Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
14 Jun 2014
To mark World Blood Donor Day (14 June) Katherine Nightingale looks back on a couple whose decades-long joint career made blood transfusions safer by discovering blood groups and studying their inheritance.
Robert Race and Ruth Sanger working together (Image copyright: Wellcome Library)
This picture, taken around 1950, shows Robert Race and Ruth Sanger ― a couple in both science and life ― at work in the MRC Blood Group Research Unit. The unit had been established in 1946 (the same year as the National Blood Service) at the Lister Institute in Chelsea, London.
Your blood group is determined by the genes you inherit from your parents for proteins and sugars on the surface of your red blood cells. There are 35 blood group systems, each of which refers to different proteins or sugars. If you receive blood from a donor with different proteins or sugars, you may have an immune response against the donor blood, rendering the donation useless and risking serious or fatal complications. And blood groups are not only important in transfusion: blood group antibodies produced in a pregnant woman have the potential to harm or even kill her unborn baby.
The unit, with Race as director, was set up in post-war recognition of the need to improve blood transfusions. The discovery of the most well-known blood group system ― ABO ― in the early 1900s had made blood transfusions possible, but there were still many other systems to study. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture(s): A blood research double act
12 Mar 2014
The MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) turns 100 this year and its rich history is fertile ground for looking back on past discoveries. This 1960s molecular model represents an important point in the evolution of thinking about the structure of the ribosome. Katherine Nightingale spoke to Dr Bob Cox about constructing the model ― and getting a few giants of biomedical research to sign it too.
Bob Cox’s ribosome model, with Crick’s signature second from right on the top row
Look closely at one of these polystyrene balls and you’ll find the autograph of one of science’s most celebrated sons, Francis Crick. As well as being part of the duo that discovered the structure of DNA, Crick also proposed the “central dogma” of molecular biology: that DNA makes RNA makes protein. Fitting then, that his signature is here on an early model of the ribosome, the molecular machine that makes proteins.
Ribosomes are cellular factories made of RNA and protein which ‘translate’ the genetic code into the corresponding amino acid code, specific to each protein. They are large and complex molecules, made up of around 50 proteins divided into two subunits. They were discovered in 1955, though they didn’t get their name until 1958.
This model, produced by NIMR researcher Bob Cox in 1969, was the first attempt to model ribosome structure in detail. Until then, only blurry microscope pictures had been available. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: An early model of the ribosome
7 Mar 2014
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2014 we’re remembering Dr Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers, a researcher at the MRC National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) who discovered a thyroid hormone which is now used as a treatment option for thyroid diseases. Isabel Baker takes a look at this striking photograph and a scientist who was dedicated to life at the bench, and who earned worldwide recognition for doing what she loved best.
Rosalind Pitt-Rivers at the NIMR in the 1960s
This photograph, taken in the 1960s, shows Rosalind ― better known to her family, friends and colleagues as ‘Ros’ ― at work in the NIMR labs where she worked for 30 years. She looks at ease in the lab, casually holding a test tube and cigarette between her fingers, as she regards the camera with a serious, confident gaze. [...]
Ros arrived in the NIMR lab of Sir Charles Harington in 1942, which was to become a leading centre in the world for paper chromatography. Dr Archer Martin, who developed this technique for separating mixtures of substances in the 1940s, joined the NIMR in 1948*, winning the Nobel Prize in 1952. It was using these newly developed chromatography techniques that Ros discovered a new thyroid hormone, triiodothyronine (T3), with Dr Jack Gross, in 1952.
Continue reading: Behind the picture: A formula for success
27 Nov 2013
Think that baking science-themed cakes is a modern phenomenon? Think again. Here Dr Lara Marks explains the story behind this cake baked to celebrate the opening of the Therapeutic Antibody Centre, a small facility which brought the world the first humanised monoclonal antibody drug. The centre features in a new online exhibition which tells the story of that drug, Campath.
(Image copyright: Geoff Hale)
This photograph, taken in 1990, shows a cake baked by research technician Jenny Phillips to commemorate the official opening of the Therapeutic Antibody Centre (TAC) in Cambridge in September of that year.
Supported by funds from the MRC, the purpose of the centre was to manufacture monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), a new type of drug which had been developed in Cambridge a couple of years earlier. There are now more than 30 mAb therapies on the market and approximately 300 mAbs are currently in clinical trials. In 1990, however, the drugs were still very much at an experimental stage, and the aim of the centre was to produce small amounts of mAbs for pilot clinical trials. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Campath and cake
19 Nov 2013
Professor Sir David Weatherall laid the last paving slab during construction of the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford 25 years ago, marking the completion of the new unit. Bryony Graham looks into the remarkable career of a man who, aged 80, can still be found at his desk in the institute which now bears his name.
