Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
22 Nov 2012
In his shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Rodrigo Braga, a PhD student at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, describes efforts to make an atlas of the developing brain.
The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. With it we have built entire civilisations and harnessed the power of nature. Yet despite their amazing complexity, all brains begin life as a tiny bundle of cells that divide, migrate and miraculously wire themselves up into the thinking machines that make us who we are. The fact that it happens at all is almost as astounding as the finished product itself, but it doesn’t always work out as Mother Nature intended.
Tucked up in her crib at the Neonatal Imaging Centre of Hammersmith Hospital, newborn baby Eliza is sleeping through another magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Around her head, the scanner machinery wails and screams with high-pitched ululations, but she sleeps peacefully, ears protected by tiny muffs. [...]
Continue reading: Eliza and the Great Spaghetti Monster
13 Nov 2012
In her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Hannah Buggey from the University of Manchester takes us through her research combating inflammation in the brain after a stroke.
Picture yourself in the shower. Now imagine that familiar feeling when the water starts to build up around your feet, and you’re racing to finish washing out shampoo before water spills over the edge of the shower tray. This clogged up drain is similar to what happens during a stroke.
In your plumbing, a hairball sticks together with bits of soap and becomes lodged in the U-bend. In stroke, a clot often forms from a build-up of fatty plaques in our blood vessels — the ones we’re always being told can be avoided by eating cholesterol-lowering margarine. This clot can break away and travel through your blood into your brain where the vessels have lots of twists and ‘U-bends’.
When a clot gets stuck here, the areas of the brain the blood is feeding are cut off from their supply of oxygen and nutrients. In the same way that you need to act fast to stop the shower water spilling over the edge, you need to act fast after a stroke. Brain cells can’t cope without oxygen, and during a stroke two million of them die every minute. [...]
Continue reading: The inflamed brain: why my research matters
6 Nov 2012
Vicky Young (Copyright: Vicky Young)
In her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Vicky Young explains her research into endometriosis and why a protein that seems to make organ linings ‘stickier’ could be the key to treating this painful and debilitating condition, treatments for which have changed little since the days of Marilyn Monroe.
“What good is it being Marilyn Monroe? Why can’t I just be an ordinary woman? A woman who can have a family … I’d settle for just one baby. My own baby.”
As the quintessential sex symbol of modern time, Marilyn Monroe oozed femininity and appeared to be the ideal women, but behind closed doors she spent most of her life in chronic pain, became addicted to pain-killers, and suffered from difficulties in conceiving and at least two miscarriages. [...]
Continue reading: Something’s got to give
2 Nov 2012
Nicola Hodson takes apart the transport systems in cells to see how they work and how their disruption might cause disease. Here, in her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, she invites us into the microscopic city of the cell.
I’m sitting in Cambridge on a Monday morning observing the relentless chaos of commuter traffic. Cargo-bearing vehicles zip in, out and around the city, efficiently delivering goods to their required locations. All this hustle and bustle is essential to the integrity of such a busy city, without it everything would grind to a halt. I pull my chair back from the microscope in wonder, for what lies before me is not actually a city, but a single human cell.
My research focuses on how vehicles transport cargo into, out of and around a cell. A cell, just like a city, needs particular things to keep going. In a city, food needs to be delivered to supermarkets or to families who have ordered their groceries online. Likewise, a cell needs to bring nutrients inside and just like the supermarkets and the online shoppers, it can select exactly what it wants delivering and when. [...]
Continue reading: Cell city
19 Oct 2012
James Fuller discusses his research into developing antibodies against Alzheimer’s disease in the third and final highly commended article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012.
Imagine living with the knowledge that over the next decade your brain will be slowly destroyed by your own body. As neurons are snuffed out like candles, what will you lose next? Will it be precious memories? The ability to perform an everyday task? Perhaps a facet of your personality? Your family and friends will have to watch helpless as the person they love is slowly eroded away.
Imagine now finding out that with all of our medical expertise there is nothing we can do. Not one treatment that can slow the course of this deterioration. This is a reality for someone diagnosed with dementia. [...]
Continue reading: Fighting Alzheimer’s disease? Get the immune system on board
17 Oct 2012
Sarah Caddy (Copyright: Sarah Caddy)
In the second of the three highly commended articles for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Sarah Caddy talks norovirus — its less-than-pleasant effects, why it’s so difficult to study in the lab, and how the key to tackling it might lie in developing drugs that target the human proteins the virus needs to survive.
