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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.

Fishing with the same rod

29 Jul 2014

ResearchfishLast month it was announced that from September 2014 all seven research councils will use the Researchfish tool to collect information from their researchers. As the questions Researchfish will ask researchers are revealed, MRC Evaluation Officer Ellen Charman explains what the move means for MRC-funded researchers.

In a couple of months, the remaining research councils will be joining the MRC and STFC in using Researchfish to collect information on the outputs and impact of research.

So what? I hear you ask… Well, practically, there is little change for MRC researchers. The system remains open to enter data at any time and this year’s data submission period will go ahead as planned, opening on 16 October and closing on 13 November.

To take into account the addition of five extra research disciplines, there will be some minor changes to the question set.The majority of these changes are to the guidance and help text; however there are a few additional questions where we’ll ask for more detail, for example, the type of further funding and the purpose of an engagement activity.

There is also a new opportunity for you to tell us about your creative side, which Professor Peter Openshaw at Imperial College London might have found helpful last year when letting us know about his 2012 stage performance  — ‘Our germs, our guns: an uneasy peace’ — at the Albert Hall Theatre in Brussels. [...]

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Front line operations: MRC fieldworkers in The Gambia

25 Jun 2014

Forming the front line of research operations, fieldworkers carry out a vital role in the work of the MRC’s unit in The Gambia. Ashwin Mehta, from the MRC resilience team, supports training in the field and explains how the work carried out by fieldworkers is fundamental to saving lives and improving health.

A fieldworker talks to a mother at the immunisation clinic

A fieldworker talks to a mother at the immunisation clinic

MRC research operations in The Gambia consist of fieldwork in communities and clinical work in hospitals and clinics, which generates samples and data to be used in laboratory research.

As well as interacting with communities to promote the MRC mission and getting consent from communities to conduct medical research, fieldworkers are responsible for a wide range of activities from disseminating health information to collecting data and samples from people in local communities.

The MRC Unit in The Gambia currently employs more than 300 fieldworkers across three main sites in Fajara, Keneba and Basse. Fieldworkers are recruited from the local population with the equivalent of secondary-school education, and trained up on the job. Mafuji Dibba, Fieldworker Training Manager, has been working in the field for 30 years and has worked at all three sites: “Fieldworkers’ experience as they progress gives them a good idea of disease prevention and treatment. This allows them to serve as advisors in their communities. [...]

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What is the Medical Research Foundation?

23 Apr 2014

Did you know that the MRC has an independent charity? While we are funded by taxpayers via Government, the Medical Research Foundation (MRF) is funded directly by charitable giving. Here Director Dr Angela Hind tells us about the MRF and its aims to fund early-career researchers at crucial points in their scientific lives.

The Medical Research Foundation is all about people: the people who choose to donate money, the people being helped by the medical research we fund, and the people whose careers we enhance by providing funds when they most need it.

A major part of our strategy is to fund the next generation of research leaders to tackle today’s research questions, improving human health and developing the careers of the most talented at the same time. [...]

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Made to measure

3 Apr 2014

The vibrating razor cutting a thin slice of mouse brain

The vibrating razor cutting a thin slice of mouse brain

Carrying out pioneering research can require unusual custom-made kit. Katherine Nightingale speaks to some of the people who work in scientific workshops, and the scientists who benefit.

In a small room in the bowels of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), researchers in the Margrie Laboratory are using a serial microscope to image the entire adult mouse brain. To do this they need to sequentially cut thin slices of the brain (50 micrometres thick) using a vibrating razor called a vibratome. As each slice is removed, the microscope photographs the exposed surface of brain. After three days, they will have 3.2 terabytes of digital images, and a pile of about 350 brain slices sitting at the bottom of a container. While the digital data is safely stored on servers, what happens to the brain slices?

As the head of the laboratory Troy Margrie says, “We might want to keep particular slices of brain for further study, and the slices we want will be buried in a pile with no way of us knowing which one is which.” This is where the institute’s workshops come in. [...]

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Why we work with industry

28 Mar 2014

Chris Watkins

Chris Watkins

There was a time when the paths of academic and industry researchers rarely crossed. But developing treatments for patients requires a much closer relationship between the two sectors than ever before. Here Chris Watkins, the MRC’s Director of Translational Research and Industry, explains why the MRC is working with companies to accelerate research into the development of treatments.

It’s getting much harder to discover new treatments for disease. Biology is complex, and much of the low-hanging fruit of drug discovery have already been picked. We need to understand more about the biology of human disease if we are to develop new effective and safe treatments. We also need to understand the complexity of disease, trying to work out which patients might respond well to particular drugs, and why some do not.

Companies are the only entities which have the extensive and varied capabilities necessary to make drugs. It is a long, expensive and difficult task, with a low probability of success. However, by bringing together  the strengths of academic researchers — who investigate the underlying biology of diseases — with the drug development, testing and production know-how of pharmaceutical companies, we hope to accelerate the discovery of safer, more effective medicines. [...]

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A workshop on working: a first for the MRC

14 Feb 2014

How can we support older workers?

