Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
8 Oct 2014
In her runner-up article for the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award Wiebke Nahrendorf, a PhD student at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, explains why she’s been infecting volunteers with malaria in the name of research.
Nijmegen, The Netherlands. It is cold and a slight drizzle makes it uncomfortable to roam the campus of Radboud University. It seems like an unlikely place to study a tropical disease. And yet behind the walls of the university medical centre an angry buzz emerges from cups, which look just like the ones for take-away coffee ― only with a bit of white netting on top. The source of the buzzing: fifteen mosquitoes in each pot. These mosquitoes are infected with the deadliest parasite on earth: Plasmodium, which causes malaria. And they are hungry. For human blood.
In the waiting room two dozen volunteers are about to be called in to put their left arm on to a cup filled with these mosquitoes, which, while sucking blood, will infect them with malaria. But HOLD ON! That seems like a terrible idea! Of course, these brave volunteers knew what they were in for and there is a whole battalion of dedicated doctors to check on them 24/7 and treat them if necessary, but still… Why are we infecting healthy Dutch people with malaria? [...]
Continue reading: Vaccines and volunteers: preventing malaria with a cup of mosquitoes
1 Oct 2014
Christoffer van Tulleken
In his winning article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2014, Dr Christoffer van Tulleken tells us what a chicken has got to do with HIV, and how his research studying how the virus interacts with machinery inside our cells may, or may not, lead to new drugs.
The most important chicken in medical history was a Plymouth Barred Rock Hen from New York. The chicken’s name is not recorded but in 1911 she was brought by her owner to a young pathologist called Peyton Rous because of a large tumour growing out of her neck.
Rous subsequently performed a series of experiments so elegant it is hard to believe he didn’t know what he was looking for. He showed that the filtered extract from the tumour, containing no actual tumour cells, could cause more tumours in another chicken. Rous had discovered a type of virus that can cause cancer called a retrovirus. [...]
Continue reading: How 100-year-old research could help patients with HIV
12 May 2014
Max Perutz, the Austrian-born molecular biologist who founded the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962, won the Nobel Prize for his work deciphering the structure of the blood protein haemoglobin. But he was also a passionate writer and speaker committed to revealing the intricacies of science to new audiences. As we launch the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Katherine Nightingale looks back on his forays into the world of words.
Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)
Max Perutz knew that there were parallels to be drawn between scientists and writers. In one of his collections of essays, he wrote “Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creation ― which makes for one culture rather than two…”
He had a long-held interest in words, keeping a book in which he wrote down quotations that struck him as particularly good, and was a prolific writer of letters to family, friends and colleagues. He began writing popular science articles for magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American in the 1940s, sometimes about his own research, and sometimes on more personal notes, such as a later New Scientist article on his founding of the LMB.
His popular science articles were full of the analogies and examples to make his research understandable to the general reader. Like many writers, he wasn’t a fan of being edited. [...]
Continue reading: Max Perutz: science communicator
24 Oct 2013
David Willetts and Nick Dand
Nick Dand, a PhD student at King’s College London, explains his research developing tools to find the genetic mutations that cause rare diseases. This article was commended for the 2013 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.
Finding a needle in a haystack is – presumably – not easy. But in theory, with enough time and a lot of patience most of us could probably manage it, especially if we cheated a bit (with a magnet?). So let’s make the problem harder. Now we’ve lost our needle in a haystack which already happens to contain hundreds or thousands of other needles, all subtly different in shape or size. Even if we can pull out all of the needles we’re stuck: how can we find our needle when they all look so similar?
Identifying the genetic mutations that cause rare diseases feels a lot like the “too many needles” problem.
Recent technological breakthroughs mean we can now read a person’s entire genetic code, the blueprint found in every cell that guides how our bodies develop and function. It is a sequence of three billion nucleotides (which can be A, C, T or G) and is organised into units called genes, each having a specific function. Most of the code is identical from person to person (that’s what makes us all humans) but a tiny fraction can vary (that’s what makes us different humans). [...]
Continue reading: Rare genetic disease: a haystack full of needles
16 Oct 2013
Oliver receives his certificate from David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science
Why does excess sugar in the bloodstream cause nerve damage in diabetes? In his article commended for the 2013 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Oliver Freeman, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, tells us how he’s trying to find out.
Strewn across my desk are big sheets of A3 paper. Like sprawling cobwebs, lines criss-cross all over them, splattered with a traffic light system. These are diagrams showing the pathways of metabolism. Built up over decades, they describe what happens to chemicals in your cells, and how cells make energy from them.
The traffic light system is for me. It tells me which chemicals go down (red), which do not change (yellow) and which go up (green). I am interested in diabetes, and more specifically the impact that it has on energy generation in the nervous system. The colours denote the differences between diabetic nerves and healthy nerves. [...]
Continue reading: Why sugary nerves aren’t so sweet
9 Oct 2013
Ben receives his certificate from David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science
Viruses are produced on an assembly line just like cars and laptops, and Ben Bleasdale is looking to throw a spanner in the works, as he explains in his article commended for the 2013 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.