The topping-out ceremony (Image copyright: The Oxford Times)
This photograph, taken in 1988, shows Professor Sir David Weatherall, mallet in hand, ‘topping out’ the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford. The institute had been set up to focus on what he described as “what was rather hopefully called molecular haematology”.
At the time, the relationship between understanding how cells work at the most fundamental level and developing new medical treatments had not been fully appreciated: scientists in the lab and doctors in the clinic remained two different species. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Laying the foundations of molecular medicine
8 Oct 2013
As The Cochrane Collaboration celebrates its 20th Anniversary, Isabel Baker delves into the MRC archive to look back on its pioneering namesake, Professor Archibald Leman Cochrane, and the story of this photograph, taken during his ambitious project to X-ray the entire population of a Welsh mining valley.
The MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit team at the Rock Colliery in 1953, Archie is seated far left. (Image copyright: The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine)
This photograph, taken at the Rock Colliery in Wales in 1953, is of the MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit X-raying team. The team look pretty happy considering their gruelling schedule, working long unsociable hours in a marquee and X-ray van set up at the pithead.
Between 1950 and 1953 the PRU team X-rayed all of the coal miners and ex-miners in the Rhondda Fach deep coal mining valley in South Wales — no small undertaking given that the mining population of the valley was more than 6,000. Another team, from the Welsh Regional Hospital Board, X-rayed the women, children of school age, and non-mining men. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Archie Cochrane and the Welsh coal miners
5 Sep 2013
Scientists at the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh won the British Heart Foundation’s Reflections of Research image competition last month. MRC Science Writer Isabel Baker looks at the picture, created with a technique invented by an MRC scientist.
(Image copyright: Dr Gillian Gray, Megan Swim and Harris Morrison/University of Edinburgh/The British Heart Foundation)
It looks more like something that you might find hanging in a modern art gallery than an image produced by one of the most advanced scientific imaging techniques.
But rather than a paintbrush, Dr Gillian Gray and Megan Swim from the Queen’s Medical Research Institute*, and Harris Morrison from the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, created this stunningly detailed image of a mouse heart using a technique called Optical Projection Tomography (OPT). [...]
Continue reading: The art of hearts
24 Jul 2013
Retro light fitting or model of a virus? In the latest of our looks at the story behind an image from the MRC archive, Ellen Charman finds out how this collection of giant ping pong balls is linked to Rosalind Franklin’s less well-known research understanding the structure of viruses.
John Ernest and his poliovirus structure (Copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)
This image, taken at Birkbeck College in 1958, shows the sculptor John Ernest dwarfed by one of his models of the poliovirus, which is seemingly made from giant pingpong balls.
The five-foot model, together with one of the tobacco mosaic virus, was exhibited at the International Science Pavilion of the Brussels’ World Exhibition in 1958, the first major World’s Fair after World War 2. Earlier versions had indeed been made out of ping pong balls and plastic bicycle handlebar grips. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Rosalind Franklin and the polio model
14 Jun 2013
(Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)
We published an article last week about the central place of the tea or coffee break in scientific progress. In this linked post we’ve raided the photo archives once again to find this picture of Gisela Perutz, who was responsible for setting up the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology’s canteen, the site of many a fruitful conversation.
This photograph, taken in 1979, shows Gisela Perutz, wife of MRC LMB scientist and Chairman Max Perutz, receiving a bouquet of flowers upon her retirement from the institute’s canteen. This was the site of many celebrations — including a few ‘Nobel parties’ — in its more than 50 years of feeding and watering the institute’s staff.
Gisela was central to the canteen in its first two decades. When the LMB was established in 1962, the researchers moved over from the pre-existing ‘Unit for Research on the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems’ in the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Lab closer to the centre of Cambridge. As well as having the Cavendish coffee room, researchers could more easily nip out together for a bite to eat at places such as The Eagle pub (where Watson and Crick announced in February 1953 that they’d discovered the structure of DNA). [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Gisela Perutz and the LMB canteen
29 May 2013
It’s 60 years today since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to scale Everest, under the scientific supervision of MRC researcher Dr Griffith Pugh. Here, as part of our series exploring the images of the MRC’s past, Katherine Nightingale looks into the research that was happening seven years later in this cigar-shaped hut on a lonely glacier south of Everest.
The ‘Silver Hut’ (Image courtesy of Jim Milledge)
This picture, taken in 1960, shows the cylindrical ‘Silver Hut’ of the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition of 1960–1961. The expedition was organised and led by Sir Edmund Hillary, who had been the first to scale Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The scientific leader was Dr Griffith Pugh, an MRC researcher and mountaineer.
Perched — to modern eyes at least — somewhat precariously on the Mingbo glacier 5,800 metres above sea level, and about 12 miles south of Everest, the prefabricated hut was set up in November 1960. Produced in England, it was made from silver-painted marine plywood boxed sections, filled with foam insulation. The hut contained bunks, a cooking area and lab space. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Sorting cards on Everest