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Insight blog: Posts from the "Working life" Category

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

Profile: Wiebke Arlt

26 Nov 2012

Wiebke Arlt

Wiebke Arlt

University of Birmingham researcher Wiebke Arlt received many bouquets of flowers for establishing that male hormones affect women’s libidos. Now she’s developing a urine test for adrenal cancer, as she told Sarah Harrop in the fourth of a series of profiles taken from our Annual Review 2011/12.

Cancer of the adrenal glands is hard to detect because the glands are hidden deep inside the body and the disease can be symptomless in its early stages — so new diagnostic tests are urgently needed.

In 2011, with MRC funding, Professor Wiebke Arlt developed the first urine test for adrenal cancer which could replace expensive CT scans and avoid the need for surgery in suspected cases that turn out to be benign. Wiebke is fascinated by hormones — in fact she’s built her career around studying them.

Early on in her career, as a young doctor in Germany, she was the first to establish that male hormones (androgens) affect libido and feelings of wellbeing in women. During a trial to restore these hormones in women with androgen deficiency she began to receive thank-you gifts of flowers and wine from their husbands, which she says “was an early sign of what was going on”. [...]

Continue reading: Profile: Wiebke Arlt

Profile: Cari Free

15 Nov 2012

Cari Free

Cari Free

Sarah Harrop talks to public health researcher Cari Free about Txt2stop, text message-based support for smokers, in the third of a series of scientist profiles taken from our Annual Review 2011/12.

In January 2012 the Department of Health launched an affordable mobile phone support programme for smokers, which has been proven to double quit rates. This programme was developed for UK patients by Dr Cari Free at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) with MRC funding. Around 1,000 smokers are now signing up each month.

Cari’s office at the LSHTM is high-ceilinged and airy. The walls are lined with medical textbooks on everything from cancer to condoms. It’s here that she works four days a week as a senior lecturer, leading research studies in public health. On the fifth day of the week she’s a GP in South London which keeps her in touch with some of the patients her research will benefit.

Smoking is a notorious public health problem, causing heart attacks, stroke and lung cancer and it’s fast becoming an epidemic in developing countries like India and China. So affordable and effective ways to help people quit are in higher demand than ever. [...]

Continue reading: Profile: Cari Free

Profile: Chris Grainge

30 Oct 2012

Chris Grainge

Chris Grainge

Royal Navy doctor and University of Southampton researcher Chris Grainge talks to Sarah Harrop about how his work on chronic asthma could lead to new ways of treating the disease, in the second of a series of profiles taken from our Annual Review 2011/12.

Not many MRC scientists have parachuted into icy cold oceans or researched the best way to escape from a wrecked submarine. But as a Royal Navy doctor, Chris Grainge has done both. When he’s not jumping out of planes, Chris is a respiratory medicine consultant at Southampton Hospital. Last year his MRC-funded research led to a new way of thinking about asthma which could help us use asthma drugs more effectively.

Although Chris’s medical and naval training saw him work as medical officer onboard a warship in the Caribbean and an icebreaker in Antarctica, his first love is working on the respiratory medicine wards. That’s because he gets to work with people of all ages with very different diseases. On a typical day he might see a young person with cystic fibrosis, an adult who has occupational lung disease or an older person with lung cancer or emphysema. [...]

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Profile: Alasdair MacLullich

25 Oct 2012

Alasdair Maclullich with his 'Delbox'

Alasdair MacLullich with his ‘Delbox’

In the first of a series of scientist profiles taken from our Annual Review 2011/12, Sarah Harrop speaks to the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Alasdair MacLullich about how he’s enlisted the skills of a toy maker to develop a new test for delirium in the elderly.

With its grey plastic case and chunky buttons, the device on the table in front of Professor Alasdair MacLullich looks like something from a 1980s episode of Tomorrow’s World. Affectionately known as the ‘Delbox’, this is the first computerised test specifically designed for detecting delirium. To the uninitiated, the word delirium might sound like a Victorian malady; a disease confined to history books. But it’s a common modern-day problem and a major risk factor for dementia and death in the elderly. New ways of detecting and treating the condition are urgently needed.

Alasdair is a professor of geriatric medicine. His interest in this area was sparked during his PhD, which looked at the link between stress hormones and cognitive impairment in the elderly. More recently, an opportunity for further research came along when Alasdair was awarded an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship. [...]

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Profile: Qing-Jun Meng

21 Aug 2012

Qing-Jun Meng

Qing-Jun Meng

Qing-Jun Meng is an MRC fellow at the University of Manchester. He told Katherine Nightingale about his research into biological clocks, their role in age-associated conditions, and how they offer a whole new way of looking at disease.

How does a Chinese flight surgeon end up researching biological clocks in Manchester? In the early 2000s, Qing-Jun Meng was advising pilots and medical officers for astronauts in China’s burgeoning space programme. Now he’s halfway through an MRC fellowship researching how changes in the body’s circadian rhythm during ageing cause disease.

