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Insight blog: Posts tagged with basic research

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

Behind the picture: An early model of the ribosome

12 Mar 2014

The MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) turns 100 this year and its rich history is fertile ground for looking back on past discoveries. This 1960s molecular model represents an important point in the evolution of thinking about the structure of the ribosome. Katherine Nightingale spoke to Dr Bob Cox about constructing the model ― and getting a few giants of biomedical research to sign it too. 

Bob Cox's ribosome model, with Crick's signature second from right on the top row

Bob Cox’s ribosome model, with Crick’s signature second from right on the top row

Look closely at one of these polystyrene balls and you’ll find the autograph of one of science’s most celebrated sons, Francis Crick. As well as being part of the duo that discovered the structure of DNA, Crick also proposed the “central dogma” of molecular biology: that DNA makes RNA makes protein. Fitting then, that his signature is here on an early model of the ribosome, the molecular machine that makes proteins.

Ribosomes are cellular factories made of RNA and protein which ‘translate’ the genetic code into the corresponding amino acid code, specific to each protein. They are large and complex molecules, made up of around 50 proteins divided into two subunits. They were discovered in 1955, though they didn’t get their name until 1958.

This model, produced by NIMR researcher Bob Cox in 1969, was the first attempt to model ribosome structure in detail. Until then, only blurry microscope pictures had been available. [...]

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From Israel to Canada, cancer to Huntington’s

18 Feb 2014

Left: brain cells without HACE1 shrinking and dying, and right, cells high in HACE1.

Left: brain cells without HACE1 shrinking and dying, and right, cells high in HACE1.

When Barak Rotblat moved to Canada to start research into childhood cancers, he had no idea that it would lead to insights into Huntington’s disease, one of the most debilitating forms of neurodegeneration. Here he tells us why he’s glad he went against his initial instincts.

As my PhD at Tel Aviv University, Israel, was coming to an end, I was looking around for a lab in which to continue my training. My PhD was in the field of cell signalling ― studying how components within cells interact ― and I knew I wanted to stay in that field.

An opportunity came up with a researcher called Poul Sorensen at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. At first I was a bit reluctant. I was mainly interested in how proteins move around in cells, while Poul was a pathologist studying genes involved in childhood cancers. However, when I looked into the project a little closer, I realised that analysing the genes that go wrong in childhood cancers could lead to fundamental understanding of cellular processes that affect all cells.

A few months later I was getting on a plane to Canada. [...]

Continue reading: From Israel to Canada, cancer to Huntington’s

Celebrating a century of international collaboration

8 Jan 2014

Medical research benefits people worldwide, and science is an increasingly global endeavour. But how much do we know about how scientists work together across countries? Here we look at some of the key international collaborations that MRC scientists have been involved in the past 100 years, from the 1940s trial of streptomycin for tuberculosis to testing a smartphone app that tests eye health in Kenya.

[Video link for access] [...]

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Measuring time: getting research from bench to bedside

17 Dec 2013

(Image credit: Flickr/Artiom G)

(Image credit: Flickr/Artiom G)

Why do some research findings take so long to affect healthcare? And how can we make sure that the time between the bench and the bedside is the right amount? The MRC evaluation team’s Ellen Charman spoke to Professor Stephen Hanney at Brunel University about his research analysing what speeds up, or slows down, the journey from lab to clinic.

Pretty much everyone would agree that the speedy translation of research into medical advances such as new drugs, devices and healthcare policy is a good thing.

Aside from the health benefits, the economic return from an investment in medical research is higher, the shorter the period of translation or ‘elapsed time’ is. For example, in the area of cardiovascular disease, the rate of return on a new intervention doubles if you can reduce the elapsed time from 25 to 10 years. Researchers estimate that on average, it takes 17 years for research to reach clinical practice. [...]

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Putting academia and industry face to face

14 Nov 2013

Getting together with cake: DSTT collaborators from academia and industry (Copyright of DC Thomson& Co. Ltd. Courtesy of The Courier)

Getting together with cake: DSTT collaborators from academia and industry (Copyright of DC Thomson& Co. Ltd. Courtesy of The Courier)

Working with industry; the last step in the translational journey or the first step in discovering something new? For scientists in the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit (MRC PPU) at the University of Dundee it’s both. Assistant director Dr Rob Ford gives the inside track on PPU’s award-winning industry collaboration.

Scientists at MRC PPU work hard to find and test new disease processes that can be targeted by drugs. Their aim is two-fold; to help pharmaceutical companies develop drugs to match the targets they discover, and to develop better treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, high blood pressure and immune system disorders.

Last month PPU played host to the 50th meeting of the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy (DSTT). DSTT is a unique collaboration between scientists in the MRC unit, the University of Dundee’s College of Life Sciences and six of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies; AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceutica, Merck Serono and Pfizer. [...]

