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Insight blog

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

Getting to the bottom of medical science policy

10 Jul 2012

Heather Bailey (Copyright: Heather Bailey)

Heather Bailey (Copyright: Heather Bailey)

What exactly is medical science policy? And how can researchers influence it? Heather Bailey is a PhD student at the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health at University College London. She took three months out of her studies to delve into science policy by participating in an internship programme run by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the MRC.

Policy can be something of a black box to scientists so the most remarkable aspect of my internship experience was the opportunity to become familiar with the variety of people and organisations involved in shaping medical policy in the UK.

From patients to professors, from trade unions to charities, I had no idea of the breadth of roles and approaches for getting medical issues onto the political agenda. I particularly valued the opportunity to be involved with the policy work of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a focal point for leading scientists to influence UK government decision-making on both current issues and in anticipation of future priorities.

For my PhD I am studying HIV in women in Ukraine. To learn about influencing medical policy in Ukraine, I spent a week with ECOHOST, a research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This group’s work has shown that out-of-pocket payments to see a doctor in Ukraine are common and often unaffordable to those who most need care. As with so many medical policy problems, this has complex economic, social and political roots — an understanding of which is essential for effective medical policy reform. [...]

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Making sense of the media

5 Jul 2012

Heather Blackmore (Copyright: Heather Blackmore)

Heather Blackmore (Copyright: Heather Blackmore)

PhD student Heather Blackmore attended a Standing up for Science media workshop in June. Here she tells us why she’ll now be looking at the science news headlines with new eyes.

Have you ever read a newspaper article and felt the need to challenge the journalism or scientific content? Whether a scientist or not, I’m sure that you too come across articles that seem exaggerated in their claims or inaccurate in the way they explain research.

As a second year PhD student, I had become increasingly aware of how little I understood about how scientists and the media interact, particularly how scientists can handle media interest after publishing in well-known journals. That’s why I attended the media workshop, run by Sense about Science, in London on the 15 June.

Speakers included scientists, journalists and representatives from learned societies and Sense about Science. Discussions centred on topics such as what journalists want, why media portrayal of research goes wrong and what you can do if you spot bad science. [...]

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Dropping in on African research leaders

4 Jul 2012

John Gyapong and colleagues

John Gyapong (left in patterned shirt) and colleagues in Ghana

The MRC/UK Department for International Development African Research Leaders (ARL) scheme currently supports three exceptional scientists, mentored by a UK researcher, to undertake high quality research and develop a strong research group in Africa. Samia Majid, Operations Manager for Global Infections at the MRC, was part of a team that visited all three African research leaders to see how they are getting along.

Nine months in the planning and my first trip to Africa, I thought I’d imagined every eventuality for our 10-day trip to Burkina Faso, Ghana and South Africa, the countries where the three African research leaders are based.

But when we met Professor John Gyapong at the School of Public Health at University of Ghana on a bright, blue-skied Friday morning I hadn’t envisaged he’d be sporting a traditional shirt boldly patterned with the logo of his university department. Many employers in West Africa, apparently, have cloth printed especially to promote their organisation or company. [...]

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Taking tips from zebrafish

28 Jun 2012

Zebrafish (Credit: Novartis AG)

Zebrafish can repair their own hearts (Copyright: Novartis AG)

At an MRC-sponsored session at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June, researchers discussed why scientists are taking lessons from the humble zebrafish when it comes to helping the body heal itself.

Scientists are pretty good at growing cells. They can take stem cells, a kind of cell that has the potential to develop into many — and sometimes any — cell types, and coax them into developing into heart cells, liver cells, retinal cells, nerve cells … the list is long.

The idea is that transplanting these healthy cells into damaged organs could cure disease. There are even attempts to grow entire organs; a new heart grown from a patient’s own cells wouldn’t be rejected so they wouldn’t need immune-suppressing drugs.

But growing heart cells in the lab is a million miles from building an entirely new heart, with its specific and complex structure of muscle and blood vessels. Wouldn’t it be better to fix the old one? [...]

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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.”   [...]

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The LMB at 50

12 Jun 2012

Michael Neuberger (Copyright LMB Visual Aids)

LMB scientist Michael Neuberger cuts the 50th birthday cake

The 28th May was 50 years since the Queen officially opened the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. LMB researcher Andy Holding tells us what it’s like to work at such an historic institution as it prepares to move to a new home.

Sitting opposite the outpatient clinic on the ‘New’ Addenbrooke’s site, the LMB draws little attention from the public as they pass by. It is The Eagle pub in the centre of Cambridge, where Watson and Crick spent their Friday lunchtimes, that draws more attention for the discovery of the structure of DNA than their institution.

Despite its modest appearance, the LMB is a place with a remarkable history. Two things from my first week here two and a half years ago stand out. The first is a reluctance to venture out of my own lab and into the warren of corridors that have organically spread across multiple buildings over the past 50 years, for fear that I would be unable to find my way back. [...]

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Meeting global challenges

8 Jun 2012

Peter Piot (Credit: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

Peter Piot (Copyright: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

In times of austerity, should the MRC and other UK funders continue to invest in medical research in developing countries? Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Peter Piot tells us that as well as a moral responsibility, there are vital scientific, economic and political interests at stake.

The heart of the MRC’s mission is to improve human health through world-class medical research. That mission doesn’t stop at Dover; diseases don’t respect national borders. The history of illness and infection is the history of human development, globalisation and migration. In profound ways – evolutionary, immunological and cultural – we are shaped by our health and illnesses.

At medical school in the early 1970s, my tutors advised me against specialising in infectious disease because, according to them, all the major problems had been solved. But barely a year into my first job in a microbiology lab in Antwerp, we received a battered flask from Zaire containing blood samples from the victims of a lethal outbreak of a mysterious haemorrhagic fever – and succeeded in isolating the Ebola virus. A few years later, the AIDS epidemic forced me to confront the extreme complexities of health and disease, and of the politics and bureaucracies of international cooperation. [...]

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BMJ win for a surprising trial

6 Jun 2012

The team behind the FEAST paper (Credit: BMJ Group)

The team behind the FEAST paper (Copyright: BMJ Group)

FEAST, a clinical trial that assessed how to treat children in Africa for shock, has won the BMJ paper of the year for 2012. Lead researcher Kath Maitland and research uptake coordinator Annabelle South discuss the surprising results of the research.

Many children admitted to hospital in Africa with infections are also found to be suffering from shock, a condition where blood is not being pumped around the body properly. This can be caused by diseases such as malaria and sepsis and up to a fifth of children with shock die within hours of arriving.

We designed FEAST, which stands for Fluid Expansion As Supportive Therapy’,to test whether giving children fluid rapidly (boluses) via a drip could restore their normal circulation. This is done as standard in higher income countries but because it’s not generally used in Africa, it was important for us to test it in a controlled trial — where children were randomly assigned to receive boluses or to receive fluid slowly. [...]

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