The two fields aren’t actually so different, says Qing-Jun. “It sounds like discipline hopping but some of the lectures I gave to pilots were about body clocks and jet lag. That was when I first got interested in the field.”

Frustrated by the lack of opportunity to do cutting edge research, particularly that which would benefit people, Qing-Jun began applying for postdoc jobs abroad. His acceptance to work in vascular tissue engineering at Manchester Royal Infirmary was the first step; a second step just down the road to the University of Manchester landed him in biological clocks, where he’s remained ever since. [...]

Continue reading: Profile: Qing-Jun Meng

Profile: Amy Foulkes

16 Aug 2012

Amy Foulkes

Amy Foulkes (Image copyright: Amy Foulkes)

Amy Foulkes is a dermatologist and MRC fellow based at the University of Manchester. She told Katherine Nightingale why she is passionate about personalising treatments for the skin disease psoriasis.

Amy Foulkes never wanted to do science for the sake of it. When she was younger, she wanted to work in disease control. “I thought I wanted to work with dangerous infectious diseases in a lab,” she says.

She chose to intercalate immunology into her medicine degree at the University of Nottingham, but a few months of investigating immune cells in the lab without a clear sight of how this would help people made her reconsider her plans to go into research. Then during her house officer rotation in Edinburgh, she spent time in various hospital units that had a research focus. [...]

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Profile: Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

9 Aug 2012

Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

Rodrigo Moreno-Serra

Rodrigo Moreno-Serra is an MRC fellow studying the use of ‘out-of-pocket’ payments for healthcare at Imperial College London’s Centre for Health Policy. He told Katherine Nightingale about why he wants to use economics to improve healthcare, and why that means putting up with more rain than he’s used to.  

No one could accuse Rodrigo Moreno-Serra of hiding himself away in an ivory tower. The health economics researcher is clear about his aim to make sure that the fruits of his research make it to decision-makers — and eventually to the public that needs it.

Having grown up in the emerging economy of Brazil, Rodrigo has seen the impact of an underdeveloped health system, and is keen to make sure that his economics expertise is used to improve the way that health systems are run.

“If you are a researcher it is very exciting to see that the results of your research are being taken into account. I don’t want to only be publishing in nice journals that stay on a shelf, I want to influence policy,” he says. [...]

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Profile: Alex Brand

13 Jul 2012

Alex Brand

Alex Brand (copyright: Alex Brand)

Alex Brand of the University of Aberdeen studies how a fungus called Candida albicans navigates around the body. She told Katherine Nightingale about how her interest in science was piqued down on the farm and — for her, at least — scientific life began at 40.

Some people get into science because of an inspiring teacher, others due to an insatiable curiosity to find out how the world works. Alex Brand got into science because she bought a small farm.

The farm was in Scotland, where Alex and her husband were posted with his job in the oil industry. It was the latest in a string of placements that had taken them all over the world — and Alex through a series of jobs from announcing the sports news in Indonesia to running a poster agency in Qatar.

“I’d left school with secretarial qualifications in the days when very few people went to university, but I still had a really enjoyable and varied career in lots of different fields,” says Alex.

Running a farm requires a surprising amount of science, from checking the water supply for nitrates and other pollutants to diagnosing disease in livestock. [...]

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Profile: Robin Ali

26 Jun 2012

Credit: Flickr/Schtumple

Professor Robin Ali is an MRC-funded scientist working at the forefront of not one, but two, fields of regenerative medicine: gene and stem cell therapy. Katherine Nightingale caught up with Robin at UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology to find out more about his work.

The eye is fertile ground for developing new therapies, a feature that Robin Ali is taking full advantage of. Not content with a thriving gene therapy programme, he took up the challenge of entering the world of stem cell therapy in 2004 when the MRC was funding researchers to move in from other fields. Robin’s research focuses on therapies for retinal disorders, mainly those that affect the light-sensitive ‘photoreceptor’ cells of the eye. Many of these are rare, single-gene disorders that cause vision loss over time — and which currently have no treatments.

Lucky for Robin, “the properties of the eye lend it to experimental interventions,” he says. It is fairly straightforward to operate on, and the progress of a therapy — improved retinal sensitivity, for example — can be easily monitored. The eye is also somewhat protected from the body’s immune system, so there is less of an inflammatory response to introduced genes or cells. [...]

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Profile: Hashim Ahmed

22 Jun 2012

Hashim AhmedHashim Ahmed is an MRC fellow and urology surgeon based at UCL and University College Hospital. Katherine Nightingale caught up with him between surgeries to find out how he’s trying to change treatment options for prostate cancer patients on his ‘days off’.

Hashim Ahmed caught the research bug fairly early in his career, during a research project he undertook as part of his medical degree at the University of Oxford.

He was looking into the best conditions in which to grow nerve cells for potential implant into patients with Parkinson’s disease — pretty repetitive work by his own admission. “But that’s where I got excited about research. I was doing work that was advancing in small incremental steps but we were involved in something right at the forefront of research in that particular field.”   [...]

Continue reading: Profile: Hashim Ahmed