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Insight blog

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

How artificial intelligence, and a cup of tea, could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease

26 Oct 2018

Congratulations to MRC PhD student Natasha Clarke, from St George’s, University of London, winner of our 2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Award. In her award-winning article she describes how teaching machines to detect changes in language could help with early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Award-winner Natasha (centre) with other shortlisted entrants (behind), judge Andy Ridgway
(front row left), MRC Executive Chair Professor Fiona Watt who chaired the judging panel
(front row, second from right) and Professor Robin Perutz, son of Max Perutz (front row right).

I’d like to give you a quick task. How do you make a cup of tea? Describe it out loud. Whilst this could lead to some controversies (milk in first, or last?) it seems fairly simple. But what if I told you that this task could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease? [...]

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The serendipity of openness

25 Oct 2018

Freely available science papers enable research findings to be shared widely, helping to speed up the pace of science and advance research worldwide. That’s why we support open knowledge solutions like Europe PMC (Pub Med Central): a vast digital library of biomedical research articles, available for anyone to access. But that’s not the only perk, as Community Manager Maria Levchenko explains for Open Access Week 2018.

Image credit: Maria Levchenko

Every scientist hopes that their research will change the world. However, that change can only happen when science is shared with the wider community. Open access to research ensures that anyone, from fellow scientists to journalists and patients, can read the full story behind an important finding. [...]

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Could dairy products help prevent type 2 diabetes?

17 Oct 2018

Checking blood sugar levels

Checking blood sugar levels

Could we be getting it wrong when avoiding dairy products in a bid to be healthy? That’s what Dr Fumiaki Imamura and Dr Nita Forouhi from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge hope to find out. Here Fumiaki tells us about their latest research and why it may be time to question the link between high-fat dairy products and conditions like type 2 diabetes.

Many people believe that low-fat dairy products are healthier than high-fat dairy products. Indeed, many public health guidelines recommend low-fat dairy over high-fat dairy. However, our latest research, published in PLOS Medicine, found that people who had higher levels of biomarkers of dairy fat had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Biomarkers are tell-tale molecules in the body that can be measured accurately and consistently, and act as indicators of dietary consumption.  [...]

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Standing up to global mental health stigma

8 Oct 2018

We’ve recently funded Professor Sir Graham Thornicroft, a leading expert in research on mental health discrimination and stigma, to carry out a global study. On the day of the world’s first Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit, he sets out what stigma looks like across the globe and how his study will make a difference.

Graham Thornicroft

Around one in four people will experience mental ill health at some point in their lives, and this year alone around 450 million people worldwide have a mental health condition. Our research shows that in many countries 80 to 90% of them experience negative stigma and discrimination. [...]

It’s so important we carry out research on how to improve this situation globally. Over the last decade, in over a dozen countries including the UK, there have been national anti-stigma programmes and the evidence shows that these can be effective. But so far, all of these programmes have been in high-income countries.

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Shining a light on brain development

2 Oct 2018

Clare Elwell with infant taking part in the study: Image credit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Clare Elwell with infant taking part in the BRIGHT study: Image credit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Since recording the first brain images of babies in Africa, Professor Clare Elwell (Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, UCL) has been leading a pioneering study to increase our understanding of early brain development. Here Clare tells us about bringing a new imaging technology to a remote Gambian village, and how it could help babies suffering from malnutrition reach their full potential.

Before they reach five years of age, one in four children across the globe are malnourished. There’s a lot of research showing the detrimental impact this has on their development. But we know very little about what’s going on inside their brains. [...]

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Regenerative medicine: from the lab to the clinic, and back

27 Sep 2018

Regenerative medicine is a fast-moving, interdisciplinary field, looking for ways to repair or replace parts of the body that are diseased or damaged. Now there’s an established and growing UK research community, we’re changing the way we fund this type of research. Two researchers explain why our continued support for this field – from the early discovery stage to translation into the clinic – will help deliver life-changing treatments for currently incurable conditions. [...]

Adult stem cells from the tissue lining the human knee joint, grown in a dish. These cells can repair
damaged cartilage and are being trialled in the clinic. Individual stem cells are labelled with different fluorescent colours. Image credit: Nathan White, University of Aberdeen.

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Industry and academia – stronger together

21 Sep 2018

Derived from proteins made by the body’s immune system, monoclonal antibodies are successful drugs used to treat millions of patients. The MRC/UCB Antibody Discovery Initiative offers academic researchers access to UCB’s high-tech antibody discovery platform. Andrew Popplewell, Head of Antibody Discovery and Engineering at UCB Celltech, explains how the initiative is geared to help promote collaborative research.

Andrew Popplewell

Image credit: Andrew Popplewell.

In the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry today, collaboration and networking are all-important. And the value of tapping into academic knowledge, expertise, and talent is widely acknowledged. [...]

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Is there a crisis in student mental health?

13 Sep 2018

Starting university should be a time for having fun and making new friends. So why are we seeing record referral rates to student counselling services and reports of student suicides in the news? And what can universities do to help? Dr Nicola Byrom, Lecturer in Psychology at King’s College London, is using UK Research and Innovation ‘Network Plus’ funding to find out.Nicola Byron

Type ‘Student mental health’ into a search of UK news and you’ll be hit by headlines referring to: ‘The ticking time-bomb’, ‘Students being let down’, warnings that ‘problems are rising’. If you read these stories in isolation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re in the depths of a crisis in student mental health.

In reality the picture is much more complex. In June this year, the Office of National Statistics reported that the suicide rate among the general population is actually higher than the comparable age group of university students. [...]

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Cryo-electron microscopy: big kit solving life’s smallest puzzles

11 Sep 2018

Since its invention in the 1980s, the UK has led developments in cryo-electron microscopy – a technique allowing scientists to zoom in on the inner-workings of tiny molecules. A new imaging centre at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research is now expanding the UK’s powerful microscope offering. Director Professor David Bhella shares his grand plans.

So what exactly is cryo-electron microscopy?

David Bhella with imaging computer

Cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM for short, is a powerful microscope technique. It’s different from imaging with normal microscopes as it uses beams of electrons, instead of light. Structural biologists use this technique to take pictures of biological samples at near-atomic scale, frozen in their natural state. It’s a faster and more effective way of looking deep inside molecules compared to other structural biology tools. [...]

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How do we help people living with mental health conditions live longer, healthier lives?

6 Sep 2018

Psychiatrist and Population Scientist Professor Simon Gilbody of the University of York, has just been awarded £1 million to build his new “Closing the gap network”. With 20 years’ experience in healthcare, Simon has seen how lives can be transformed if the same emphasis is placed on both physical and mental health. Starting this year, the special network of experts from the sciences to the arts will try to understand and tackle the root causes of why the health and life expectancy of people with severe mental ill health is so poor.

Simon Gilbody

Image credit: University of York

What is the ‘mortality gap’ and what are we doing to tackle it?

People who use mental health services experience the poorest physical health and most profound health inequalities of any section of the UK population.

Diabetes, heart disease and chronic respiratory illness, are two to three times more common in this group of people than for people with good mental health. Life expectancy is reduced by 20 to 25 years, and a person developing schizophrenia in their 20s can only expect, on average, to live into their 50s. [...]

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