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Attacking antibiotic resistance

7 Nov 2013

A scanning electron micrograph of MRSA (Image credit:NIAID)

A scanning electron micrograph of MRSA (Image credit: NIAID)

The growing problem of antibiotic resistance has been in the headlines recently, and the need for new strategies to tackle infections remains as large as ever. Here the MRC evaluation team’s Ellen Charman rounds up some approaches that MRC-funded researchers are taking to tackle the problem.

Picture a world where a cut finger could kill you. You don’t have to look too far ― before the discovery of antibiotics just 80 years or so ago it was common for women to die from post-childbirth infections, and diseases such as tuberculosis were huge killers.

But the return of this world isn’t confined to the realms of science fiction. As bacteria become more resistant to antibiotics, there’s a very real possibility that the drugs which we’ve come to rely on in modern healthcare may become obsolete. [...]

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What does a chromosome really look like?

26 Sep 2013

An image of a chromosome generated by Peter’s 3D modeling technique. (Image credit: Drs Tim Stevens and Takashi Nagano, Babraham Institute)

An image of a chromosome generated by Peter’s 3D modelling technique. (Image copyright: Drs Tim Stevens and Takashi Nagano, Babraham Institute)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that all chromosomes are X-shaped bundles. But new research MRC-funded research has shown that they spend most of their time looking more like a tangled mass of string, as Peter Fraser, a researcher at the Babraham Institute, explains. 

The image of a chromosome as an X-shaped blob is familiar to many. But perhaps not everyone knows that this microscopic portrait of a chromosome shows a structure that occurs only transiently in cells, at a point when they are just about to divide by undergoing a process called mitosis.

The vast majority of cells in an organism have finished dividing and their chromosomes don’t look anything like the familiar X-shape. Even cells that are still in the business of dividing, such as blood and skin cells, spend most of their time in a kind of ‘resting’ non-mitotic state. But what do chromosomes in these cells look like?

So far it has been impossible to create accurate pictures of these chromosomes — existing techniques can only determine the average structure of chromosomes from millions of cells. But it’s important that we know what they look like because, far from resting, it’s in this non-mitotic state that all of the important functions of the genome are operating and controlled. [...]

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Keeping social sciences in the MRC family

24 Sep 2013

Sally at the MRC Medical Sociology Unit in the early 1990s

Sally at the MRC Medical Sociology Unit in the early 1990s

Scientific discoveries don’t improve human health by themselves — we must understand their social significance, says Sally Macintyre as she prepares to leave her post as Director of the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit.

In a few weeks I’m stepping down as director of the MRC CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit after 30 years. Although I’m looking forward to handing over the directorship (five five-yearly reviews from MRC Head Office is quite enough), I look back with great affection on the MRC. The MRC has supported me in one way or another since 1970, when it funded my Masters course in “Sociology as applied to medicine”.

People are often surprised to hear that as a sociologist, I’ve been funded by the MRC for so long. They think the MRC only funds laboratory-based biomedical science — as exemplified by the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology — and clinical trials.

But the organisation has had a long-term interest in how social factors affect health and illness. [...]

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Brain cell culture goes 3D

28 Aug 2013

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

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

Some brain diseases, such as microcephaly, can’t be studied in animals. Now researchers have developed a technique to grow early-stage brain tissue in the lab, opening up possibilities from studying diseases to testing drugs. MRC Senior Press Officer Hannah Isom reports.

As a science press officer, I’m in the privileged position of getting my mitts on some of the most exciting research papers before they are seen by the world’s media, and even by other scientists in the field. Sometimes I worry I’m so awash with impressive discoveries that I’ll become complacent. And then every once in a while a paper lands in my inbox that is so exciting — even to a non-scientist like me — that I know I don’t need to be concerned.

This week in Nature scientists led by the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Austria, in collaboration with the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, have revealed that they have used stem cells to grow a three-dimensional structure in the lab that resembles primitive human brain tissue. [...]

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Understanding industry

17 Jul 2013

How can we develop new drugs and get them to people more quickly? At the MRC’s Open Council meeting last week, a lot of the discussion focused on how the changing environment for the pharmaceutical industry means we need new models for drug discovery, and much closer working between academic and industry researchers. Katherine Nightingale rounds up the discussion.

There was a time when pharmaceutical companies produced new drugs at a steady rate. They invested in the research and development (R&D) of drugs, occasionally producing ‘blockbusters’ which could treat many people, and making enough profit to inject back into R&D. It took around 10–15 years to develop a drug and, while potential drugs often failed to jump the hurdles of clinical trials, there were enough in the pipeline to keep things going.

But, as we heard at the Open Council meeting last week, now that’s simply not the case: fewer and fewer new drugs are being developed, and it’s taking longer and getting more expensive to produce them. The patents have run out on many blockbuster drugs, meaning that pharma companies generate less revenue to plough back into R&D. And as we learn more about disease, the treatments that are produced are more specific to particular groups of patients, meaning that the markets for individual drugs are smaller. [...]

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