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Insight blog: Posts tagged with basic research

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

Foundation for the future: the next 25 years of MRC research

31 May 2013

Sydney Brenner

Sydney Brenner

Last week, to mark and celebrate the MRC’s Centenary, the Foundation for Science and Technology organised a one-off debate to discuss what the MRC’s research priorities should be for the next quarter of a century. Louise Wren, MRC Public Affairs Manager, was there to hear a stellar line-up of speakers Dr Sydney Brenner, Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Keith Peters talk about how the future of medical research lies in experimenting with ourselves.

Last Wednesday, I joined a packed auditorium at the Royal Society along with MRC scientists, former MRC Chief Executives and Chairs, and representatives from medical research charities, industry and government. We were all there to see what some of the country’s most eminent scientists had to say about the future direction of UK medical research.

Sydney — former Director of the MRC Laboratory Molecular Biology (LMB) and currently Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Crick-Jacobs Centre in the US — began his talk by describing a moment early in his career when he travelled from Oxford to Cambridge to see Watson and Crick’s model of DNA, an experience which “opened the door to everything”. His list of subsequent achievements is considerable: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work showing how genes regulate organ development and how cells are programmed to die, and also co-discovered messenger RNA, which enables the DNA code to be translated into proteins. Sydney spoke warmly of his career at the MRC which spanned almost 35 years, saying the LMB was an “amazing vehicle” which spearheaded research across the world, benefiting from its open, non-hierarchical approach. [...]

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Heroines of research

21 May 2013

Clockwise from bottom left: Audrey Smith, Elsie Widdowson (from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’), Mary Lyon, Kay Davies and Uta Frith (credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images)

Clockwise from bottom left: Audrey Smith, Elsie Widdowson (from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’), Mary Lyon, Kay Davies and Uta Frith (credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images)

In this article from our most recent Network magazine, Sarah Harrop takes a look at some of the most eminent MRC-funded women scientists from the MRC’s past 100 years.

Audrey Smith: discovery of cryobiology

Known as the ‘mother of cryobiology’, Audrey Smith of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research discovered — in the early 1960s — how to store biological material at low temperature, pioneering techniques for the freezing of sperm, blood, bone marrow, corneas and many other tissues. Freezing of sperm, eggs and embryos is now a key part of many IVF programmes.

Elsie Widdowson: nutrition expert

Elsie Widdowson became highly-respected for her1946 study of the impact of poor wartime diet on those in Nazi-occupied territories, and carried out MRC-funded self-experimentation to test the safety of food rationing ahead of the outbreak of WW2. A huge body of influential nutrition research followed, including studying the importance of the nutritional content of infant diets, particularly trace vitamins and minerals in natural and artificial human milk, leading to revised UK standards for breast milk substitutes in the 1980s. [...]

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Speeding up the search for brain samples

21 Mar 2013

James Ironside (stack of brain samples bottom right)

James Ironside (stack of brain samples bottom right)

Scientists working on brain diseases are often disheartened by the tricky process of tracking down human tissue samples for their work. But now they can use a new database to speed up their searches, explains James Ironside, Director of the UK Brain Banks Network. 

Frustrating to find, time-consuming to request, and trapped behind endless paperwork; these are just some of the reasons neuroscientists give for not using human tissue samples in their research.

Over the past few years I’ve been trying to address these problems in my role as Director of the UK Brain Banks Network, a group of brain banks that the MRC established across the UK in 2009, which are funded by the MRC, the NHS and five charities: the MS Society, Parkinson’s UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK and Autistica.

The 10 banks collect, store and provide human brain tissue samples from more than 7,000 brains for research. Although scientists can model many aspects of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis or motor neuron disease in the lab, they need samples of human brain tissue to validate their work, and understand the full complexity of these disorders. [...]

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Funding research for health, wealth and happiness

28 Feb 2013

Vince Cable

Vince Cable

This week as part of our Centenary celebrations we awarded the MRC Millennium Medal to two scientists whose pioneering research has led to entirely new drugs for patients, as well as brought economic revenue to the UK. Here Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Dr Vince Cable reflects on the importance of long-term funding of research for people’s health and quality of life, and the UK’s life sciences sector.

Yesterday I had the honour of hosting the MRC Millennium Medal Ceremony, at which the organisation recognised the innovative contributions of Sir Phillip Cohen and Sir Greg Winter to their respective fields of protein phosphorylation and humanised antibodies.

Both Sir Philip and Sir Greg began their careers as laboratory-based scientists carrying out fundamental research, only to discover unheralded therapeutic possibilities in the course of their work. In the mid-1970s, no-one could have anticipated the clinical potential of protein phosphorylation, a process now targeted by 24 licensed drugs, with global sales of £18 billion in 2011. Meanwhile, antibody therapies are now used widely for diseases such as breast cancer (including the drug Herceptin) and autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis. [...]

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Greg Winter: Pioneering antibody drugs

27 Feb 2013

Today the MRC is honouring two of our most eminent scientists with the MRC Millennium Medal which recognises research that has led to significant health and economic benefits. In the second of our profiles of the winners, Katherine Nightingale talks to Sir Greg Winter, who pioneered techniques that have led to antibody therapies for cancer, and diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. He has established hugely successful spin out companies and continues to develop new types of drugs.

