Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
4 Feb 2016
Last week an international group of basic scientists and clinicians released results showing evidence of an epigenetic switch in mammals that controls obesity. Dr Tony Coll at the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit explains why this is just the beginning of an exciting exploration of the role played by epigenetic factors in complex human diseases.
Who am I not? Cell video abstracts. Cell January 28, 2016 (Vol. 164, Issue 3) [...]
Continue reading: Finding the obesity ‘off switch’
22 Oct 2015
Every year the Home Office publishes figures on the use of animals in scientific procedures in the UK. This year, it has changed its methods to record the maximum severity of the procedures every animal has experienced in its lifetime. This way of counting will produce a much more accurate picture of animal research in the UK. But what exactly is a procedure? And what’s the difference between a mild procedure and a severe one? Here Dr Sara Wells, Director of the MRC Mary Lyon Centre, explains.
Let’s start with the basics. Why exactly does the Home Office publish numbers every year?
Animal research in the UK is regulated under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. This requires that every year the Home Office publishes information about protected animals used in scientific research.
To carry out research with these animals, researchers must apply for a project licence from the Home Office, and every licence-holder must then complete ‘annual returns’ about the animals used. All these returns are consolidated and form the report published today.
Yes. This means any living vertebrate other than man and any living cephalopod (eg octopus, cuttlefish, squid).
The use of other animals in research, such as fruitflies or nematode worms, is not subject to the same kind of scrutiny. [...]
Continue reading: Animal research figures – categorising severity
7 May 2015
Model organisms have provided the foundation for building our understanding of life, including human disease. Now Homo sapiens has joined this select group, adding knowledge we can apply to ourselves and our myriad companion species. But to resolve even one small part of the moving, shifting puzzle of life, we need them all, writes Dr Ewan Birney, Associate Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI).
Ewan Birney (Image copyright: EMBL-EBI)
Biology is incredibly complex. Even the simplest bacteria make intricate decisions and balance different demands, all via chemical reactions happening simultaneously in what seems like just a bag of molecules: the cell.
Larger organisms all start as a single cell and eventually become living creatures that can fly, or slither, or think – sometimes living for just a day and sometimes for centuries. Evolution has, quite amazingly, given rise to everything from uranium-feeding bacteria to massive sequoias and tax-filing, road-building, finger-painting humans.
Unpicking the complexity of biology is hard, in part because so many things are happening all at once. We’ve been working on it for centuries, building layer upon layer of knowledge collectively, usually relying on specific organisms with which we accumulate large amounts of knowledge on the processes of life. [...]
Continue reading: Using humans as a model organism
1 May 2015
More than one million people have signed a petition which threatens to repeal European regulations for animal research. Dr Sherie Wright, Senior Corporate Governance and Policy Officer at the MRC, explains why animal research is so important, and why efforts to ban it in Europe could compromise both animal welfare and scientific research.
The ‘Stop Vivisection’ European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is founded on the erroneous belief that animal research is “useless for humans and exposes us to serious risks with regard to our future well-being”. It seeks to repeal the European Directive 2010/63/EU which regulates the use of animals (vertebrates and some others) in research in EU countries.
We understand why many people are uncomfortable with animal research. No one enjoys using animals, but it is far from useless. And while progress is being made towards developing non-animal research methods, it remains the best option we have in many areas of science.
We use animals because of their similarity to humans. The biology we share with vertebrates make them incredibly useful models for learning about biological processes.
Animal research has also led to significant advances in our understanding and treatment of both human and animal disease. The list of medical interventions made possible by animal research is long, from organ transplantation and the development of antibiotics, to anaesthetics and vaccines. [...]
Continue reading: Citizens’ initiative could endanger animal research
3 Feb 2015
Dr Mary Lyon, an important figure in the field of mouse genetics, died in December. Here Katherine Nightingale looks back on her career, from a ‘titular’ degree to her impact on generations of scientists, via a discovery in the early 1960s which explained a fundamental difference between men and women in the inheritance of disease.
