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Insight blog

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

Why I use zebrafish in my research

20 Sep 2012

Helen Moore (Copyright: Helen Moore)

Helen Moore (Copyright: Helen Moore)

Helen Moore is a MRC-funded PhD student researching body clocks at University College London. Here she tells us why zebrafish are an ideal model for studying 24-hour rhythms.

Zebrafish have come a long way from their home in the Ganges River. Popular with aquarium owners, these colourful stripy silver and blue fish are becoming increasingly important to research.

Zebrafish began life in the lab as a common model for understanding development. They lay transparent eggs that can be easily collected and through which their developing organs can be seen. Check out this timelapse video of developing zebrafish.

Now research using zebrafish is improving knowledge in a long list of areas including cancer and tissue regeneration. Zebrafish develop tumours with a remarkable likeness to human ones, and so might be useful for screening anti-cancer drugs. Their amazing ability to regenerate and repair their tissue may help us to develop better treatments for damaged hearts. [...]

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Celebrating 100 years

18 Sep 2012

Cartoon of Henry Dale, Almroth Wright and Harriette Chick from a book that will accompany the MRC centenary installation (Copyright: Lindsay McBirnie, commissioned by the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre)

Cartoon of Henry Dale, Almroth Wright and Harriette Chick from a book that will accompany the MRC centenary installation (Copyright: Lindsay McBirnie, commissioned by the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre*)

It’s not often that you get to celebrate a 100th birthday, but the MRC will be doing just that in 2013. MRC Regional Communications Manager Jude Eades gives us the lowdown on the activities and events that we’ll be running in 2013 to showcase the work of the MRC.

Next year we’ll be celebrating a hundred years of life-changing discoveries and taking time to reflect on our achievements in medical research, acknowledging those who have supported us along the way and looking forward to what medical research will deliver in the future.

Throughout 2013 we’ll be running a series events to showcase our research successes and collaborations. You can experience life in a working laboratory, take part in experiments online, explore how past MRC discoveries have changed the way we live today, and most importantly, meet the scientists who make it all happen. There’ll certainly be something for everyone – here’s a taster of what’s in store. [...]

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Regeneration: Taking stock

13 Sep 2012

Ian Wilmut (Copyright: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine)

Ian Wilmut (Copyright: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine)

Professor Sir Ian Wilmut was formerly Director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Famously, he led the research group that first cloned a mammal from an adult body cell — Dolly the sheep — in 1996. Sarah Harrop spoke to him about how far regenerative medicine has come and what the future might hold.

What are some of the different approaches to regenerative medicine currently being undertaken by scientists?

Very broadly, there are two main approaches at the moment. We’re using stem cells to understand the mechanisms that cause some degenerative diseases so that it’s possible then to identify drugs that are able to prevent the development of symptoms. The second strategy is to produce cells that can replace those that have died or ceased to function normally in degenerative diseases.

What benefits and insights might the first approach offer?

To identify the molecular mechanisms that lead to disease it’s important to be able to study cells that are affected by the disease in the lab. A key innovation that makes this possible is our ability to treat skin cells so that they are changed and become very similar to embryo stem cells. These cells — induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells — are able to form all of the different cell types and grow in culture for very long periods. This makes it possible to produce the large number of cells required for research. [...]

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Accelerating ageing research

12 Sep 2012

A mouse in a laboratory (Credit: Flickr/Rick Eh?)

A mouse in a laboratory (Credit: Flickr/Rick Eh?)

Dr Ilaria Bellantuono of the MRC-Arthritis Research UK Centre for Integrated Research into Musculoskeletal Ageing is one of the founders of ShARM (Shared Ageing Research Models), a new, not-for-profit facility aiming to boost research into ageing by encouraging scientists to share resources and information, including the mice they use in research. Here, Ilaria explains what ShARM is and why it is so important for researchers to get involved.

As we age, we become more likely to fall ill. As well as the effect on the individuals, illness in old age puts a great burden on society — a burden that will only get bigger as people live longer.

Research into ageing-associated diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease, is therefore very important. Mice share many of our genes and age in a similar way, so using older mice as ‘models’ for ageing-associated diseases is one of the ways that researchers learn about disease processes and test treatments. [...]

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Racing sperm at a different kind of festival

6 Sep 2012

Looking at sperm-shaped feedback (Copyright: Egg and Sperm Race/Jeremy Tavener)

Looking at sperm-shaped feedback (Copyright: Egg and Sperm Race/Jeremy Tavener)

Vicky Young and her fellow PhD student Gemma Sharp from the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health can often be found toting a two-metre model of a womb around the country, most recently at the Green Man festival in August. Here Vicky tells us what they get out of their unusual science communication activity, and how children and adults alike learn from ‘sperm racing’.

I never thought that when I was accepted to do a PhD I would spend my weekends making a giant model of a uterus to race sperm through, or that I’d then be invited to music festivals to race these sperm.

But that’s what I found myself doing at this year’s Green Man Festival in Wales, where we returned to Einstein’s Garden, part of the festival full of performances, workshops, musicians, crafts and activities based around science and nature. We’ve been running the Egg and Sperm Race for 18 months now and it basically does what it says on the tin — we race sperm. [...]

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A meeting of young minds

4 Sep 2012

Discussing a poster (Credit: Eliot Bradshaw)

Delegates deep in discussion over a poster (Copyright: Eliot Bradshaw)

PhD student Kathryn Bowles is researching the role of cell signalling in Huntington’s disease at the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity to get together and discuss neurodegenerative research with other early-career researchers, she took matters into her own hands and organised a symposium of her own.

As a student pipetting my way through the second year of my PhD, why on earth would I decide it’s a good idea to hold a national symposium for other early-careerscientists? To plump up my CV? To practise my already-impressive ‘to do’ list writing skills?

Admittedly, both of those were a factor. Most importantly though, I thought it was something that young scientists needed. Most conferences we go to are dominated by our supervisors and star ‘names’ in the field. We could do with the chance to discuss our work with our peers, without the intimidation of more senior scientists. [...]

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Aiming high

31 Aug 2012

Declan Murphy (Copyright: King's College London Institute of Psychiatry)

Declan Murphy (Copyright: King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry)

Professor Declan Murphy studies the link between abnormal brain development and autism. He spoke to Sarah Harrop about leading EU AIMS, the biggest individually-funded autism research project in the world and follow-on from his work on the major MRC-funded study UK AIMS.

Why do autism research?

Autism is much more prevalent than we once thought: we used to think it affected around one in 120 people but we now know it’s more like one in 80. Whether cases are increasing or we’re diagnosing it differently, we’re much more aware that autism must be addressed. Having autism significantly increases your risk for other serious mental health problems such as ADHD, depression and anxiety disorders.

We’re also beginning to understand the enormous cost of autism, both to the individual and to society. In terms of economic burden, it’s the most costly neuropsychiatric disorder currently in the US and the UK. [...]

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£60m to unravel genes and disease

29 Aug 2012

The MRC has awarded £60m over five years to the MRC Human Genetics Unit and the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine (IGMM) at the University of Edinburgh. This video, produced by the University of Edinburgh, explains how researchers will use this funding to look at the genetics that underlie diseases such as melanoma and heart disease, and incorporate what they learn into diagnosing and treating patients. [...]

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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