Greg Winter (Copyright: Tony Pope)

Greg Winter (Copyright: Tony Pope)

It was an elderly woman with lymphoma who changed things for Greg Winter. It was 1989 and the patient at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge was the first person to take Campath-1H, a human antibody that had been fused with parts of a rat antibody to attack cancerous lymphocytes. [...]

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Philip Cohen: Driving drug development

27 Feb 2013

Today the MRC is honouring two of our most eminent scientists with the MRC Millennium Medal, which recognises research that has led to significant health and economic benefits. In the first of our profiles of the recipients, we meet Sir Philip Cohen, who has devoted his 40-year career to studying a type of cell regulation called protein phosphorylation. His collaborations with the pharmaceutical industry have helped to accelerate the development of new drugs for a variety of diseases. He spoke to Katherine Nightingale about ‘blue skies’ research, working with industry and birdwatching.   

Philip Cohen

Philip Cohen

If you need reminding of just how long researchers need to toil away in the lab before their findings might impact on the ‘real world’, look no further than Philip Cohen. Now credited as partly responsible for one of the largest and fastest growing areas of drug discovery, it was 25 years before he first got a call from a pharmaceutical company.

“People used to say ‘Oh, what you’re doing is interesting but it will never be the slightest bit of use for improving health or for wealth creation’,” Philip recalls. [...]

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Microscope hackers

20 Feb 2013

Today we announced funding for the Next Generation Optical Microscopy Initiative, a £25.5m investment from three research councils for scientists to create or house technology that pushes the boundaries of microscopy. They’ll be using the techniques to peer more closely at cells and the processes that bring about disease. Here we take a look at just one of the 17 projects, which aims to combine electron and light microscopy to image living cells in minute detail.

(Copyright: University of York)

(Copyright: University of York)

It might not look very pretty, but this grey image represents a step towards something of a holy grail for researchers. It’s an image of proteins within a cell taken with a combination of an electron and light microscope, a technique that scientists at the University of York and the Cancer Research UK (CR-UK) London Research Institute are about to take one step further and use on living cells. [...]

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The story of a revolution: César Milstein and monoclonal antibodies

14 Feb 2013

César with a flask containing monoclonal antibodies growing in a fluid (Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

César with a flask containing monoclonal antibodies growing in a fluid (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

A new online exhibition about the life and work of luminary MRC researcher César Milstein is unveiled today. Here Dr Lara Marks of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London, who put the exhibition together, discusses the inspiration behind it and the stories you can find within a scientist’s notebook.

Today, monoclonal antibodies are intrinsic to healthcare. They’re used every day as probes to unravel the pathways of disease, to diagnose a patient’s condition or as powerful drugs. Everyone who has ever used a home pregnancy test will have, perhaps unwittingly, used monoclonal antibody technology. But they started life as a laboratory research tool, and their journey into clinical use was one fraught with complexity.

Antibodies are proteins that recognise and fight foreign invaders, such as bacteria or viruses. Since the early twentieth century scientists had been keen to produce large amounts of antibodies specific to a particular target for research or clinical purpose, but with no success.

In 1975 César Milstein and his colleague Georges Köhler at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge developed a way to produce monoclonal antibodies by fusing myeloma cells — a type of cancerous immune cell — with mouse spleen cells that had been exposed to a target. As well as creating a research tool for investigating the immune system and the pathways of disease, this also laid the foundations for the production of antibody-based drugs against specific diseases. [...]

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The MRC at 100

7 Jan 2013

David Willetts

David Willetts

2013 is the MRC Centenary year and we’ll be taking the opportunity, here on the blog and elsewhere, to celebrate past discoveries and look to the future of medical research. To kick things off, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts reflects on 100 years of publicly funded medical research, and why we must play the ‘long game’.

When the Medical Research Council’s forerunner, the Medical Research Committee, was established in 1913 to combat tuberculosis, its members may have thought the disease would be conquered within a few years. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1940s that MRC researchers carried out the first randomised controlled trial of streptomycin, the first TB drug. And it was the 1960s before Professor Wallace Fox showed that drug treatment at home was just as effective as that in sanatoria, leading to their closure and huge savings for health services.

This example from the first half of the MRC’s existence illustrates just how long it can take for medical research to come to fruition and change people’s lives. But this long journey from the laboratory bench — or increasingly the computer screen — to a patient’s bedside isn’t consigned to the past. Today it takes around 15 years to develop a drug, and many fail along the way. [...]

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Profile: Roger Patient

11 Dec 2012

Roger Patient

Roger Patient

Could research into the extraordinary regenerative properties of the zebrafish heart one day help people who’ve had heart attacks? In an article taken from our Annual Review 2011/12, Sarah Harrop speaks to Roger Patient from the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit to find out.

Every six minutes someone dies of a heart attack in the UK. Heart attack is a frightening and debilitating condition that can cause permanent damage to the heart in those who survive it, drastically altering the patient’s health. But what if there was a way to repair the heart and allow these patients to lead a normal life again?

That is one of the many quests of Professor Roger Patient at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit (MHU) in Oxford, who is investigating the possibility of using stem cell therapy to regenerate damaged heart muscle.

Roger started his scientific career as a chemist, but soon decided that DNA was by far the most interesting chemical he’d studied and made the leap to genetics. At that time, the first experiments to transfer animal genes into bacterial cells were taking place, and Roger recalls being accosted by news reporters on his way into work who wanted to know if he was making a ‘test tube monster’. [...]

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