Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
9 Jul 2014
Think James Lovelock, and most people think about Gaia theory, his idea that the Earth is a self-regulating system that keeps the conditions for life in a delicate equilibrium. But for 20 years Lovelock was a scientist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, studying a wide range of areas from preventing burns to freezing tissues. Katherine Nightingale went to a Science Museum exhibition about his life and work to find out more from its curator Alex Johnson.
Lovelock (left) with two of his NIMR colleagues, Owen Lidwell (centre) and Robert Bourdillon (Image copyright: Science Museum, courtesy of James Lovelock)
Much is made of James Lovelock’s decades as an independent scientist and inventor in a shed at the bottom of his garden. His thirst for scientific freedom and invention is well known ― even his adolescent short stories feature protagonists who just want to be left alone to pursue their own ideas.
Funny then, that Lovelock himself says that some of his most creative work was done while part of a large institution, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, between 1941 and 1961.
He has been known to refer to his time at the NIMR as an extended apprenticeship, working in various research divisions across the institute, and being encouraged to solve his own problems and create his own equipment. [...]
Continue reading: Bedsheets, boats and biology: James Lovelock and the MRC
1 Jul 2014
As it turns 100, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research has a lot to be proud of, not least some of its contributions to both World Wars. Here Julie Clayton, author of a new history of the institute, looks back on Tommy Work and the unusual role he played in preventing the spread of infectious disease in WWII.
(Image copyright: MRC NIMR)
It was the sneeze that was seen throughout the UK ― in a government poster campaign during World War II that warned against the spread of infectious organisms. The man whose nasal droplets dispersed so well was Tommy Work, a biochemist at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), who found the whole episode highly embarrassing.
This photograph has come to light during a search of the NIMR’s archives for a celebration of the institute’s centenary in 2014, and is published in a book of the institute’s history, A Century of Science for Health. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Sneezing for Britain
12 Mar 2014
The MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) turns 100 this year and its rich history is fertile ground for looking back on past discoveries. This 1960s molecular model represents an important point in the evolution of thinking about the structure of the ribosome. Katherine Nightingale spoke to Dr Bob Cox about constructing the model ― and getting a few giants of biomedical research to sign it too.
Bob Cox’s ribosome model, with Crick’s signature second from right on the top row
Look closely at one of these polystyrene balls and you’ll find the autograph of one of science’s most celebrated sons, Francis Crick. As well as being part of the duo that discovered the structure of DNA, Crick also proposed the “central dogma” of molecular biology: that DNA makes RNA makes protein. Fitting then, that his signature is here on an early model of the ribosome, the molecular machine that makes proteins.
Ribosomes are cellular factories made of RNA and protein which ‘translate’ the genetic code into the corresponding amino acid code, specific to each protein. They are large and complex molecules, made up of around 50 proteins divided into two subunits. They were discovered in 1955, though they didn’t get their name until 1958.
This model, produced by NIMR researcher Bob Cox in 1969, was the first attempt to model ribosome structure in detail. Until then, only blurry microscope pictures had been available. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: An early model of the ribosome
7 Mar 2014
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2014 we’re remembering Dr Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers, a researcher at the MRC National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) who discovered a thyroid hormone which is now used as a treatment option for thyroid diseases. Isabel Baker takes a look at this striking photograph and a scientist who was dedicated to life at the bench, and who earned worldwide recognition for doing what she loved best.
Rosalind Pitt-Rivers at the NIMR in the 1960s
This photograph, taken in the 1960s, shows Rosalind ― better known to her family, friends and colleagues as ‘Ros’ ― at work in the NIMR labs where she worked for 30 years. She looks at ease in the lab, casually holding a test tube and cigarette between her fingers, as she regards the camera with a serious, confident gaze. [...]
Ros arrived in the NIMR lab of Sir Charles Harington in 1942, which was to become a leading centre in the world for paper chromatography. Dr Archer Martin, who developed this technique for separating mixtures of substances in the 1940s, joined the NIMR in 1948*, winning the Nobel Prize in 1952. It was using these newly developed chromatography techniques that Ros discovered a new thyroid hormone, triiodothyronine (T3), with Dr Jack Gross, in 1952.
Continue reading: Behind the picture: A formula for success
15 Oct 2013
Len Ward’s colleague Vic Wright in the NIMR chemistry lab in 1934. Len had to remove and clean all these bottles once a week (please see copyright disclaimer below.)
The vital work of laboratory technicians is often missing from accounts of modern medical research. Medical historian Professor Tilli Tansey studied practices at the MRC’s National Institute of Medical Research to explore changing attitudes to lab technicians over the past century.
The National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) was established in Hampstead in 1919. Initially, four departments were formed: Applied Physiology; Bacteriology; Biochemistry & Pharmacology; and Statistics. Each departmental head employed a lab assistant, and negotiated directly with the MRC about their technician’s salary and conditions. However by 1920, with nine scientists and approximately 15 assistants (including technical, animal house and maintenance staff) this system became unworkable. Consequently, formal pay and pension scales for all staff were created and a limited number of higher ‘A’ technical grades. [...]
