Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
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
26 Oct 2012
Alan volunteering at The Big Bang Fair (Copyright: Alan Boyd)
Who are the Naked Scientists? And what’s it like to work with them? Alan Boyd, a PhD student from the MRC Institute for Hearing Research in Glasgow, found out on an eight-week MRC-funded foray into their audio world.
Call it what you will: science journalism; science communication; public engagement with science. Whatever the name, it’s about taking sometimes abstract, often difficult and almost always important discoveries in scientific research and making them accessible to the general public.
Over the past 10 years, the multi-award winning Naked Scientists radio show, podcasts, websites and live shows have become a major conduit through which people around the world receive their weekly dose of science.
The Naked Scientists occupy an office and a cupboard in the Department of Pathology at the University of Cambridge. Upon starting my internship, three things were clear. Firstly, this office had windows. As a PhD student in the depths of a hospital, that’s something I’d long ago dismissed as an unfathomable luxury. Secondly, lab meetings were to be replaced by strong coffee and continuously tight deadlines, flanked by publishing embargoes (which I nearly broke at least twice) and preparation for the radio show on a Sunday evening. Thirdly, the Naked Scientists remain disappointingly unfaithful to their name… [...]
Continue reading: Getting naked for science
19 Oct 2012
Brian Cox and other members of the Horizon team on a shoot (Copyright: Andrew Holding)
It’s easy for scientists to complain about research being misrepresented in the news, but what happens when you drop a researcher into the crew of the BBC’s Horizon programme? MRC researcher Andrew Holding received a British Science Association Media Fellowship to do just that and tells us about the experience.
I’ll admit that I used to be something of an armchair critic of how science was reported in the media, but after my two-month fellowship experience with the BBC I have nothing but respect for the teams getting science shows onto our screens.
As I waited on an unfamiliar platform at my local train station much earlier than usual on that first morning, London instead of Cambridge-bound, I started to ponder what I was expecting. [...]
Continue reading: The other side of the screen
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
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?
4 Oct 2012
The slide boxes containing slices of rat brain tissue that inspired Aga (Copyright: Nervous Encounter)
Artists from the new interdisciplinary MA Art and Science programme at Central Saint Martins have been working with researchers at the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit at the University of Oxford to produce an exhibition called A Nervous Encounter. Here artist Aga Tamiola tells us what she got out of the project, and shows us the artwork she produced.
Prior to visiting the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit, I had never been to a biomedical research lab before. Excitement and curiosity come to mind when I recall my response to that very first visit in November 2011.
We visited a lab which focuses on research into the basal ganglia, a region deep in the brain involved in the initiation and control of movement.
I became fascinated with the slide boxes that were kept all over the lab. I wanted to find out what was inside them, and about the people who created them. The scientists were extremely generous with their time, showing me that the boxes contain glass slides on which thin slices of rat brain tissue are preserved. By looking at the slides under the microscope, the researchers can learn about the nerve cells (neurons) that make up the tissue. [...]
Continue reading: When worlds collide
3 Oct 2012
Alistair MacLullich poses by a glass bus stop to ‘create reflections suggesting disconnected minds’
What’s the difference between reading a research paper and meeting the scientist behind it? Quite a lot, says MRC Science Writer Sarah Harrop, who profiled MRC scientists in their natural habitats for our Annual Review 2011/12, published today.
As a self-confessed hoarder — even when it comes to words — my self-editing skills sometimes need a little work. So the hardest thing about writing a review of our scientists’ achievements from the past year was deciding what to leave out.
Earlier this year I spent many eyeball-burning hours sifting through information that our scientists had submitted to MRC Researchfish to pick out just 60 of the most interesting and important discoveries. From brain-repairing proteins to prototype flu vaccines, a memory stick-sized DNA sequencer to a wound-healing gel containing maggot enzymes, I was spoiled for choice. And that was just the science. Meeting six of the scientists and hearing their stories unleashed yet more editing dilemmas. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the research papers
2 Oct 2012
In the runner-up article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Ketan Shah gives us an unconventional description of his work helping to develop new radioactive drugs for use in the scanning and treatment of cancer.
I am the drug and there is a sting in my tail. I have gone by many names as I have developed, but my most user-friendly is Indium-EGF. I want to show the world that I am special.
They are trying not to put too much pressure on me, but I know they are excited as they get me ready to go into a person for the first time, hopefully in 2012. They are supposed to be detached and scientific; they are not supposed to be excited. But I know they are. [...]
Continue reading: I am the drug
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
6 Sep 2012
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. [...]
Continue reading: Racing sperm at a different kind of festival