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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.

Regeneration: Taking stock

13 Sep 2012

Ian Wilmut (Copyright: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine)

Ian Wilmut (Copyright: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine)

Professor Sir Ian Wilmut was formerly Director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Famously, he led the research group that first cloned a mammal from an adult body cell — Dolly the sheep — in 1996. Sarah Harrop spoke to him about how far regenerative medicine has come and what the future might hold.

What are some of the different approaches to regenerative medicine currently being undertaken by scientists?

Very broadly, there are two main approaches at the moment. We’re using stem cells to understand the mechanisms that cause some degenerative diseases so that it’s possible then to identify drugs that are able to prevent the development of symptoms. The second strategy is to produce cells that can replace those that have died or ceased to function normally in degenerative diseases.

What benefits and insights might the first approach offer?

To identify the molecular mechanisms that lead to disease it’s important to be able to study cells that are affected by the disease in the lab. A key innovation that makes this possible is our ability to treat skin cells so that they are changed and become very similar to embryo stem cells. These cells — induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells — are able to form all of the different cell types and grow in culture for very long periods. This makes it possible to produce the large number of cells required for research. [...]

Continue reading: Regeneration: Taking stock

Accelerating ageing research

12 Sep 2012

A mouse in a laboratory (Credit: Flickr/Rick Eh?)

A mouse in a laboratory (Credit: Flickr/Rick Eh?)

Dr Ilaria Bellantuono of the MRC-Arthritis Research UK Centre for Integrated Research into Musculoskeletal Ageing is one of the founders of ShARM (Shared Ageing Research Models), a new, not-for-profit facility aiming to boost research into ageing by encouraging scientists to share resources and information, including the mice they use in research. Here, Ilaria explains what ShARM is and why it is so important for researchers to get involved.

As we age, we become more likely to fall ill. As well as the effect on the individuals, illness in old age puts a great burden on society — a burden that will only get bigger as people live longer.

Research into ageing-associated diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease, is therefore very important. Mice share many of our genes and age in a similar way, so using older mice as ‘models’ for ageing-associated diseases is one of the ways that researchers learn about disease processes and test treatments. [...]

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Racing sperm at a different kind of festival

6 Sep 2012

Looking at sperm-shaped feedback (Copyright: Egg and Sperm Race/Jeremy Tavener)

Looking at sperm-shaped feedback (Copyright: Egg and Sperm Race/Jeremy Tavener)

Vicky Young and her fellow PhD student Gemma Sharp from the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health can often be found toting a two-metre model of a womb around the country, most recently at the Green Man festival in August. Here Vicky tells us what they get out of their unusual science communication activity, and how children and adults alike learn from ‘sperm racing’.

I never thought that when I was accepted to do a PhD I would spend my weekends making a giant model of a uterus to race sperm through, or that I’d then be invited to music festivals to race these sperm.

But that’s what I found myself doing at this year’s Green Man Festival in Wales, where we returned to Einstein’s Garden, part of the festival full of performances, workshops, musicians, crafts and activities based around science and nature. We’ve been running the Egg and Sperm Race for 18 months now and it basically does what it says on the tin — we race sperm. [...]

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A meeting of young minds

4 Sep 2012

Discussing a poster (Credit: Eliot Bradshaw)

Delegates deep in discussion over a poster (Copyright: Eliot Bradshaw)

PhD student Kathryn Bowles is researching the role of cell signalling in Huntington’s disease at the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity to get together and discuss neurodegenerative research with other early-career researchers, she took matters into her own hands and organised a symposium of her own.

As a student pipetting my way through the second year of my PhD, why on earth would I decide it’s a good idea to hold a national symposium for other early-careerscientists? To plump up my CV? To practise my already-impressive ‘to do’ list writing skills?

Admittedly, both of those were a factor. Most importantly though, I thought it was something that young scientists needed. Most conferences we go to are dominated by our supervisors and star ‘names’ in the field. We could do with the chance to discuss our work with our peers, without the intimidation of more senior scientists. [...]

