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Insight blog: Posts from the "Behind the MRC scenes" Category

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

Molecular pathology – what’s that all about then?

27 Jul 2015

Today we announced that, along with the EPSRC, we’re putting £16m into six molecular pathology ‘nodes’ across the country. But you’re not alone if you’re wondering exactly what molecular pathology – or a molecular pathology node – is. Here MRC Programme Manager Dr Jonathan Pearce explains that the aim is to get new diagnostics into the NHS so that we can better spot and treat disease.

Molecular pathology seeks to describe and understand disease at the level of macromolecules (Image: ynse on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Molecular pathology seeks to describe and understand disease at the level of macromolecules (Image: ynse on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pathology… Isn’t that doing autopsies?

Forensic pathology is just one part of pathology. Pathology actually means the study of disease, and most pathologists spend their time analysing clinical samples such as blood, urine and tissue to either diagnose disease or to understand how diseases develop and progress.

So, what exactly do you mean by molecular pathology?

Historically, pathology has sought to understand disease by looking for differences at the level of tissues and cells.

Molecular pathology is different in that it seeks to describe and understand disease at the level of macromolecules (for example DNA, RNA and protein) and in some cases at an even smaller scale. [...]

Continue reading: Molecular pathology – what’s that all about then?

Research impact: A rising tide lifts all boats

9 Jul 2015

How to measure the impact of research is a big issue at the moment for researchers and funders alike. As HEFCE’s The Metric Tide review of the use of metrics in research assessment and management is published, our Director of Strategic Evaluation and Impact Dr Ian Viney explains why funders like the MRC are interested in understanding how research leads to positive effects on health, wealth, culture and society — and that metrics are only a small part of this.

Dictionary entry for 'impact'

(Image: Nick Southall on Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

The report out today, The Metric Tide, is so called to capture the view that like tides, the pressure to use metrics — quantitative aspects of research outputs and impact — to simplify evaluation is powerful and growing.  

However tides may of course be useful, as in the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats”, which has been coined to refer to the spill-over benefit across the whole economy if leading industry sectors secure the support they need. [1]

The Metric Tide seeks to alleviate the pressure to measure research impact using inappropriate and over-simplified metrics, by setting out principles for the responsible use of such information. However there is of course still the requirement to efficiently tell the story of research progress, productivity and quality. [...]

Continue reading: Research impact: A rising tide lifts all boats

Clinical trials: from policy to participation

19 May 2015

After years funding, overseeing and monitoring clinical trials, our Director of Corporate Affairs Dr Tony Peatfield has found himself on the other side of a trial ― as a participant. Here he reflects on how his medical care has benefited from clinical trials, and why the opportunity to sign up to one was not to be missed.

Tony Peatfield

Tony Peatfield

Life is full of surprises, some more welcome than others. My most recent was to find myself in A&E with a heart attack. I consider(ed) myself generally healthy – I have a good diet, drink moderately, have never smoked, and do a reasonable amount of exercise (though I admit nothing too vigorous). Indeed until now, during my 30 years working for the MRC, I had taken only one day off sick.

I had excellent treatment and care in hospital, and having to spend a lot of time on my back with tubes and wires attached to me gave me some time to reflect on what was happening to me! [...]

Continue reading: Clinical trials: from policy to participation

What do we mean by experimental medicine?

15 Apr 2015

Earlier this month we launched the call for our third round of Experimental Medicine Challenge Grants. But what exactly do we mean by experimental medicine, and why is now a good time to be doing such research? Professor Stephen Holgate, Chair of our Translational Research Group, explains.  

A researcher analysing fMRI data

(Image: NIMH on Wikimedia Commons in the public domain)

 

Medical research would be very different without models of health and disease. We use cells, tissues and animals to determine what healthy biological processes look like, how they change with disease, and to test new interventions.

Traditionally, we made discoveries in models and then, once it was appropriate, tested potential interventions in people. All kinds of models are used, from cells in dishes to macaque monkeys.

Cell and animal models will continue to be a cornerstone of medical research, but it’s time to start experimenting in another important model organism: humans. What could teach us more about human health than the human body itself? [...]

Continue reading: What do we mean by experimental medicine?

Science doesn’t only need sprinters

18 Mar 2015

At the moment, researchers have a certain number of years after their PhD to apply for MRC fellowships, after which point they’re ineligible. But is a ticking clock the best way for scientists to flourish? Here Simone Bryan, Programme Manager for Strategic Projects here at the MRC, explains why we’re removing time-bound criteria from our fellowship applications to help give people the time they need.  

A hurdler seen through a row of hurdles

(Image: Robert Voors on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

One of the best things about my job is getting the chance to meet so many brilliant and talented researchers who are doing jobs they love. But, for all its wonder, pursuing a research career is competitive and challenging.

In particular, moving from being a postdoc to an independent investigator in your own right is hugely challenging. It’s usually done by securing a personal fellowship which pays your salary and research costs. [...]

