Page last updated at 00:36 GMT, Saturday, 14 June 2008 01:36 UK

Birth defect test guru knighted

Professor Nicholas Wald
Professor Wald has made several significant breakthroughs

A scientist whose work has transformed antenatal screening for birth defects has been made a knight in the Queen's Birthday honours list.

Professor Nicholas Wald's work has directly led to tests for Down's syndrome and spina bifida.

Professor Andrew McMichael, expert on the immune system response to viruses such as HIV, is also knighted.

And the government's chief nursing officer for England, Professor Christine Beasley, is made a Dame.

Professor Wald is director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at the University of London.

In 1988, he, working with colleagues, showed that the measurement of three substances in a pregnant woman's blood could be used to screen women for Down's syndrome pregnancies.

The "triple" test developed as a direct result of this work has been routinely used throughout the world.

However, Professor Wald continued to work on developing safer and more effective tests for Down's.

His work resulted in an "integrated" test, which can detect 85% of Down's pregnancies, and throws up a very low rate of false-positive results.

Neural tube defects

In 1974 Professor Wald also discovered a way of testing for spina bifida and anencephaly - serious birth defects that affect the development of the nervous system - using a blood sample from the expectant mother.

Professor Andrew McMichael
Professor McMichael is working on HIV vaccine

And in 1991 he showed that folic acid, a simple vitamin supplement, could reduce the risk of spina bifida or anencephaly in a child by 72%.

As a result of his work, antenatal screening for anencephaly and spina bifida is now routine throughout the world, and doctors and health authorities routinely advise women to take folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy.

This has led to a 95% reduction in the prevalence of spina bifida.

However, Professor Wald is disappointed that the UK Government has yet to agreed to widespread fortification of flour with folic acid.

Professor Wald has also played a key role in developing the polypill, a cocktail of six drugs which research suggests could cut the rate of deaths from heart attack or stroke by over 80%.

Given to everybody over the age of 55, it has been calculated that the pill could potentially save 200,000 lives every year in the UK alone.

He has also done work linking passive smoking to a raised risk of lung cancer and heart disease.

Professor Wald said he was "delightfully surprised" by his honour.

"I am very pleased, particularly since it reflects on preventive medicine, an important field that can be quite neglected, with so much attention on treatment and curative services," he said.

HIV vaccine

Professor Andrew McMichael is director of the University of Oxford's Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine.

He has specialised in pinpointing the way key immune system T cells respond to viral infections, using his findings to attempt to develop a vaccine for HIV.

His first attempt reached human trials in Kenya, but failed to stimulate a sufficiently strong immune response. However, Professor McMichael is currently working on an alternative.

He said: "The more we study the problem, the further away a vaccine seems to get, but I don't think it's an insoluble problem."

Professor Beasley said of her honour: "I am absolutely delighted to have received this honour which I believe is given to me on behalf of the nursing and midwifery professions and recognises the significant contribution that nurses and midwives make."

Among the others recognised on the Birthday Honours list were Leonard Fenwick, chief executive of Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospital NHS Foundation trust, who is knighted, and Donna Kinnair, a leading nurse at Southwark Primary Care Trust in London, who is made a Dame.

There are also CBEs for practice nurse Rosemary Cook; breast cancer expert Professor William George; bone marrow transplant specialist Anthony Goldstone, and Theresa Green, who has helped raised 30m for the Royal Marsden cancer hospital.


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