Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
19 May 2016
In a diagnosis of the global superbug threat today, economist Jim O’Neill includes a recommendation that doctors test patients to find out if their infection is bacterial before prescribing them antibiotics. MRC-funded researcher Dr Tariq Sadiq at St George’s Institute of Infection and Immunity writes here about his research to develop better diagnostic tests that will help us get these results faster so we can make better use of antibiotics. Dr Sadiq explains the need to improve diagnostics in clinics and out in hard-to-reach populations around the world to combat widespread antimicrobial resistance.
Medical advances undermined
How have we been able to make so many advances in medicine? What’s made us so successful at treating cancer and performing heart surgery? Our ability to manage one of their most serious consequences: infection.
Antibiotic resistance undermines those advances and could mean infections that we thought we had defeated, become untreatable. Global deaths from drug-resistant infections are likely to continue to increase over the coming years if we don’t find new ways to tackle them, perhaps reaching 10 million by 2050, if there is no effective action. It is estimated that nearly half of them will occur in Asia. [...]
Continue reading: Testing times for antimicrobial resistance
23 Mar 2016
Researchers at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL are working on projects to tackle different forms of tuberculosis (TB) with shorter treatment programmes. The STREAM project is looking at multidrug-resistant TB, the TRUNCATE project is looking at drug sensitive TB, and the SHINE project is investigating new, shorter treatments for children with TB.
Tuberculosis kills three people every minute. Treatment invariably involves a long course of drugs and the burden of disease falls hardest on low-income countries with stretched health systems. Three projects are running at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit to investigate the efficacy of shorter courses of drugs in some of the countries worst affected by TB. [...]
Continue reading: World TB Day 2016: Treating TB faster
7 Mar 2016
For the first time, after eight years of collaborative work, results are published in Lancet Infectious Disease describing the positive impact of the introduction of pneumococcal conjugate vaccines in a low-income country. But how do you go about measuring this ‘impact’? Principal Investigator of the Pneumococcal Surveillance Project at MRC Unit, The Gambia, Dr Grant Mackenzie, explains the human resource required for large-scale disease surveillance in rural Africa, the challenges and the rewards.
The study team
Pneumococcal disease is caused by a bacterium known as Streptococcus pneumoniae. Symptoms range from sinus and ear infections to pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and meningitis. The pneumococcus bacteria cause more deaths in children worldwide than any other single microorganism and those in low-income countries are particularly at risk.
MRC Unit, The Gambia has conducted pneumococcal research for over two decades. It started with a disease burden study in 1989, in the Basse area in the rural east of The Gambia, which established the substantial burden of invasive pneumococcal disease. [...]
Continue reading: Measuring vaccine impact through surveillance
21 Jan 2016
Majidah Hamid-Adiamoh joined MRC Unit The Gambia as a scientific officer in 2004 and has been working with the malaria research programme ever since. She talks about winning the L’Oréal-UNESCO ‘For Women in Science’ fellowship, her career so far, and her plans for the future.
(Image copyright: L’Oreal South Africa)
Career in brief
I started at the Unit working on a clinical trial for a new malaria drug. Samples were collected from patients six times per day and I was responsible for performing two-assays on each sample from four different patients – that’s 48 assays every day! It was challenging but I enjoyed every bit of it.
I am very proud of the quality of malaria research output from my department, thanks to the quality of its leaders and staff. The Unit has the right people, the right environment and the appropriate facilities to conceive an idea and be able to implement it.
Following that first project, I have continued with malaria research both in the field and in the lab. I have taken a lead role in a number of projects defining the genetic profiles, or ‘genotypes’, of different malaria ‘vectors’ – agents that carry and transmit malaria, such as mosquitos – and I am currently working on a project characterising malaria transmission in The Gambia. [...]
Continue reading: Working Life: malaria researcher Majidah Hamid-Adiamoh
28 Jul 2015
Two years ago, Dr John McLauchlan, Associate Director of the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, wrote about two new research consortia, HCV Research UK and STOP-HCV, aiming to make sure that patients infected with hepatitis C receive the right treatment. To mark World Hepatitis Day, he’s back to give us an update ― and some good news about the treatment of chronic hepatitis in the UK.
Since I wrote that first blog post in 2013, both consortia have made considerable progress, and the context in which they are operating has changed dramatically.
One of the most exciting things is that new antivirals are becoming available that can cure patients of their infection. It’s not an understatement to say this new family of drugs (called direct-acting antivirals) are transformative ― clinical trials have shown that it is now possible to clear the virus in a high percentage of those who are infected.
The drugs can be taken as pills, so injections of interferon ― the previous drug of choice which can have nasty side-effects ― are no longer necessary for many patients. The length of treatment is also shorter, so fewer people are likely to stop taking treatment due to side effects.
So what contributions will HCV Research UK and STOP-HCV make as we enter this new era? [...]
