Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
17 Oct 2012
Sarah Caddy (Copyright: Sarah Caddy)
In the second of the three highly commended articles for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Sarah Caddy talks norovirus — its less-than-pleasant effects, why it’s so difficult to study in the lab, and how the key to tackling it might lie in developing drugs that target the human proteins the virus needs to survive.
One minute you’re feeling great, and the next the contents of your intestines are coming out of both ends. This is norovirus, the horrible cause of winter vomiting disease. One in twenty people in the UK suffer from the effects of this tiny virus every year. It is described as causing ‘mild gastroenteritis’ but if you have had it, you will know it is anything but mild. And aside from the individual trauma, it is a financial disaster to the UK. An estimated £100 million is spent by the NHS each year due to ward closures forced by norovirus outbreaks.
Surprisingly, norovirus is closely related to poliovirus, a virus on the brink of extinction thanks to international vaccination. So why haven’t we managed to eradicate norovirus yet? Why can’t we treat it? Is prevention ever going to be possible?
It turns out that norovirus is very elusive when trying to grow it in cells in the lab. No experiments have managed to make norovirus replicate naturally inside experimental cells. In contrast, polio was first grown in cells in a lab in 1948, allowing extensive research to be carried out. A polio vaccine was developed just four years later, and 2012 may be the last year that poliovirus exists. [...]
Continue reading: Curing the ‘two-bucket’ disease
16 Oct 2012
In the second of a mini-series of posts from recipients of MRC Centenary Awards, microbiologist Alex Brand from the University of Aberdeen tells us how she’s set her sights on combating a fungus that can infiltrate medical devices.
Every day we read about new medical advances that help us to combat life-threatening injury and disease. This is great for patients but it does mean that more of us spend time in hospital using the catheters, ventilators, tubes and prosthetics that keep us alive during treatment and improve our chances of survival. While life-saving, these devices can become contaminated with the microbes that are all around us, including those from our own skin.
Candida albicans is one such organism. It is a fungus that most of us carry without even knowing because our immune system keeps it in check, but it can easily find its way onto medical plastics where there are no immune cells to control its growth. [...]
Continue reading: Breathing new life into medical devices
11 Oct 2012
Smartphone showing an eyescan (Copyright: Andrew Bastawrous)
Andrew Bastawrous, winner of the MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, is soon to head off to Nakuru County in Kenya to diagnose and map blindness in local populations with both existing methods and his new ‘EyePhone’ app. Here he tells us about the happy coincidences that have got him to this point.
Seven years ago as a very junior doctor attending an international health conference I found myself sitting in the wrong room at the wrong time. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, it dawned on me that I’d misread the programme and the session I thought was on healthcare in Africa was actually on making the most of medical school.
When it got to my turn, I explained apologetically that I was in the wrong session and introduced myself as a wannabe ophthalmologist (eye surgeon) with a dream of working in Africa. I contemplated daydreaming the rest of the session away, but as the introductions continued, I heard another man apologising for also having misread the programme. At least I wasn’t the only one. [...]
Continue reading: Serendipity in science
9 Oct 2012
In the first of the three highly commended articles for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Ben Martynoga describes his research looking at how to reprogram brain stem cells and even other types of cells to become new neurons — research that could one day lead to treatments for brain diseases.
Your skull contains one of the most sophisticated computing systems in the universe. Your brain can read and understand the words on this page, it can empathise with other humans, and it is even aware of its own existence. Nothing we have built or discovered comes close to this competence. Yet brilliant as your brain is, it has one fatal flaw: it is terrible at regenerating itself.
Cut your hair and it keeps on growing. Cut your skin and it rapidly heals. But once a brain disease like Alzheimer’s disease sets in and starts to kill off your brain cells, the damage gets progressively worse, with devastating effects. And of course, as our families and communities live longer, age-related dementia and memory loss are ever more common. [...]
Continue reading: The transcription factor: a key to brain repair?
9 Oct 2012
Alex Jeans (Copyright: Alex Jeans)
In the first of a mini-series of posts from recipients of MRC Centenary Awards, we hear from pathologist Alex Jeans from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford on how he’ll use his extra time and resources to pursue research into Alzheimer’s disease that until now he’s been doing in his spare time.
As a hospital pathologist specialising in diseases of the nervous system, I have spent a lot of time diagnosing both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and I’ve become aware of how common yet devastating they are. As things stand, there is no treatment which can slow the progress of either disease, and all we can do is manage the distressing symptoms as they appear.
Accurate diagnosis of these diseases is extremely important, and as pathologists we get some satisfaction from that. However, I‘ve always wanted to be part of the effort to understand these diseases at a fundamental level, which I believe is essential if we are to devise truly effective treatments. [...]
