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Insight blog: Posts tagged with basic research

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

The road to cancer: as simple as ATG…

29 Nov 2012

Holly Callaghan

Holly Callaghan

In her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Holly Callaghan, a PhD student at Imperial College London, explains why learning about what goes wrong in the genetic ‘spell checkers’ of cells can help to develop anti-cancer treatments. 

Spelling mistakes — we all make them. Usually a result of carelessness, a ‘g’ might become a ‘c’, an ‘a’ might become a ‘t’. If you’re writing a letter maybe you’ll correct or cross out the offending word, or even scrunch up your paper, throw it away, and start again.

Our cells have a remarkably similar distaste for misspellings. The genetic alphabet is made up of only four letters: A, T, G and C. Cells must diligently copy their DNA, all six billion letters of it, in a precise order so that they can replicate. Some cells, such as skin cells, replicate every half hour, while others, for example brain cells, divide once then never again. Think for a moment about your colon. The surface of this impressive 7.5 metre long digestive organ completely renews every four days — that’s a lot of dividing cells! [...]

Continue reading: The road to cancer: as simple as ATG…

The inflamed brain: why my research matters

13 Nov 2012

Hannah Buggey

Hannah Buggey

In her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Hannah Buggey from the University of Manchester takes us through her research combating inflammation in the brain after a stroke. 

Picture yourself in the shower. Now imagine that familiar feeling when the water starts to build up around your feet, and you’re racing to finish washing out shampoo before water spills over the edge of the shower tray. This clogged up drain is similar to what happens during a stroke.

In your plumbing, a hairball sticks together with bits of soap and becomes lodged in the U-bend. In stroke, a clot often forms from a build-up of fatty plaques in our blood vessels — the ones we’re always being told can be avoided by eating cholesterol-lowering margarine. This clot can break away and travel through your blood into your brain where the vessels have lots of twists and ‘U-bends’.

When a clot gets stuck here, the areas of the brain the blood is feeding are cut off from their supply of oxygen and nutrients. In the same way that you need to act fast to stop the shower water spilling over the edge, you need to act fast after a stroke. Brain cells can’t cope without oxygen, and during a stroke two million of them die every minute. [...]

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Cell city

2 Nov 2012

Nicola Hodson

Nicola Hodson

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. [...]

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Curing the ‘two-bucket’ disease

17 Oct 2012

Sarah Caddy (Copyright: Sarah Caddy)

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. [...]

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Breathing new life into medical devices

16 Oct 2012

Alex Brand

Alex Brand

In the second of a mini-series of posts from recipients of MRC Centenary Awards, microbiologist Alex Brand from the University of Aberdeen tells us how she’s set her sights on combating a fungus that can infiltrate medical devices.  

Every day we read about new medical advances that help us to combat life-threatening injury and disease. This is great for patients but it does mean that more of us spend time in hospital using the catheters, ventilators, tubes and prosthetics that keep us alive during treatment and improve our chances of survival. While life-saving, these devices can become contaminated with the microbes that are all around us, including those from our own skin.

Candida albicans is one such organism. It is a fungus that most of us carry without even knowing because our immune system keeps it in check, but it can easily find its way onto medical plastics where there are no immune cells to control its growth.   [...]

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Spare-time science

9 Oct 2012

Alex Jeans (Copyright: Alex Jeans)

Alex Jeans (Copyright: Alex Jeans)

In the first of a mini-series of posts from recipients of MRC Centenary Awards, we hear from pathologist Alex Jeans from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford on how he’ll use his extra time and resources to pursue research into Alzheimer’s disease that until now he’s been doing in his spare time.

As a hospital pathologist specialising in diseases of the nervous system, I have spent a lot of time diagnosing both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and I’ve become aware of how common yet devastating they are. As things stand, there is no treatment which can slow the progress of either disease, and all we can do is manage the distressing symptoms as they appear.

Accurate diagnosis of these diseases is extremely important, and as pathologists we get some satisfaction from that. However, I‘ve always wanted to be part of the effort to understand these diseases at a fundamental level, which I believe is essential if we are to devise truly effective treatments. [...]

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Behind the research papers

3 Oct 2012

Alistair MacLullich poses by a glass bus stop to 'create reflections suggesting disconnected minds'

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. [...]

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Why I use zebrafish in my research

20 Sep 2012

Helen Moore (Copyright: Helen Moore)

Helen Moore (Copyright: Helen Moore)

Helen Moore is a MRC-funded PhD student researching body clocks at University College London. Here she tells us why zebrafish are an ideal model for studying 24-hour rhythms.

Zebrafish have come a long way from their home in the Ganges River. Popular with aquarium owners, these colourful stripy silver and blue fish are becoming increasingly important to research.

Zebrafish began life in the lab as a common model for understanding development. They lay transparent eggs that can be easily collected and through which their developing organs can be seen. Check out this timelapse video of developing zebrafish.

Now research using zebrafish is improving knowledge in a long list of areas including cancer and tissue regeneration. Zebrafish develop tumours with a remarkable likeness to human ones, and so might be useful for screening anti-cancer drugs. Their amazing ability to regenerate and repair their tissue may help us to develop better treatments for damaged hearts. [...]

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Regeneration: Taking stock

13 Sep 2012

Ian Wilmut (Copyright: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine)

Ian Wilmut (Copyright: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine)

Professor Sir Ian Wilmut was formerly Director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Famously, he led the research group that first cloned a mammal from an adult body cell — Dolly the sheep — in 1996. Sarah Harrop spoke to him about how far regenerative medicine has come and what the future might hold.

What are some of the different approaches to regenerative medicine currently being undertaken by scientists?

Very broadly, there are two main approaches at the moment. We’re using stem cells to understand the mechanisms that cause some degenerative diseases so that it’s possible then to identify drugs that are able to prevent the development of symptoms. The second strategy is to produce cells that can replace those that have died or ceased to function normally in degenerative diseases.

What benefits and insights might the first approach offer?

To identify the molecular mechanisms that lead to disease it’s important to be able to study cells that are affected by the disease in the lab. A key innovation that makes this possible is our ability to treat skin cells so that they are changed and become very similar to embryo stem cells. These cells — induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells — are able to form all of the different cell types and grow in culture for very long periods. This makes it possible to produce the large number of cells required for research. [...]

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A meeting of young minds

4 Sep 2012

Discussing a poster (Credit: Eliot Bradshaw)

Delegates deep in discussion over a poster (Copyright: Eliot Bradshaw)

PhD student Kathryn Bowles is researching the role of cell signalling in Huntington’s disease at the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity to get together and discuss neurodegenerative research with other early-career researchers, she took matters into her own hands and organised a symposium of her own.

As a student pipetting my way through the second year of my PhD, why on earth would I decide it’s a good idea to hold a national symposium for other early-careerscientists? To plump up my CV? To practise my already-impressive ‘to do’ list writing skills?

Admittedly, both of those were a factor. Most importantly though, I thought it was something that young scientists needed. Most conferences we go to are dominated by our supervisors and star ‘names’ in the field. We could do with the chance to discuss our work with our peers, without the intimidation of more senior scientists. [...]

Continue reading: A meeting of young minds