Continue reading: Science doesn’t only need sprinters

Actually, we do fund studies of illicit drugs

5 Mar 2015

A cannabis plant

(Image: Drome on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Whatever you might have heard in the media, we do fund research into illicit psychoactive drugs. Here Dr Kathryn Adcock, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the MRC, explains.

You might have seen in the news today that Professor David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, has said that UK funders are unwilling to fund research that uses illicit drugs.

But we agree that recreational drugs may have therapeutic benefits, and we encourage research in this area. That’s why in 2012 we funded Professor Nutt to the tune of over £500,000 for his research into whether psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – can treat major depression. In 2013 we funded his £250,000 project to use psilocybin in schizophrenia research. [...]

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Getting the best out of biological samples

12 Feb 2015

Tissue samples stored in microscope slides

Tissue samples (Image: euthman on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hundreds of thousands of biological samples such as blood, urine and tissue blocks are kept in research institutions and hospitals across the UK. Within them may lie the answers to some of the biggest questions in medical research. Getting the best out of samples relies on donors understanding what they may be used for and researchers feeling confident about when they can use and share them. Here Professor James Ironside, Professor of Clinical Neuropathology at the University of Edinburgh, tells us about new MRC guidance on the practicalities and ethics of using biological samples.

“It’s better not to restrict the possible use of the sample because by restricting it you’re increasing the chance that it’ll go to waste. You want the highest probability that something good will come from it.”

Those are the words of a patient surveyed about the public’s views on the use of biological samples in medical research [1]. So how do we go about increasing the chances that samples will be useful?

Samples of human biological material have always been crucial to medical research, but as we move into an era in which huge amounts of data can be analysed easily, getting the best out of each and every sample is becoming more important than ever. [...]

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The history of animal research at the NIMR

4 Dec 2014

Three members of staff with dogs at Rhodes Farm in 1928

Staff with dogs at Rhodes Farm in 1928

Today’s research animals live in high-tech environments designed with welfare in mind. The contrast with the situation in the early 20th century when the MRC National Institute for Medical Research was founded is marked, and the institute itself has made a huge contribution to this progress. Here we look at just some of their contributions, extracted from a book telling the story of the research institute’s 100-year history.

No one does animal research for the sake of it, and those charged with looking after research animals are committed ― and held by law ― to ensuring that animals used in research are provided with the highest standards of care and welfare.

In the institute’s early days, animals were housed in individual labs, but in 1922 the MRC bought 39 acres of land at Mill Hill in north London to create field laboratories at Rhodes Farm. Within a year, there were specially designed facilities for breeding and keeping dogs and small animals, with local girls helping to care for and exercise the dogs. At the main institute site in Hampstead animals were kept in a new annex ― built in 1927 ― in “the highest possible standard of hygienic conditions for the keeping of experimental animals”. [...]

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Behind the scenes at an MRC Panel

6 Nov 2014

We’ve looked at what it’s like to be a member of an MRC board, but what actually happens at a meeting? Katherine Nightingale sat in on part of a Panel session to find out.

Scoring equipment

The scoring equipment used by the Panel

In a large, bright room on the 13th floor of a London office block, 25 people are deciding how to spend up to £10 million. They are the MRC’s Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme (DPFS) Panel, charged with making decisions on applications for funding the development and testing of new therapies, medical devices and diagnostics.

The task at hand is to consider a set of 15 full applications seeking just over £15m for funding. Each application has already been the subject of considerable work from the Panel during the outline stage, which does what it says on the tin, with the Panel feeding back on a brief description of the project. [...]

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Q&A: The ins and outs of the Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative

23 Oct 2014

MRI scan of a human head

An MRI scan of a human head (Image credit: Wikipedia/everyone’s idle)

Today Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the recipients of our Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative, with 23 projects receiving a total of just over £170m. But what exactly are these ‘capabilities’, what do we hope to achieve, and where did all that money come from? Katherine Nightingale takes a closer look.

What do we mean by clinical research capabilities?

It’s about new technologies for clinical research. We’re all familiar with the idea of clinical research being about clinical trials to assess drugs, devices and diagnostics in people. Clinical research is often seen as the end of the ‘pipeline’ from making discoveries in the laboratory to helping patients, but that’s not the whole story.

We want to make clinical research in the UK also about studying disease at the molecular, cellular, organ and whole-body level ― and to do that researchers need new tools. This includes better body-imaging equipment, new technology for monitoring physiology, and ways of analysing the intricacies of disease in cells and tissues. Doing this needs big pieces of kit, as well as resources for building on the equipment in the future and using it in new ways.

Discoveries made in this way might then be fed back ‘into the lab’ or go on to influence further clinical research. The aim is that by funding these technologies, we’ll build on existing infrastructure, and speed up innovation by allowing researchers to explore new areas. [...]

Continue reading: Q&A: The ins and outs of the Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative