typical tabloid sensitivity, this was translated into "Don't be nasty to fat people" and "Being fat is not your fault".

The top 5 'science is cool' stories

Scientists are cool and the science they practice is even cooler. Here are our 5 coolest stories of the year:

Artificial ear grown in lab

Using a 3D scaffold made out of collagen and a dab of sheep cartilage cells, scientists created an artificial ear that they then "transplanted" on to a rat.

Scientists grow mini 'human brain' in the lab

In more lab-grown cutting-edge research, scientists created what was termed as a human mini-brain; tiny clumps of highly complex neural tissue. Reassuringly, the idea is not to create a race of deadly cyborg warriors, but to find out more about early-stage brain development.

Pill-size camera may make cancer diagnosis easier

Israeli scientists came up with a "camera you can swallow". The device, which uses optical lasers to photograph the insides of the stomach, could make endoscopies a thing of the past.

Dogs 'warn diabetics' after smelling low blood sugar

A small but intriguing study found that it is possible to train dogs to sniff out owners with diabetes who were at risk of falling into a diabetic coma.

Stem cells extracted from urine used to 'grow teeth'

Researchers developed a technique of using cells taken from urine to grow teeth-like structures in mice.

And finally, 5 burning questions of the year

Do fluoride levels in cheap tea pose a health risk? (yes, but only if you drink two pints a day)

Could three fizzy drinks a day damage your health? (yes)

Could open plan offices be bad for your health? (well, ours certainly is)

Could naked mole rats' 'gooey' skin stop cancer? (maybe)

Did oral sex give Michael Douglas throat cancer? (possibly, but the fags and booze didn't help)

NHS Attribution