Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
28 Jun 2012
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? [...]
Continue reading: Taking tips from zebrafish
26 Jun 2012
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. [...]
Continue reading: Profile: Robin Ali
22 Jun 2012
Hashim 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
19 Jun 2012
This article first appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of our magazine Network. [...]
Continue reading: Forty years of tropical science
12 Jun 2012
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. [...]
Continue reading: The LMB at 50
8 Jun 2012
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. [...]
Continue reading: Meeting global challenges
6 Jun 2012
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. [...]
Continue reading: BMJ win for a surprising trial
31 May 2012
In 1991 and 1992, 14,000 pregnant women in Avon in the West of England signed up to be part of the Children of the 90s study. Over 21 years information about their children — from their first steps to variations in their DNA — has been collected and studied, providing one of the richest resources about child development in the world.
This kind of public participation is essential for the success and future of medical research. Without volunteers to donate time and biological samples, scientists can’t fully understand how we stay healthy and how disease develops.
Part-funded by the MRC, the study has gone from strength to strength. As the young people started to turn 21, we caught up with the scientists who curate and work on this vital collection to find out what the future holds.
Video link for access [...]
Continue reading: The Children of the 90s at 21
30 May 2012
George Davey Smith (Copyright: University of Bristol)
Professor George Davey Smith heads up not one but two MRC projects: he directs the Children of the 90s cohort study and the MRC Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology (MRC CAiTE) in Bristol. His career has taken him from Wales to Nicaragua, and India to Glasgow. Katherine Nightingale met George to find out about his itinerant career, cycling and a life without admin.
George Davey Smith was away on unauthorised holiday cycling around Ireland when his counterparts at Cambridge medical school were taught about epidemiology.
Returning the day before the epidemiology module test, he received some limited instruction from friends in the pub, and then did better in the epidemiology test than in other parts of the course. “I realised this was something for me,” he says. [...]
Continue reading: Profile: George Davey Smith
29 May 2012
Cathy Southworth explains why, when faced with the challenge of opening up stem cell science to the public, she turned to comic book artist Edward Ross and science fiction writer Ken Macleod. She is the Public Engagement Manager of OptiStem, an EU-funded stem cell research project based at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh.
When I was tasked last year with developing a resource to open up the world of stem cell science to the public, I must admit my heart groaned a little at the thought of another leaflet or information page that would be lost among the mass of information on the web. We needed something eye-catching and enticing; something that would stand out, all the while ensuring that the science was portrayed accurately.
There was obviously a story to tell; a very human story about how contemporary medical treatments are brought to the clinic. How do ideas develop? How do these ideas become possibilities? How do they get tested? How do we know they are as safe as they can be? How do we decide what ‘safe’ means and who decides? These were among the many questions I wanted to address, along with including an array of characters: scientists, clinicians, regulators, ethicists and patients, to name a few. [...]
Continue reading: Hope beyond hype