Continue reading: Last of the ‘lab-boys’
18 Sep 2013
We use animals in research because they’re so similar to humans. So what can be gained from using marsupials, such as opossums and wallabies, that are so far from humans on the evolutionary family tree? James Turner, a researcher at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (MRC NIMR), tells us why finding similarities in these more distant relatives can lead to important and surprising results.
For many years, scientists have used laboratory mammals such as monkeys, mice and rabbits to understand how human diseases develop and how they can be treated. The DNA make-up, or genome sequence, of these animals is very similar to that of humans, and we’re all members of the largest class of mammals (the ‘eutherians’), so they make good experimental models.
But during the past few years, my group at the MRC NIMR, along with other researchers, have started using a more unusual type of mammal, the ‘metatherian’, or marsupial, to understand human biology. Marsupials, such as opossums and wallabies, can provide us with a level of insight that other mammals cannot. [...]
Continue reading: Why I use marsupials in research
17 Sep 2013
A male opossum in its cardboard tube (Image copyright: NIMR)
Mice, rats, macaques, ferrets … there are quite a few well-known laboratory mammals. But opossums? What can these solitary marsupials offer science? Katherine Nightingale went to the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (MRC NIMR) to find out.
It’s Thursday morning at the MRC NIMR and the institute’s 100 opossums are going about their usual business. Being nocturnal, that means not a lot. In their room, most of the female opossums are burrowed into their nests, big eyes peering out from under shredded paper. Next door, the males are settling into their new double-height cages, tails dangling from one end of their cardboard tubes and long noses protruding from the other.
Native to South America, the grey short-tailed opossum (Monodelphis domestica), also known as the laboratory opossum, is a fairly unusual research animal. The NIMR is the only place in the UK to keep a colony, with other larger colonies at the University of Trieste in Italy, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in the United States.
Yet in recent years, scientists have begun to recognise just how useful the opossum can be to medical research. Being mammals, they share many genes and biological processes with humans, and so can be used as model animals in much the same way as mice or rats.
But opossums have other tricks up their sleeves. They are marsupials, meaning their branch of the mammal family tree split from ours around 148 million years ago. This means they differ from us in crucial ways, and by comparing these differences, researchers can learn more about the biology of people. [...]
Continue reading: Making a name for itself: the laboratory opossum
1 Aug 2013
Last week, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research hosted the first of our Wikipedia edit-a-thons aiming to raise the profile of women in science. More than 20 editors took part, creating and improving the Wikipedia articles for female scientists from the pioneering geneticist Florence Margaret Durham to modern-day researchers such as Uta Frith. Watch the audio slideshow below for a flavour of the event.
(Photos courtesy of Katie Chan (Wikimedia UK) and the MRC National Institute for Medical Research. Image credit for Uta Frith: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images.) [...]
Continue reading: Writing women: a Wikipedia edit-a-thon
8 Jul 2013
A flu-infected ferret sneezing
It’s 80 years today since the identification of the flu virus by researchers at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research was published in The Lancet. John McCauley, Director of the World Health Organization Influenza Centre based at NIMR, looks back on the discovery, how it led to the vaccination programmes we see today, and the role played by ferrets.
The devastating flu pandemic of 1918 killed more than 50 million people worldwide, highlighting the urgent need for research into the disease. But it was not until 1933 that scientists at the MRC NIMR (then based at Hampstead) identified and managed to grow the virus in the lab.
It was during a large flu epidemic in the winter of 1932 to 1933 that scientists at the NIMR’s animal research outpost at Mill Hill noticed that ferrets, being used to develop a vaccine against the disease canine distemper, were suffering from the same symptoms as people with flu. [...]
Continue reading: Ferrets, fever and flu
6 Jun 2013
(Image credit: Flickr/JenK)
Tea rooms and canteens have long been popular places for scientists to mingle and swap ideas. Katherine Nightingale explores how a chat over a coffee can lead to unexpected discoveries.
In the bright and airy canteen of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology’s new building, Dr Richard Henderson is demonstrating his habit of drawing on saucers, taking a — water soluble — pen from his pocket and sketching a neat blue graph on a saucer’s rim.
He’s not doodling but rather trying to get across the idea that the canteen, while a place to get a cup of tea or coffee, is also a place to share ideas, sometimes on the very crockery provided.
It’s not a new concept. The tea room in the Physics Department at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge inspired Max Perutz to persuade the MRC to build a canteen open to everyone when the MRC unit moved to the ‘old’ LMB building in 1962. As the LMB’s chairman, he was keen to create a space where people from different disciplines and career stages could get together. [...]
Continue reading: The great coffee breakthrough