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Insight blog: Posts from the "From the community" Category

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

Old dogs, new tricks

19 Nov 2012

Pet dogs with spinal injuries could be saying goodbye to slings and wheels now that researchers have helped a group of injured dogs to use their back legs again by injecting their spinal cords with a specific type of cell.

MRC scientists and researchers from Cambridge University’s Veterinary School gave half the dogs in the trial cells called olfactory ensheathing cells, which support the growth and guidance of neurons, from their own noses. The other half received a placebo. The researchers say the injected cells stimulated the growth of a ‘bridge’ between the damaged and undamaged parts of the spinal cords.

The work could help people with similar injuries one day, though the researchers are keen to stress that this would be as part of a package of treatments alongside drug or physical therapies. While the results in dogs have been significant, it’s difficult to tell how effective the treatment will be in people, because we don’t have four legs to rely on.

Here’s a video of Jasper, one of the dogs who received cells, showing off his renewed walking skills on a treadmill. Jasper’s owners used to need a sling to support his back legs but “now we can’t stop him whizzing round the house and he can even keep up with the two other dogs we own. It’s utterly magic”, says his owner May.

(Credit: MRC/Cambridge University) [...]

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A conference for the modern age

16 Nov 2012

Suzi Gage

Suzi Gage

Suzi Gage is an MRC-funded PhD student at the University of Bristol who uses data from the Children of the 90s study to look at the links between cannabis, psychosis and depression. Here she tells us about the benefits of getting together with other researchers at the SpotOn London conference last weekend.

Along with around 200 others, I spent Sunday and Monday in the basement of the Wellcome Collection discussing science policy, outreach and online tools. I was there because I’d organised a session on academic fraud along with my colleague Dr Pete Etchells. But, being more used to academic conferences, I was also really intrigued about what an event bringing together science communicators, policy types and researchers could offer.

The conference was split into three streams, but swapping between them was encouraged, and I think I managed to attend at least something from each. I was particularly impressed with the ambition of the meeting; session organisers were encouraged to create online material in advance, and to have outputs at the end. This wasn’t just for sitting and absorbing, this was for ACTION. Indeed, one workshop I dropped in on was called ‘what do you need to start a revolution?’. Inspiring? Very much so! [...]

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The inflamed brain: why my research matters

13 Nov 2012

Hannah Buggey

Hannah Buggey

In her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Hannah Buggey from the University of Manchester takes us through her research combating inflammation in the brain after a stroke. 

Picture yourself in the shower. Now imagine that familiar feeling when the water starts to build up around your feet, and you’re racing to finish washing out shampoo before water spills over the edge of the shower tray. This clogged up drain is similar to what happens during a stroke.

In your plumbing, a hairball sticks together with bits of soap and becomes lodged in the U-bend. In stroke, a clot often forms from a build-up of fatty plaques in our blood vessels — the ones we’re always being told can be avoided by eating cholesterol-lowering margarine. This clot can break away and travel through your blood into your brain where the vessels have lots of twists and ‘U-bends’.

When a clot gets stuck here, the areas of the brain the blood is feeding are cut off from their supply of oxygen and nutrients. In the same way that you need to act fast to stop the shower water spilling over the edge, you need to act fast after a stroke. Brain cells can’t cope without oxygen, and during a stroke two million of them die every minute. [...]

Continue reading: The inflamed brain: why my research matters

Something’s got to give

6 Nov 2012

Vicky Young (Copyright: Vicky Young)

Vicky Young (Copyright: Vicky Young)

In her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Vicky Young explains her research into endometriosis and why a protein that seems to make organ linings ‘stickier’ could be the key to treating this painful and debilitating condition, treatments for which have changed little since the days of Marilyn Monroe.

“What good is it being Marilyn Monroe? Why can’t I just be an ordinary woman? A woman who can have a family … I’d settle for just one baby. My own baby.”

As the quintessential sex symbol of modern time, Marilyn Monroe oozed femininity and appeared to be the ideal women, but behind closed doors she spent most of her life in chronic pain, became addicted to pain-killers, and suffered from difficulties in conceiving and at least two miscarriages. [...]

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Cell city

2 Nov 2012

Nicola Hodson

Nicola Hodson

Nicola Hodson takes apart the transport systems in cells to see how they work and how their disruption might cause disease. Here, in her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, she invites us into the microscopic city of the cell.

I’m sitting in Cambridge on a Monday morning observing the relentless chaos of commuter traffic. Cargo-bearing vehicles zip in, out and around the city, efficiently delivering goods to their required locations. All this hustle and bustle is essential to the integrity of such a busy city, without it everything would grind to a halt. I pull my chair back from the microscope in wonder, for what lies before me is not actually a city, but a single human cell.

