Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
9 Aug 2016
Dr Jacqui Shields and Dr Angela Riedel at the MRC Cancer Unit explain the science behind these brightly-coloured blobs that show us how cancer cells prepare their road ahead so they can spread around the body.
Breaking down your defences: cancer cells send signals to a healthy lymph node (left) that distort its shape and damage its function (right) making it easier for a tumour to take hold.
One of cancer’s deadliest features is its ability to move through your immune system’s ready-made network of vessels and nodes.
Often, we don’t know a cancer has spread through the immune system until it’s too late, but now we may have found something that could help us predict when that’s going to happen: our findings suggest that before cancer cells even begin to move, they emit signals which send the new area into chaos. [...]
Continue reading: Preparing to move – how cancer can use your immune system as a highway
28 Apr 2016
This image has been created by a team at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in collaboration with the University of Exeter and Birkbeck College and, for the first time, shows a detailed structure of a ‘lysenin pore’. Dr Christos Savva, an Electron Microscopy Facility scientist at the MRC LMB spoke to Sylvie Kruiniger about why understanding these structures could be the key to treating many different diseases.
It may look like some kind of technicolour mushroom but this teeny structure is actually a cell-attacking pore made of just nine proteins. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: a tiny cell-killing drill
11 Mar 2016
Who knew we had such pretty guts? Dr Nicola Fawcett, medic and researcher at the University of Oxford, produced these images in collaboration with photographer Chris Wood to show the importance of bacteria for our health and the issue of antimicrobial resistance. The botanical images are made from common bacteria taken from the gut and stamped in decorative patterns onto agar jelly before leaving them to grow overnight. The photographs are on display at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford until 14 May 2016.
Only one left… There is a lot in the news about drug-resistant bacteria. Here you can see discs containing nine commonly-used antibiotics in hospitals. The dark-blue coloured bacteria can grow quite happily in the presence of eight of them – the antibiotics do not kill them. The bacteria are ‘resistant’ to all but one of the antibiotics we have available.
The Serendipidous Flower: Bacteria all behave differently. Some are able to produce a slime and spread out onto the nutrient jelly, looking a bit like a flower. I’d love to say this was intentional -in fact it would be incredibly difficult to get just one colony growing where you wanted. They way this turned out was just luck!
Vine leaf tip: The bacteria are stamped or painted onto the jelly, then left to grow overnight. Each dot is a single colony of bacteria, each containing millions of bacteria. There are dyes in the jelly that are only activated by the enzymes of specific bacteria; in this case, it was Escherichia coli (purple), Citrobacter (turquoise), and Klebsiella(dark blue). These dyes dissolve into the bacterial colonies, turning them different colours.
Wild vines of the gut: Growing on the surface of this nutrient jelly are three common bacteria that helpfully inhabit your gut. The plates also contain paper discs infused with antibiotics, which dissolve into the agar, and alter how the bacteria grow.
Our guts and us: Recent advances in scientific research have enabled us to study bacteria in new ways. This is showing us that we wouldn’t be able to survive in this world without bacteria – we live together, and often help one another, living together in balance.
Resistance is hard: The bacteria living near the antibiotic disc here have to work hard to try and stay alive. They are producing a lot of the enzymes that create the colour, hence the ‘rainbow’ appearance.
Competition is healthy: The tree is created out of a mix of bacteria, mostly competing for space and nutrients, so colonies can’t grow larger than pinpricks. This is similar to what happens in the gut, where ‘beneficial’ bacteria can out-compete more harmful ones and keep them under control. Towards the edges, the antibiotics are killing many bacteria, removing the competition. This means the ‘antibiotic resistant’ bacterial colonies can grow larger. By killing the sensitive bacteria with antibiotics, we have allowed the resistant ones to ‘take over’.
This work tells me to remember that the antibiotics I prescribe can sometimes cause unintended harm to the gut bacteria that are helping to keep my patient healthy. It tells me I should be careful not to use antibiotics where they’re not needed.
These pictures and captions were originally published on the University of Oxford’s Modernising Medical Microbiology site. Copyright: Chris Wood and Nicola Fawcett, Modernising Medical Microbiology under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
We often talk about bacteria as harmful things. Images in the media, advertising, even doctors and scientists, portray a healthy, desirable world as one free of bacteria: sterile, washed and scrubbed clean. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t true. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: our gorgeous gut flora
15 Jan 2016
This week Mr John Scott, a member of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, was able to meet his grey and his white matter in models made by the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the National Museum of Scotland which are due to form part of a new gallery opening in summer 2016. Sylvie Kruiniger talks to CCACE’s Dr Simon Cox about the project.
(Image copyright: National Museums of Scotland)
How many people can say that they have held their own brain in their hands? In this picture, Mr Scott is doing just that. Its size, shape and folds perfectly match those housed inside his head. The 3D print of his brain’s outer surface will sit alongside a strikingly beautiful image of his white matter etched in glass at the National Museums of Scotland from summer 2016.
