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Insight blog: Posts from the "Working life" Category

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

Heroines of research

21 May 2013

Clockwise from bottom left: Audrey Smith, Elsie Widdowson (from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’), Mary Lyon, Kay Davies and Uta Frith (credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images)

Clockwise from bottom left: Audrey Smith, Elsie Widdowson (from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’), Mary Lyon, Kay Davies and Uta Frith (credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images)

In this article from our most recent Network magazine, Sarah Harrop takes a look at some of the most eminent MRC-funded women scientists from the MRC’s past 100 years.

Audrey Smith: discovery of cryobiology

Known as the ‘mother of cryobiology’, Audrey Smith of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research discovered — in the early 1960s — how to store biological material at low temperature, pioneering techniques for the freezing of sperm, blood, bone marrow, corneas and many other tissues. Freezing of sperm, eggs and embryos is now a key part of many IVF programmes.

Elsie Widdowson: nutrition expert

Elsie Widdowson became highly-respected for her1946 study of the impact of poor wartime diet on those in Nazi-occupied territories, and carried out MRC-funded self-experimentation to test the safety of food rationing ahead of the outbreak of WW2. A huge body of influential nutrition research followed, including studying the importance of the nutritional content of infant diets, particularly trace vitamins and minerals in natural and artificial human milk, leading to revised UK standards for breast milk substitutes in the 1980s. [...]

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Tales from the Century: Janet Lane-Claypon and epidemiology

8 Mar 2013

Janet Lane-Claypon

Janet Lane-Claypon pioneered two research methods that today are central to epidemiology, but she doesn’t have the profile of other barrier-breaking female scientists from the first quarter of the 20th century. Katherine Nightingale spotted her name in the first MRC annual report and went in search of information about this trailblazing scientist, admired for her intellect and rigour.

Unsurprisingly, the first MRC annual report, published in 1915, is a rather male affair; the text is littered with Williams, Henrys and Stanleys. Aside from the mildly mysterious “Miss Ferguson” and “a woman bacteriologist” whose identity we may never know, one of the few women mentioned in the report is the physician and epidemiologist Dr Janet Elizabeth Lane-Claypon.

Janet is referenced in the report because she had been funded in that year to bring together and critique all existing research in milk and its ‘hygienic relations’ — its composition, nutritional value and hygienic production. At the time Janet was working as Assistant Medical Inspector to the Local Government Board, having already achieved much in her research career. [...]

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Greg Winter: Pioneering antibody drugs

27 Feb 2013

Today the MRC is honouring two of our most eminent scientists with the MRC Millennium Medal which recognises research that has led to significant health and economic benefits. In the second of our profiles of the winners, Katherine Nightingale talks to Sir Greg Winter, who pioneered techniques that have led to antibody therapies for cancer, and diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. He has established hugely successful spin out companies and continues to develop new types of drugs.

Greg Winter (Copyright: Tony Pope)

Greg Winter (Copyright: Tony Pope)

It was an elderly woman with lymphoma who changed things for Greg Winter. It was 1989 and the patient at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge was the first person to take Campath-1H, a human antibody that had been fused with parts of a rat antibody to attack cancerous lymphocytes. [...]

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Philip Cohen: Driving drug development

27 Feb 2013

Today the MRC is honouring two of our most eminent scientists with the MRC Millennium Medal, which recognises research that has led to significant health and economic benefits. In the first of our profiles of the recipients, we meet Sir Philip Cohen, who has devoted his 40-year career to studying a type of cell regulation called protein phosphorylation. His collaborations with the pharmaceutical industry have helped to accelerate the development of new drugs for a variety of diseases. He spoke to Katherine Nightingale about ‘blue skies’ research, working with industry and birdwatching.   

Philip Cohen

Philip Cohen

If you need reminding of just how long researchers need to toil away in the lab before their findings might impact on the ‘real world’, look no further than Philip Cohen. Now credited as partly responsible for one of the largest and fastest growing areas of drug discovery, it was 25 years before he first got a call from a pharmaceutical company.

“People used to say ‘Oh, what you’re doing is interesting but it will never be the slightest bit of use for improving health or for wealth creation’,” Philip recalls. [...]

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Llamas, jungle fowl … and HIV

13 Feb 2013

Robin Weiss in the lab he's soon to close

Robin Weiss in the lab he’s soon to close

University College London virology professor Robin Weiss retires from research at the end of March after 30 years of continuous MRC funding. He tells Sarah Harrop about his eventful career, which has involved critical discoveries about HIV’s modus operandi, catching jungle fowl in Malaysia and developing microbicides based on llama antibodies.

The MRC runs through Robin’s career like the letters in a stick of rock, right back to his first ever job as a graduate research assistant in India with the now defunct MRC Experimental Genetics Unit in 1963.

During his PhD in cancer research, also funded by the MRC, he switched tracks to cancer-causing viruses, and the next two decades saw Robin carrying out virology research in other far flung corners of the globe. He did a postdoc in Prague “in the dark days after the Soviet tanks rolled in” and went on a field trip to Malaysia during which he lived with aboriginal people and caught wild jungle fowl to study the virus strains they were carrying in their DNA. [...]

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Lindsay Hogg: Giving power to patients

6 Feb 2013

Lindsay Hogg

Lindsay Hogg

Lindsay Hogg, a science communicator turned public health researcher at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit (SPHSU) in Glasgow, is out to give people the means to assess health evidence for themselves. Katherine Nightingale talked to Lindsay about developing a toolkit to do this, and what it’s like to cross the divide into research.