My research focuses on how vehicles transport cargo into, out of and around a cell. A cell, just like a city, needs particular things to keep going. In a city, food needs to be delivered to supermarkets or to families who have ordered their groceries online. Likewise, a cell needs to bring nutrients inside and just like the supermarkets and the online shoppers, it can select exactly what it wants delivering and when. [...]

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Getting naked for science

26 Oct 2012

Alan volunteering at The Big Bang Fair

Alan volunteering at The Big Bang Fair (Copyright: Alan Boyd)

Who are the Naked Scientists? And what’s it like to work with them? Alan Boyd, a PhD student from the MRC Institute for Hearing Research in Glasgow, found out on an eight-week MRC-funded foray into their audio world.

Call it what you will: science journalism; science communication; public engagement with science. Whatever the name, it’s about taking sometimes abstract, often difficult and almost always important discoveries in scientific research and making them accessible to the general public.

Over the past 10 years, the multi-award winning Naked Scientists radio show, podcasts, websites and live shows have become a major conduit through which people around the world receive their weekly dose of science.

The Naked Scientists occupy an office and a cupboard in the Department of Pathology at the University of Cambridge. Upon starting my internship, three things were clear. Firstly, this office had windows. As a PhD student in the depths of a hospital, that’s something I’d long ago dismissed as an unfathomable luxury. Secondly, lab meetings were to be replaced by strong coffee and continuously tight deadlines, flanked by publishing embargoes (which I nearly broke at least twice) and preparation for the radio show on a Sunday evening. Thirdly, the Naked Scientists remain disappointingly unfaithful to their name… [...]

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Employing ‘good’ bacteria

26 Oct 2012

Clostridium difficile (Copyright: David Goulding, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute)

Clostridium difficile (Copyright: David Goulding, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute)

Trevor Lawley from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute explains how he’ll be identifying the good bacteria in faeces that can cure patients with persistent Clostridium difficile infection in the third of a mini-series of posts from recipients of MRC Centenary Awards.

History is littered with examples of people deliberately infecting themselves in the name of science. Volunteers have been known to drink norovirus-infected water to see how long the virus can survive. A Russian researcher reportedly identified Hepatitis E by making himself a meal of yoghurt mixed with the stool of six ill soldiers. And the Australian researcher Barry Marshall won a Nobel prize for his work showing that the bacteria Helicobacter pylori caused stomach ulcers after drinking a petri dish of the cultured bacteria.

But what about infecting yourself with one microbe to treat another? My research focuses on the bacterium Clostridium difficile and I’m hoping that we can infect patients with ‘good’ bacteria to treat it. [...]

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The other side of the screen

19 Oct 2012

Brian Cox and other members of the Horizon team on a shoot

Brian Cox and other members of the Horizon team on a shoot (Copyright: Andrew Holding)

It’s easy for scientists to complain about research being misrepresented in the news, but what happens when you drop a researcher into the crew of the BBC’s Horizon programme? MRC researcher Andrew Holding received a British Science Association Media Fellowship to do just that and tells us about the experience.

I’ll admit that I used to be something of an armchair critic of how science was reported in the media, but after my two-month fellowship experience with the BBC I have nothing but respect for the teams getting science shows onto our screens.

As I waited on an unfamiliar platform at my local train station much earlier than usual on that first morning, London instead of Cambridge-bound, I started to ponder what I was expecting. [...]

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Fighting Alzheimer’s disease? Get the immune system on board

19 Oct 2012

James Fuller

James Fuller

James Fuller discusses his research into developing antibodies against Alzheimer’s disease in the third and final highly commended article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012.

Imagine living with the knowledge that over the next decade your brain will be slowly destroyed by your own body. As neurons are snuffed out like candles, what will you lose next? Will it be precious memories? The ability to perform an everyday task? Perhaps a facet of your personality? Your family and friends will have to watch helpless as the person they love is slowly eroded away.

Imagine now finding out that with all of our medical expertise there is nothing we can do. Not one treatment that can slow the course of this deterioration. This is a reality for someone diagnosed with dementia. [...]

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Revealing the ‘icebergs’ of disease

18 Oct 2012

Vittal Katikireddi

Vittal Katikireddi

Research published today by researchers at the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit has found that the mental health of many people in England has worsened since the onset of the recession in 2008. Here Vittal Katikireddi, lead author of the research, tells us why using surveys to study the health of the general population like this can reveal the disease ‘icebergs’ lurking beneath the surface.

Why bother looking at the mental health of the general population? Surely, when trying to assess the impact of an event, such as a recession, on mental health, we should only focus on the number of people who are suffering from severe mental distress or the rates of suicides? I hope to convince you otherwise.

The research we’re publishing today is based on the Health Survey for England, conducted each year between 1991 and 2010. It shows that the mental health in England has declined since the onset of the recession, particularly in men. [...]

Continue reading: Revealing the ‘icebergs’ of disease