One minute you’re feeling great, and the next the contents of your intestines are coming out of both ends. This is norovirus, the horrible cause of winter vomiting disease. One in twenty people in the UK suffer from the effects of this tiny virus every year. It is described as causing ‘mild gastroenteritis’ but if you have had it, you will know it is anything but mild. And aside from the individual trauma, it is a financial disaster to the UK. An estimated £100 million is spent by the NHS each year due to ward closures forced by norovirus outbreaks.
Surprisingly, norovirus is closely related to poliovirus, a virus on the brink of extinction thanks to international vaccination. So why haven’t we managed to eradicate norovirus yet? Why can’t we treat it? Is prevention ever going to be possible?
It turns out that norovirus is very elusive when trying to grow it in cells in the lab. No experiments have managed to make norovirus replicate naturally inside experimental cells. In contrast, polio was first grown in cells in a lab in 1948, allowing extensive research to be carried out. A polio vaccine was developed just four years later, and 2012 may be the last year that poliovirus exists. [...]
Continue reading: Curing the ‘two-bucket’ disease
11 Oct 2012
Smartphone showing an eyescan (Copyright: Andrew Bastawrous)
Andrew Bastawrous, winner of the MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, is soon to head off to Nakuru County in Kenya to diagnose and map blindness in local populations with both existing methods and his new ‘EyePhone’ app. Here he tells us about the happy coincidences that have got him to this point.
Seven years ago as a very junior doctor attending an international health conference I found myself sitting in the wrong room at the wrong time. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, it dawned on me that I’d misread the programme and the session I thought was on healthcare in Africa was actually on making the most of medical school.
When it got to my turn, I explained apologetically that I was in the wrong session and introduced myself as a wannabe ophthalmologist (eye surgeon) with a dream of working in Africa. I contemplated daydreaming the rest of the session away, but as the introductions continued, I heard another man apologising for also having misread the programme. At least I wasn’t the only one. [...]
Continue reading: Serendipity in science
9 Oct 2012
In the first of the three highly commended articles for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Ben Martynoga describes his research looking at how to reprogram brain stem cells and even other types of cells to become new neurons — research that could one day lead to treatments for brain diseases.
Your skull contains one of the most sophisticated computing systems in the universe. Your brain can read and understand the words on this page, it can empathise with other humans, and it is even aware of its own existence. Nothing we have built or discovered comes close to this competence. Yet brilliant as your brain is, it has one fatal flaw: it is terrible at regenerating itself.
Cut your hair and it keeps on growing. Cut your skin and it rapidly heals. But once a brain disease like Alzheimer’s disease sets in and starts to kill off your brain cells, the damage gets progressively worse, with devastating effects. And of course, as our families and communities live longer, age-related dementia and memory loss are ever more common. [...]
Continue reading: The transcription factor: a key to brain repair?
24 Sep 2012
The MRC developed the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 15 years ago to encourage MRC-funded scientists to communicate their research to a wider audience.
MRC Fellow Dr Andrew Bastawrous was announced as the winner at this year’s awards ceremony on 12 September 2012. During the event we spoke to the shortlisted writers about their experience of entering this year’s competition. We also spoke to judges, Dr Jenny Rohn and Sir John Savill, who both urged MRC early-career researchers to take part next year. [...]
Continue reading: Video: Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012
24 Sep 2012
In the article that won the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Andrew Bastawrous tells us about his ‘Eye Phone’ app, developed to diagnose blindness in resource-poor settings and soon to be taken for a road test in Kenya.
Everything is hazy; I can’t even see my glasses. I keep my eyes closed; it doesn’t seem to make much difference opening them. My hand feels clumsily around the bedside table, knocking my mobile phone to the floor, and eventually I come across my glasses. On they go, and I can see again. Those brief few seconds as I awake each morning serve as a continual reminder of how much I value my sight.
Many people fear losing their sight more than any other sense. I am fortunate to have perfect vision when wearing corrective glasses or contact lenses, and privileged to be in a profession (ophthalmology) where centuries of research and practice have brought us to a point where much of blindness is curable or preventable. There is no feeling like it: when the eye patch comes off someone who hasn’t seen for years, witnessing their sheer wonder as they take in their surroundings and their anticipation to see faces that have become voices and places that have become memories. [...]
Continue reading: Studying blindness? There’s an app for that