Continue reading: A meeting of young minds

Aiming high

31 Aug 2012

Declan Murphy (Copyright: King's College London Institute of Psychiatry)

Declan Murphy (Copyright: King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry)

Professor Declan Murphy studies the link between abnormal brain development and autism. He spoke to Sarah Harrop about leading EU AIMS, the biggest individually-funded autism research project in the world and follow-on from his work on the major MRC-funded study UK AIMS.

Why do autism research?

Autism is much more prevalent than we once thought: we used to think it affected around one in 120 people but we now know it’s more like one in 80. Whether cases are increasing or we’re diagnosing it differently, we’re much more aware that autism must be addressed. Having autism significantly increases your risk for other serious mental health problems such as ADHD, depression and anxiety disorders.

We’re also beginning to understand the enormous cost of autism, both to the individual and to society. In terms of economic burden, it’s the most costly neuropsychiatric disorder currently in the US and the UK. [...]

Continue reading: Aiming high

£60m to unravel genes and disease

29 Aug 2012

The MRC has awarded £60m over five years to the MRC Human Genetics Unit and the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine (IGMM) at the University of Edinburgh. This video, produced by the University of Edinburgh, explains how researchers will use this funding to look at the genetics that underlie diseases such as melanoma and heart disease, and incorporate what they learn into diagnosing and treating patients. [...]

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Inside Westminster

14 Aug 2012

Theresa Dahm

Theresa Dahm outside the Houses of Parliament (Image copyright: Theresa Dahm)

Theresa Dahm, a PhD student at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, recently spent three months as an intern with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. So just how different were the halls of Westminster from life in the lab?

This summer I traded my life as a PhD student in Cambridge for life as an intern with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. And what a trade it was! I may be used to criticising research papers, but scrutinising government was a whole new challenge.

The world of policy-making seemed at first to contrast sharply with the research environment I was so used to. I went from managing my own long research project, with its looming but fairly intangible deadline, to working closely with members of a tight-knit committee and meeting deadlines every week. I also left behind the comfort of being a specialist in my research area (how depression affects self-control) to work in an area I had little knowledge of: an inquiry into the regulation of medical implants. Armed with a licence to ask questions and the need to learn a lot and fast, I set to work. [...]

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Why I can’t wait for the Olympics to end

3 Aug 2012

London 2012 Athletes' Village

Aerial view of the London 2012 Athletes’ Village (Image copyright: LOCOG)

St George’s University of London researcher Chris Owen explains how once the Olympics is over, the hard work on his physical activity study – part funded by the MRC – begins.

As someone who studies at a population level how much physical activity people do, I’m intrigued to see whether the sporting prowess on display at this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games will inspire the country to move around a little more.

However, I can’t wait for the Olympics to end. That’s because once the athletes have gone home, and the Athletes’ Village changes its name to East Village, my work begins. [...]

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The power of the phenome

1 Aug 2012

London 2012 Anti-Doping Science Centre

London 2012 Anti-Doping Science Centre (Image copyright: GlaxoSmithKline)

Today Prime Minister David Cameron announces that the London 2012 Anti-Doping Science Centre in Harlow will live on after the Olympic Games as the MRC-NIHR Phenome Centre. Katherine Nightingale spoke to Frank Kelly, one of the principal investigators at the new centre and Director of the Analytical & Environmental Sciences Division at King’s College London, to find out what phenomes can teach us about disease.

Let’s start with the basics, what exactly is a phenome?

Well, lots of people have heard of the genome — it collectively describes an individual’s genetic material. The phenome describes all the other chemistry of our body; all the molecules in our body. This mixture of molecules changes every minute of every day and depends on the way we lead our lives, the environment in which we live and how our bodies respond.

How does studying phenomes help researchers understand disease?

When genomic science began we all thought that once we’d figured out human genomes we’d understand why some people get disease and some people don’t. But it turns out that our genomes only explain the causes of a fifth of chronic diseases like heart disease — in fact, environmental factors are behind the vast majority of chronic diseases.

By environment I mean the totality of environmental exposure, from the type of food we eat to where we live, the type of job we have, the level of stress we experience, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the chemicals we use to clean our homes. All of these in combination will lead to some people developing chronic disease at some point in their lives. [...]

Continue reading: The power of the phenome