Continue reading: Finding the right treatment for patients with hepatitis C
24 Apr 2015
Entomologist Musa Jawara has worked at MRC Unit, The Gambia for three decades, investigating mosquito behaviour, malaria transmission, and control methods, including pioneering work in transmission-blocking vaccines and the development of insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) for malaria prevention. He showed Isabel Baker around his work space at Wali Kunda, on the banks of the River Gambia, where he catches, breeds and dissects mosquitoes, and tries not to catch malaria in the process.
Musa Jawara at the Wali Kunda field site
To study and understand malaria epidemiology and control you must look at the parasite, the host and the vector. I focus on the vector ― the mosquito ― and try to understand how to prevent it from transmitting malaria by learning about its behaviour.
To study mosquitoes, we have to catch them first! One way is using this simple device called an aspirator (or pooter) ― a glass or plastic pipe with a rubber tube attached at one end and a filter to block the passage of mosquitoes into the tube. You point the tube towards the mosquito and suck gently to avoid crushing the insect. [...]
Continue reading: What’s in a work space? Musa Jawara and his marriage to mosquitoes
7 Jan 2015
How do you diagnose the Ebola virus in places that until recently had very little healthcare infrastructure? Just behind the frontlines of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, volunteers are running laboratories diagnosing Ebola cases. In late 2014 two PhD students in Professor Richard Elliott’s group from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research spent five weeks in Sierra Leone helping to set up an Ebola diagnostic laboratory. Here Gillian Slack and Steve Welch explain their experience.
Steve in his personal protective equipment
As virology PhD students with backgrounds in laboratory diagnostics, we both have experience of using blood, urine and saliva samples to diagnose tropical infectious diseases. We wanted to put those skills to good use in Sierra Leone.
We were part of a group of 14 volunteers from the UK travelling to Kerry Town in Sierra Leone where a treatment centre for Ebola patients was being established.
We received intensive training at the Public Health England labs in Porton Down, where they had built a scale replica of the lab we would be using. As well as the training, we also had numerous vaccinations and medical and psychological assessments before we were cleared to deploy. [...]
Continue reading: Wearing the gauntlet: diagnosing Ebola in Sierra Leone
18 Nov 2014
It’s European Antibiotic Awareness Day today, and the MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC have produced a new timeline looking at progress in tackling antibiotic resistance over the past few decades. Here we’ve picked just four examples ― from glowing infections to a smartphone app ― reflecting the four themes of a cross-research council antimicrobial resistance funding call to give you a taster of research in this area.
(Image: S.Schuller, Wellcome Images under CC by 4.0)
Germs that glow
Being able to observe how bacteria and other bugs move around the body is crucial to knowing how to tackle them. In an MRC-funded study, Professor Gad Frankel at Imperial College London developed a way to infect mice with Citrobacter rodentium bacteria that had been genetically modified to produce light.  His team could then track this glowing infection around the mouse’s body in real time, and regular CT scans showed how different vaccines and antibiotics change the way bacteria take over parts of the body. [...]
Continue reading: Four ways to tackle antibiotic resistance
4 Nov 2014
There is growing recognition that the microorganisms which live in and on us ― our microbiome ― are crucial to our health. Anything that disrupts the delicate balance in which we live with them could cause disease. But what about when medical intervention is the cause of this disruption? Here Dr Brenda Kwambana, a postdoctoral researcher the MRC Unit, The Gambia, tells us about her work investigating the microbiome and child health.
From the time when bacteria were first viewed under a microscope in the 17th century to today, microbiology has seen its fair share of paradigm shifts. From thinking that humans outnumbered microbes, and that all microbes were germs to be avoided and destroyed, we now know that they are an integral part of our biology.
It is staggering to think that there are an estimated 100 trillion bacterial cells in the human body, 10 times the number of human cells. Of more than 100,000 different species inhabiting the body, only a tiny fraction is known to cause disease in humans.
The term ‘human microbiome’ describes the microbial communities that colonise the human body and their genes. Microbes colonise most surfaces of the body including the skin and surfaces inside the body such as the gut and respiratory tract. [...]
Continue reading: Bugs are us
22 Oct 2014
Could gut infections be making the standard polio vaccine ineffective in children in low-income countries? Edward Parker, a PhD student at Imperial College London is trying to find out, as he explains in his article commended in the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was never meant to last this long.
In 1988, when the campaign was launched, there was considerable optimism that polio would not see the end of the century. Although this deadline has long since passed, the progress made by the eradication initiative should not be underestimated: in what is arguably the greatest onslaught against a disease in history, polio has been reduced from an infection with a global distribution, responsible for 350,000 cases of paralysis each year, to one that is on the brink of extinction. Just 223 cases of the disease were reported in 2012 ― the lowest number on record.
But polio is a wily foe. Despite exhaustive vaccination campaigns, the virus has never been eliminated in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. What’s more, polio has recently been on the move. After cases in Ethiopia, Somalia, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Syria, and Iraq, in May 2014 the World Health Organization declared the spread of polio to be an international public health emergency. [...]
Continue reading: Gut reaction: the impact of intestinal infections on polio vaccination