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Insight blog: Posts tagged with basic research

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

How to grow a ‘brain’

2 Jul 2015

Being able to grow rudimentary brain tissue in the lab means that researchers can study organ development and disease. But how do you go from stem cells to a ‘mini-brain’? Ben Martynoga reports for the Long + Short.

A cross-section of a cerebral organoid (Image copyright: IMBA/ Madeline A. Lancaster)

A cross-section of a cerebral organoid or ‘mini-brain’ (Image copyright: IMBA/ Madeline A. Lancaster)

It sounds like witchcraft. Scientists take a sample of your skin, transform the skin cells into stem cells, and from these grow pea-sized blobs of brain. Living, human brain, built from your cells.

Back in 2010, Madeline Lancaster, the inventor of this powerful new procedure, was fresh from her PhD in California, and learning the ropes in a new lab in Vienna. She set out to grow brain cells on the flat bottom of the Petri dish. But many cells refused to stay put: they floated up and massed into small balls. This was a familiar problem, but it piqued Lancaster’s interest.

How big could the balls grow? She encased them in protective jelly and agitated her broth, so nutrients and oxygen could penetrate deeper. Eventually, in 2013, she coaxed them into growing up to several millimetres across. [1] This was new. [...]

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Science doesn’t only need sprinters

18 Mar 2015

At the moment, researchers have a certain number of years after their PhD to apply for MRC fellowships, after which point they’re ineligible. But is a ticking clock the best way for scientists to flourish? Here Simone Bryan, Programme Manager for Strategic Projects here at the MRC, explains why we’re removing time-bound criteria from our fellowship applications to help give people the time they need.  

A hurdler seen through a row of hurdles

(Image: Robert Voors on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


One of the best things about my job is getting the chance to meet so many brilliant and talented researchers who are doing jobs they love. But, for all its wonder, pursuing a research career is competitive and challenging.

In particular, moving from being a postdoc to an independent investigator in your own right is hugely challenging. It’s usually done by securing a personal fellowship which pays your salary and research costs. [...]

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Remembering Mary Lyon and her impact on mouse genetics

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

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.   [...]

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Behind the picture: Marjory Stephenson and bacterial biochemistry

26 Jan 2015

January 2015 marks 130 years since the birth of Marjory Stephenson, a researcher who pioneered the study of biochemistry in bacteria and was one of the first two women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945. Dr Jane Cope, former Director of the National Cancer Research Institute, shares some of her research into this relatively unknown scientist’s life.

Sketch of Marjory Stephenson

Marjory Stephenson (Image copyright: Principal and Fellows of Newnham College Cambridge)

Newnham College Cambridge is famous for its long corridor with ample space for portraits of distinguished alumnae. As an undergraduate in the 1970s I regularly passed this picture of a kindly looking woman whose eyes seemed to follow me. I thought of her as a benign presence watching over my busy student life. I looked at the name on the portrait ― Marjory Stephenson ― but it meant nothing to me.

After three years I was offered a PhD studentship in the Microbiology Unit of the Biochemistry Department in Cambridge, which was headed by Professor Ernest Gale. On arrival at his office I was amazed to see a copy of the same portrait on the wall.

I learned that she had founded the unit and had been Gale’s teacher and mentor. Her name cropped up again when I joined the Society for General Microbiology, which has a biennial memorial lecture in Marjory’s name. Later, I started to think about finding out more about her. [...]

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Fishing for treatments for muscle diseases

28 Oct 2014

Jane Patrick

Jane Patrick

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.   [...]

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Working life: Carol Robinson

14 Oct 2014

Professor Dame Carol Robinson is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. Here she tells us about her working life, from becoming fascinated with mass spectrometry to the inspirational role of mentors.

Carol Robinson

Carol Robinson

I didn’t take the conventional route to get to where I am today. I actually left school at 16, which was a common thing to do in my school at the time. I’d always been interested in chemistry, so I got a job as a lab technician at Pfizer which was my nearest pharmaceutical company.

After working on various analytical techniques, including chromatography, used to separate mixtures of substances, and nuclear magnetic resonance to determine the structure of organic compounds, I found myself in the mass spectrometry lab, which I found fascinating.

I was lucky in that my supervisors picked up on my obvious passion and fledgling ability early on. They encouraged me to take various part-time courses, which after seven years of hard work resulted in a degree and a place at Cambridge to study for a PhD.     [...]

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How 100-year-old research could help patients with HIV

1 Oct 2014

Christoffer van Tulleken

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. [...]

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Bedsheets, boats and biology: James Lovelock and the MRC

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*)

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. [...]

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What is the Medical Research Foundation?

23 Apr 2014

Did you know that the MRC has an independent charity? While we are funded by taxpayers via Government, the Medical Research Foundation (MRF) is funded directly by charitable giving. Here Director Dr Angela Hind tells us about the MRF and its aims to fund early-career researchers at crucial points in their scientific lives.

The Medical Research Foundation is all about people: the people who choose to donate money, the people being helped by the medical research we fund, and the people whose careers we enhance by providing funds when they most need it.

A major part of our strategy is to fund the next generation of research leaders to tackle today’s research questions, improving human health and developing the careers of the most talented at the same time. [...]

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Why we work with industry

28 Mar 2014

Chris Watkins

Chris Watkins

There was a time when the paths of academic and industry researchers rarely crossed. But developing treatments for patients requires a much closer relationship between the two sectors than ever before. Here Chris Watkins, the MRC’s Director of Translational Research and Industry, explains why the MRC is working with companies to accelerate research into the development of treatments.

It’s getting much harder to discover new treatments for disease. Biology is complex, and much of the low-hanging fruit of drug discovery have already been picked. We need to understand more about the biology of human disease if we are to develop new effective and safe treatments. We also need to understand the complexity of disease, trying to work out which patients might respond well to particular drugs, and why some do not.

Companies are the only entities which have the extensive and varied capabilities necessary to make drugs. It is a long, expensive and difficult task, with a low probability of success. However, by bringing together  the strengths of academic researchers — who investigate the underlying biology of diseases — with the drug development, testing and production know-how of pharmaceutical companies, we hope to accelerate the discovery of safer, more effective medicines. [...]

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