Mr Scott’s brain has been imaged numerous times over the past decade as part of studies of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 (LBC1936). The team, led by Professor Ian Deary (whose office we have visited in a previous post), used different types of MRI scan generated by the University of Edinburgh’s Brain Research Imaging Centre to generate the two objects for the museum’s collection. His white matter was mapped by a diffusion tensor MRI and, for the 3D print, his cortical surface was mapped by a standard structural scan. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: When Mr Scott met his brain
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.
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. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Marjory Stephenson and bacterial biochemistry
13 Aug 2014
Leonard Hill wasn’t the type of researcher to confine his research to the laboratory, as this picture shows. Here Julie Clayton, author of a new history of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, takes a look behind this picture to a man concerned with the health and wellbeing of everyone from slum-dwelling children to parliamentarians.
Leonard Hill on a boat during a diving experiment (Image copyright: The Physiological Society, sourced from the Wellcome Library)
This photo, taken circa 1925, shows Leonard Hill ― mustachioed and dressed somewhat inappropriately for a day on the water ― alongside two of his research subjects.
As well as wearing these cumbersome suits, deep-water divers at the time often suffered the painful and dangerous condition of “the bends” when they ascended too quickly to the surface.
It was physiologist Hill who found that the drop in external pressure during ascent led to the formation of tiny bubbles of nitrogen gas in the blood. He did experiments on frogs to demonstrate that the bubbles dissolve again into the blood stream upon recompression. His work led to recommendations for a slow and steady decompression for divers as a remedy. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Leonard Hill and the divers
7 Mar 2014
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2014 we’re remembering Dr Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers, a researcher at the MRC National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) who discovered a thyroid hormone which is now used as a treatment option for thyroid diseases. Isabel Baker takes a look at this striking photograph and a scientist who was dedicated to life at the bench, and who earned worldwide recognition for doing what she loved best.
Rosalind Pitt-Rivers at the NIMR in the 1960s
This photograph, taken in the 1960s, shows Rosalind ― better known to her family, friends and colleagues as ‘Ros’ ― at work in the NIMR labs where she worked for 30 years. She looks at ease in the lab, casually holding a test tube and cigarette between her fingers, as she regards the camera with a serious, confident gaze. [...]
Ros arrived in the NIMR lab of Sir Charles Harington in 1942, which was to become a leading centre in the world for paper chromatography. Dr Archer Martin, who developed this technique for separating mixtures of substances in the 1940s, joined the NIMR in 1948*, winning the Nobel Prize in 1952. It was using these newly developed chromatography techniques that Ros discovered a new thyroid hormone, triiodothyronine (T3), with Dr Jack Gross, in 1952.
Continue reading: Behind the picture: A formula for success
27 Nov 2013
Think that baking science-themed cakes is a modern phenomenon? Think again. Here Dr Lara Marks explains the story behind this cake baked to celebrate the opening of the Therapeutic Antibody Centre, a small facility which brought the world the first humanised monoclonal antibody drug. The centre features in a new online exhibition which tells the story of that drug, Campath.
(Image copyright: Geoff Hale)
This photograph, taken in 1990, shows a cake baked by research technician Jenny Phillips to commemorate the official opening of the Therapeutic Antibody Centre (TAC) in Cambridge in September of that year.
Supported by funds from the MRC, the purpose of the centre was to manufacture monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), a new type of drug which had been developed in Cambridge a couple of years earlier. There are now more than 30 mAb therapies on the market and approximately 300 mAbs are currently in clinical trials. In 1990, however, the drugs were still very much at an experimental stage, and the aim of the centre was to produce small amounts of mAbs for pilot clinical trials. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Campath and cake
8 Oct 2013
As The Cochrane Collaboration celebrates its 20th Anniversary, Isabel Baker delves into the MRC archive to look back on its pioneering namesake, Professor Archibald Leman Cochrane, and the story of this photograph, taken during his ambitious project to X-ray the entire population of a Welsh mining valley.
The MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit team at the Rock Colliery in 1953, Archie is seated far left. (Image copyright: The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine)
This photograph, taken at the Rock Colliery in Wales in 1953, is of the MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit X-raying team. The team look pretty happy considering their gruelling schedule, working long unsociable hours in a marquee and X-ray van set up at the pithead.
Between 1950 and 1953 the PRU team X-rayed all of the coal miners and ex-miners in the Rhondda Fach deep coal mining valley in South Wales — no small undertaking given that the mining population of the valley was more than 6,000. Another team, from the Welsh Regional Hospital Board, X-rayed the women, children of school age, and non-mining men. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Archie Cochrane and the Welsh coal miners
24 Jul 2013
Retro light fitting or model of a virus? In the latest of our looks at the story behind an image from the MRC archive, Ellen Charman finds out how this collection of giant ping pong balls is linked to Rosalind Franklin’s less well-known research understanding the structure of viruses.
John Ernest and his poliovirus structure (Copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)
This image, taken at Birkbeck College in 1958, shows the sculptor John Ernest dwarfed by one of his models of the poliovirus, which is seemingly made from giant pingpong balls.
The five-foot model, together with one of the tobacco mosaic virus, was exhibited at the International Science Pavilion of the Brussels’ World Exhibition in 1958, the first major World’s Fair after World War 2. Earlier versions had indeed been made out of ping pong balls and plastic bicycle handlebar grips. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Rosalind Franklin and the polio model