How can we support older workers?

What will your working life be like in 30 years? Katie Finch, Programme Manager of the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing (LLHW) scheme, explains how a new model for building research partnerships could help find the answer.

The UK’s workforce is ageing. Recent Government changes to retirement age and state pensions mean that many more of us will be working later into our lives than we might have expected.

But can older people continue to cope with the physical and mental demands of their work? The truth is, we don’t really know; many of the challenges that working in older age will present for both employers and workers are poorly understood.

To tackle this uncharted territory, we needed a new way of working – multidisciplinary research conducted in the real world of employment. [...]

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Extending working lives

14 Feb 2014

How can we keep people healthy and working into old age? (Image credit: Flickr/Sooraj Shajahan)

How can we keep people healthy and working into old age? (Image credit: Flickr/Sooraj Shajahan)

Children born today may have to wait until their late 70s until they can claim a pension. But how can we extend our working lives in a way that is both healthy and practical? David Armstrong, Professor of Medicine and Sociology at King’s College London and Chair of the LLHW Advisory Group of Experts, explains how a new set of funding should help researchers work that out.

It’s not news that as a population we are living longer; barely a day goes by without reference to the country’s ageing population. A number of factors have contributed to this, from changing fertility patterns in the last century, to dramatic increases in life expectancy over the past few decades because of better healthcare and nutrition.

But this good news is counterbalanced by some bad news. Children born today could expect to live until they are 100, but they may also be expected to work until they are over 70. This is because the economic and social costs of an ageing population are paid for by the younger working population, which is declining as a proportion of the population as it ages. [...]

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A lasting legacy in Jamaica

31 Jan 2014

Babies from the sickle cell cohort and their mothers (Copyright: Graham Serjeant*)

Babies from the sickle cell cohort and their mothers (Copyright: Graham Serjeant)

The MRC has two research units in The Gambia and Uganda but we haven’t made a habit of setting up units around the globe. So when External Communications Officer Stacy-Ann Ashley found out about our former units in Jamaica, she decided to take a look at its work, from malnutrition research to a sickle cell study that is still producing results today.

Last year the MRC turned 100, and with such a long history, I often find myself saying “I never knew that”. One such moment was when I found out that the MRC had units in Jamaica between 1958 and 1999. As a Jamaican, I was intrigued. So I did a little digging.

The first MRC unit in Jamaica focused on tropical metabolism. It opened in 1958 with laboratories and a 16-bed ward with the aim of researching the metabolic and physiological mechanisms of severe acute malnutrition.

The unit Director, Professor (later Sir) John Waterlow, had first arrived in Jamaica in 1945 when the British Colonial Office asked him to research the high death rate of children under five years old on the island, as well as in Guyana and Trinidad. [...]

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Macaque research and the MRC

29 Jan 2014

Macaques are non-human primates. They are used in medical research because many of their body systems — such as their immune and nervous systems — are similar to humans, making them good research ‘models’ for a variety of human conditions.

The UK has some of the most stringent regulations in the world on the use of animals in research. Researchers wishing to use these animals in their work must show that the research is possible in no other way, comply with stringent regulations and be granted a specific licence from the Home Office.

The Medical Research Council’s Centre for Macaques breeds rhesus macaques for use in medical research in academic institutions in the UK. Using macaques from the centre means that researchers and those who fund or regulate research can be sure the animals were bred in conditions that met high welfare standards.

In these films we look at why macaques are used in medical research, including an example of a neuroscientist who uses macaques to study how brain signals control movement, with the aim of helping paralysed people control external devices such as robotic arms or wheelchairs with their thoughts. We also look at how the animals are housed in the MRC Centre for Macaques, how their behavioural needs are met and efforts to make the transition from the centre to the research lab as stress free as possible. You can find out more about the use of animals in the MRC on our website.

[Video link for access] [...]

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Rising to the global challenge

15 Jan 2014

Mark Palmer

Mark Palmer

Tackling health problems around the world demands a global response. With a 100-year history of strategic international collaboration, MRC scientists today collaborate with researchers in more than 100 countries. Dr Mark Palmer, MRC Director of International Strategy, talks to Isabel Baker about the changing landscape of international collaboration and the exciting new opportunities it has to offer.

Has MRC-funded research always been international?

Yes, science is global, it’s an international activity. There has always been the exchange of ideas between people working in science, and these shared ideas spark new innovations and understanding. Science is about trying to progress knowledge. Increasingly, pooling resources allows us to solve problems that we couldn’t tackle alone.

Why collaborate on an international scale?

Firstly, health and diseases don’t recognise borders. Pandemic infections, for example, can only be tackled by taking a global approach. For many diseases it is also essential that research is conducted in those countries where the disease is prevalent. Secondly, many clinical studies may need large cohorts of patients; in particular when the disease is rare, research cannot be conducted in one country alone.

Additionally, international collaboration can give researchers the chance to work in a different political, regulatory or intellectual environment where different approaches have been made to problem solving. Exposure to a different way of thinking, and seeing how other people work, can be hugely beneficial to progressing research in our own country. [...]

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