Look at your phone on the desk next to you, perhaps the laptop you’re reading this on, maybe a car passing outside the window or a plane overhead. All these machines were made on a production line. Each one representing a list of components, assembled in a precise order to create a series of replicas — each machine becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
Viruses are molecular machines, likewise assembled from a list of parts pieced together in a specific order. Humans weren’t the first to recognise the potential of a production line to rapidly manufacture their Model T motorcars, Nature arrived at the solution first. [...]
Continue reading: Molecular Fordism: manufacturing a monster
3 Oct 2013
In her runner-up article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2013, Clare Finlay, a Phd student at King’s College London, explains her research looking at ways to stop dopamine-producing brain cells from dying in Parkinson’s disease.
It starts small, a seemingly innocuous tremor of one little finger that you attribute to working later than usual or that extra shot of espresso in your morning cappuccino. You ignore it, assume it will resolve itself, but soon you find that you’re typing extra letters on your keyboard; ‘A’s and ‘S’s and ‘W’s. A feeling that something isn’t quite right creeps in to your mind, and only intensifies when your family notices that you’ve started to shuffle slightly when you walk and that your once smiley face is becoming less expressive. So you make an appointment with the doctor to see what the cause might be, and receive the news that it is probably the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder, characterised by slowness and rigidity of movement and, perhaps more recognisably, a resting tremor. It’s caused by the degeneration of a group of cells in the brain that produce a chemical called dopamine. The job of dopamine in the brain is to balance the activity of two opposing movement-related pathways; the ‘direct’ pathway, which acts as the accelerator and is activated by dopamine, and the ‘indirect’ pathway, which acts as the brake and is inhibited by dopamine. [...]
Continue reading: A step in the right direction for Parkinson’s disease treatment?
4 Jun 2013
Our Max Perutz Science Writing Award is now in its sixteenth year. Here some of the previous winners recall their motivations for entering, provide tips for new entrants and update us on their subsequent careers. This year we’ve also included a 100-word Centenary Challenge and a Centenary Prize for the best title because, yes, you guessed it, it’s our Centenary year. The competition closes on 23 June.
Angharad Davies (Image copyright: Angharad Davies)
Angharad Davies, 2003 winner
Why did you enter the MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award?
Because I love writing! I had done a lot of creative writing previously, all kinds of things, even a pantomime for my medical school. So when I heard about the Max Perutz Award I jumped at the opportunity to try my hand at science writing.
How did taking part in the competition and winning the award change your thoughts about science communication?
The most important thing I learned was that there is a skill in telling the story ‘backwards’. Instead of explaining the research from beginning to end, it’s easiest to engage the reader by starting with the end-point — probably the most interesting and accessible part — and then once the reader is interested, work backwards explaining how you got there. This can be hard when you’re used to working through things in a very methodical and logical manner. [...]
Continue reading: Why should you enter the Max Perutz Award?
2 May 2013
Andrew Bastawrous, an eye surgeon at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, won last year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award with an article explaining the importance of his research developing smartphone apps for checking eye health. As we launch this year’s competition, Andrew explains what winning the award did for him, and provides a few tips for budding writers.
Andrew with his wife Madeleine and son Lucas (left), and the whole research team (Image copyright: Andrew Bastawrous)
Why did you enter the Max Perutz Science Writing Award?
A fellow PhD student at the university sent me the link and suggested I should apply. It made sense to write an article explaining the project in non-scientific terms as I was always being asked by friends and family what it was that I was doing. This was the perfect opportunity to distill my thoughts into a form that could be understood by everyone and that I could direct people to if they were interested. I never expected to end up winning the competition.
How did taking part in the competition and winning the award change your thoughts about science communication?
Having to sit down and write something without jargon made me look at my work in a different light. Trying to see something you are deeply involved in from a more distant and very different perspective can be quite challenging, but very refreshing. The question set to us was, “Why does your research matter?” Getting to the heart of that question meant engaging with the emotion that drives the work in the first place.
The whole process has made me appreciate good writers and their ability to present complex information in an engaging way. It has also encouraged me to write about the everyday scientific work I’m doing in Kenya in a manner that can be understood by friends and family. [...]
Continue reading: Sharing science
13 Dec 2012
Why are some people more vulnerable to flu than others? Sarah Smith, a PhD student at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, describes one reason why in her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012.
You’re 100 feet below sea level, crammed onto a London tube full of commuters, all breathing in the same stale air. The tickle in your nose is becoming too hard to ignore, but where’s a tissue when you need it? Aaaachhhhhhooo! Oops. You just sent 20,000 salivary droplets hurtling across the carriage. If you’re infected with influenza there could be thousands of viral particles in that sneeze. If everyone in your carriage inhaled a few of these particles, the outcome could be dramatically different for each person. Why? That is where my research matters.
After a virus infects a person, the severity of the disease that develops is influenced by both the virus and human genes. A gene is a sequence of DNA nucleotides (A, T, G or C) that provides the instructions for a cell or virus to assemble a protein, the bricks and mortar of the cell. [...]
Continue reading: Knowing me, knowing flu