A portrait of Mary Lyon by artist Dr Lizzie Burns (Image copyright: Dr Lizzie Burns)
It’s not often that the MRC names a building after a scientist, even with our roll-call of scientific greats. But at MRC Harwell in Oxfordshire, the MRC Mary Lyon Centre teems with life — murine life that is. Opened in 2004, the centre is a national facility for mouse genetics where genetically modified mice are produced, cared for and studied.
Mary Lyon, who died on Christmas day 2014 aged 89, worked with mice throughout her scientific career, becoming one of the foremost geneticists of the 20th century through her research on mice with mutated genes. She made her most famous discovery, named ‘lyonisation’ in her honour, during her time at MRC Harwell. [...]
Continue reading: Remembering Mary Lyon and her impact on mouse genetics
4 Dec 2014
Staff with dogs at Rhodes Farm in 1928
Today’s research animals live in high-tech environments designed with welfare in mind. The contrast with the situation in the early 20th century when the MRC National Institute for Medical Research was founded is marked, and the institute itself has made a huge contribution to this progress. Here we look at just some of their contributions, extracted from a book telling the story of the research institute’s 100-year history.
No one does animal research for the sake of it, and those charged with looking after research animals are committed ― and held by law ― to ensuring that animals used in research are provided with the highest standards of care and welfare.
In the institute’s early days, animals were housed in individual labs, but in 1922 the MRC bought 39 acres of land at Mill Hill in north London to create field laboratories at Rhodes Farm. Within a year, there were specially designed facilities for breeding and keeping dogs and small animals, with local girls helping to care for and exercise the dogs. At the main institute site in Hampstead animals were kept in a new annex ― built in 1927 ― in “the highest possible standard of hygienic conditions for the keeping of experimental animals”. [...]
Continue reading: The history of animal research at the NIMR
28 Oct 2014
Jane Patrick, a PhD student at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, studies zebrafish to learn more about muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy. She explains her work in her commended entry for the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.
Which muscles are you using right now? Perhaps you’re absent-mindedly shaking a leg or munching on food? At the very least, I expect you’re breathing. The chances are you haven’t even noticed your muscles working. Most of us take our muscles for granted, but for a child born with an inherited muscle disease, such as myopathy or muscular dystrophy, it isn’t that simple.
These children have a faulty copy of a gene meaning their muscle doesn’t develop or work properly, so they have weak or degenerating muscles from birth or a very young age, and often developmental problems too. The problem is there are a vast number of different genes that can be affected, some unique to one patient, which gives a huge range of symptoms and makes it difficult to find an effective treatment. [...]
Continue reading: Fishing for treatments for muscle diseases
16 Oct 2014
Newcastle University’s Thomas Hall listens to the chatter between neurons to find signals which could help restore movement to people paralysed by strokes or spinal injuries. He describes his research in his commended entry for the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.
I visit Charlotte on a Saturday morning, arriving to the smell of fresh baking. After seeing her grandchildren, we head to the village hall for a surprisingly competitive monthly bake-off. But I’m not here just for tea and cake. A year ago, aged 73, Charlotte suffered a stroke, leaving her wheelchair-bound and with her right arm almost completely paralysed. One day she was working as a freelance architect; the next, she was unable to even write or dress herself.
But six months later, in 2034, Charlotte became one of around 200 patients worldwide fitted with a revolutionary new medical device called a ‘brain-computer interface’, or BCI.
Back at home, she shows me the scar on her scalp where doctors implanted thousands of microscopic electrodes in the part of her brain that controls her right arm — the part that was ‘disconnected’ by the stroke. [...]
Continue reading: Computer-connected brains: science fiction or science future?
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
5 Mar 2014
How are mice helping with hearing research? Professor Steve Brown, the Director of the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit, carries out research investigating the genetic basis of deafness by changing specific genes in mice to find out their role in hearing. His work has led to the identification of a potential new treatment for glue ear in children. Here he describes the work of the MRC Mary Lyon Centre and shows us a hearing experiment in which an anaesthetised mouse is tested for its response to a particular tone.
[Video link for access.] [...]
Continue reading: Video: Using mice in hearing research