Continue reading: Spare-time science
4 Oct 2012
The slide boxes containing slices of rat brain tissue that inspired Aga (Copyright: Nervous Encounter)
Artists from the new interdisciplinary MA Art and Science programme at Central Saint Martins have been working with researchers at the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit at the University of Oxford to produce an exhibition called A Nervous Encounter. Here artist Aga Tamiola tells us what she got out of the project, and shows us the artwork she produced.
Prior to visiting the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit, I had never been to a biomedical research lab before. Excitement and curiosity come to mind when I recall my response to that very first visit in November 2011.
We visited a lab which focuses on research into the basal ganglia, a region deep in the brain involved in the initiation and control of movement.
I became fascinated with the slide boxes that were kept all over the lab. I wanted to find out what was inside them, and about the people who created them. The scientists were extremely generous with their time, showing me that the boxes contain glass slides on which thin slices of rat brain tissue are preserved. By looking at the slides under the microscope, the researchers can learn about the nerve cells (neurons) that make up the tissue. [...]
Continue reading: When worlds collide
2 Oct 2012
In the runner-up article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Ketan Shah gives us an unconventional description of his work helping to develop new radioactive drugs for use in the scanning and treatment of cancer.
I am the drug and there is a sting in my tail. I have gone by many names as I have developed, but my most user-friendly is Indium-EGF. I want to show the world that I am special.
They are trying not to put too much pressure on me, but I know they are excited as they get me ready to go into a person for the first time, hopefully in 2012. They are supposed to be detached and scientific; they are not supposed to be excited. But I know they are. [...]
Continue reading: I am the drug
28 Sep 2012
Pupils at Exton Primary School, Rutland, playing the Patient Game (Copyright: Brona McVittie)
Brona McVittie, Head of Public Engagement at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, is on a mission to highlight the work of the MRC as we approach our 100th year. Here she tells us about a planned centenary installation and the schools competition— complete with comic book— that will feed into it.
The MRC will be 100 years old next year, and as part of the celebrations I’m curating a large-scale interactive public installation that will be housed in the foyer of Imperial College London. Our ambition is to juxtapose a century-old lab against a contemporary dry-lab, inviting the public to engage with future predictions from leaders in science, religion, the arts, politics, sport, philosophy and economics. The aim is to encourage them to share their own ideas about the future of medical science.
To help us inspire the public to think 2113, we’re inviting UK primary school pupils to enter a competition to exhibit their ideas about the future in the installation. I’m currently travelling up and down the country to deliver a series of workshops to 9-11 year-olds, introducing them to key MRC scientists and their important work. To do this I put together a comic book. Heroes of Health 1913 describes the founding of MRC and tells the stories of Sirs Henry Dale and Almroth Wright, and Dame Harriette Chick, whose pioneering research into the nervous system, immunisation and vitamin-deficiency disease, respectively, has changed our lives. [...]
Continue reading: Imagining the future
24 Sep 2012
In the article that won the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Andrew Bastawrous tells us about his ‘Eye Phone’ app, developed to diagnose blindness in resource-poor settings and soon to be taken for a road test in Kenya.
Everything is hazy; I can’t even see my glasses. I keep my eyes closed; it doesn’t seem to make much difference opening them. My hand feels clumsily around the bedside table, knocking my mobile phone to the floor, and eventually I come across my glasses. On they go, and I can see again. Those brief few seconds as I awake each morning serve as a continual reminder of how much I value my sight.
Many people fear losing their sight more than any other sense. I am fortunate to have perfect vision when wearing corrective glasses or contact lenses, and privileged to be in a profession (ophthalmology) where centuries of research and practice have brought us to a point where much of blindness is curable or preventable. There is no feeling like it: when the eye patch comes off someone who hasn’t seen for years, witnessing their sheer wonder as they take in their surroundings and their anticipation to see faces that have become voices and places that have become memories. [...]
Continue reading: Studying blindness? There’s an app for that
20 Sep 2012
Helen Moore (Copyright: Helen Moore)
Helen Moore is a MRC-funded PhD student researching body clocks at University College London. Here she tells us why zebrafish are an ideal model for studying 24-hour rhythms.
Zebrafish have come a long way from their home in the Ganges River. Popular with aquarium owners, these colourful stripy silver and blue fish are becoming increasingly important to research.
Zebrafish began life in the lab as a common model for understanding development. They lay transparent eggs that can be easily collected and through which their developing organs can be seen. Check out this timelapse video of developing zebrafish.
Now research using zebrafish is improving knowledge in a long list of areas including cancer and tissue regeneration. Zebrafish develop tumours with a remarkable likeness to human ones, and so might be useful for screening anti-cancer drugs. Their amazing ability to regenerate and repair their tissue may help us to develop better treatments for damaged hearts. [...]
Continue reading: Why I use zebrafish in my research