We’ve all seen the newspaper headlines. “Banish high blood pressure with beetroot”, or “People who eat cheese never get diabetes”. These might be fanciful examples, but they reflect an important issue — how are people supposed to tell whether what newspapers say about health is accurate?

One way might be to look at the original research paper for themselves. But knowing what to look for once you’ve got it in your hands is another matter. This is where Lindsay Hogg’s toolkit will come in.

“More and more patients and the public are doing their own research about health. People are reading stories in newspapers, they’re looking online and they’re accessing primary research material, particularly people with a health condition who are looking for ways to manage it,” she says. [...]

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Tales from the Century: Elsie Widdowson and her eclectic research

30 Jan 2013

Elsie injecting herself with solutions of calcium, magnesium and iron (Reproduced from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’, available from the British Nutrition Foundation)

Elsie injecting herself with solutions of calcium, magnesium and iron (Reproduced from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’, available from the British Nutrition Foundation)

Nutrition researcher Elsie Widdowson is one of the most significant figures in the MRC’s history. Here Dr Gail Goldberg, a scientist in the Nutrition and Bone Health Research Group at MRC Human Nutrition Research (MRC HNR) in Cambridge, remembers the legendary researcher, her questioning nature and willingness to use herself — and her colleagues — as guinea pigs.

This year marks the MRC’s Centenary, but it’s also significant for me: it’s 30 years since I began my research career at the MRC Dunn Nutrition Unit in Cambridge.

Nowadays, I imagine that anyone with an interest in nutrition research knows of Elsie Widdowson, but that isn’t always the case; and I can use myself as an example. Just a few days into my new job, I was asked to man the projector for the Dunn’s ‘tea talk’ seminar. In those days speakers used slides, and whoever was in charge of the projector lived in fear of it jamming, or slides being loaded in the wrong order, upside down or back to front.

As I fretted about the projector, a PhD student pointed out an elderly couple in the front row, settled with cups of tea and cakes, and asked me if I knew who they were. I hadn’t a clue, and didn’t want to admit that the names ‘McCance and Widdowson’ meant nothing to me. As a recent graduate, to me the stars of Cambridge were people like Max Perutz — I’d spent much of my final year learning about the structure of haemoglobin. [...]

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Profile: Astrid Limb

20 Dec 2012

The Institute of Ophthalmology’s Astrid Limb plans to retire once she’s used stem cells to restore the sight of a glaucoma patient. And she’s not far off, judging by the research she described to Sarah Harrop in her profile taken from our Annual Review 2011/12.

Astrid Limb

Astrid Limb

Professor Astrid Limb partly owes her choice of research to a mistake made by a lab technician in 2002. At the time, Astrid’s lab was growing cultures of nerve cells from eyes and brains. But some of the cell culture flasks were mislabelled by the technician and a flask of nerve cells taken from the eye was grown under the wrong conditions.

“When we came to study the cells later, we found that there was one cell line that seemed to be immortal,” explains Astrid. “Then the technician went on holiday and left behind cultures of human eye cells. We discovered that a similar population of human cells, grown under the same conditions, were also becoming immortal.” [...]

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Profile: Roger Patient

11 Dec 2012

Roger Patient

Roger Patient

Could research into the extraordinary regenerative properties of the zebrafish heart one day help people who’ve had heart attacks? In an article taken from our Annual Review 2011/12, Sarah Harrop speaks to Roger Patient from the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit to find out.

Every six minutes someone dies of a heart attack in the UK. Heart attack is a frightening and debilitating condition that can cause permanent damage to the heart in those who survive it, drastically altering the patient’s health. But what if there was a way to repair the heart and allow these patients to lead a normal life again?

That is one of the many quests of Professor Roger Patient at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit (MHU) in Oxford, who is investigating the possibility of using stem cell therapy to regenerate damaged heart muscle.

Roger started his scientific career as a chemist, but soon decided that DNA was by far the most interesting chemical he’d studied and made the leap to genetics. At that time, the first experiments to transfer animal genes into bacterial cells were taking place, and Roger recalls being accosted by news reporters on his way into work who wanted to know if he was making a ‘test tube monster’. [...]

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Working at the edge: a Q&A with Doug Turnbull

3 Dec 2012

Doug Turnbull

Doug Turnbull

The University of Newcastle’s Doug Turnbull is part of a team (with Professors Mary Herbert and Alison Murdoch) that is developing a technique to prevent inherited genetic conditions called mitochondrial diseases. ‘Mitochondrial transfer’ replaces a woman’s faulty mitochondria with those of a healthy donor, and combining the technique with IVF could mean affected women no longer pass on these diseases.

As the public consultation on whether to change the law to allow mitochondrial transfer draws to a close, Katherine Nightingale talks to Doug about the technique, why it’s needed and what it’s like to be working in a potentially legislation-changing field.

Will we have heard of any of these mitochondrial diseases?

The diseases affect the mitochondria — the ‘batteries’ of the cell that produce the energy cells need to function properly. You might not have heard of them; some, such as Leigh’s syndrome, have been known for many years among doctors and researchers but the collective term of mitochondrial diseases isn’t well known among the public, even though around 1 in 6,000 children is born with some kind of mitochondrial disease. The diseases most affect the parts of the body that use the most energy: the brain and nervous system, muscles and other major organs such as the heart and liver.

The intriguing thing about mitochondria is that they have their own DNA, separate to the DNA in a cell’s nucleus. The affected genes in mitochondrial diseases are in this mitochondrial DNA, meaning they are inherited differently to other genetic diseases — only mothers pass them on to their children through their eggs. [...]

Continue reading: Working at the edge: a Q&A with Doug Turnbull