Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
9 Jan 2019
This festive season, stem cell scientist Professor Bobby Gaspar, from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, appeared as a special guest on the BBC Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Here he shares the thrill of healing patients using gene therapy – and why it’s so important to communicate the science behind new medicines to the world.
Professor Aoife McLysaght, gene therapy patient Rhys & Professor Bobby Gaspar. Image: Paul Wilkinson Photography
To be a part of the Christmas Lectures alongside Rhys, the first patient to be successfully treated at Great Ormond Street Hospital with gene therapy back in 2001, was very special. [...]
Continue reading: Sharing the science of gene therapy
27 Sep 2018
Regenerative medicine is a fast-moving, interdisciplinary field, looking for ways to repair or replace parts of the body that are diseased or damaged. Now there’s an established and growing UK research community, we’re changing the way we fund this type of research. Two researchers explain why our continued support for this field – from the early discovery stage to translation into the clinic – will help deliver life-changing treatments for currently incurable conditions. [...]
Adult stem cells from the tissue lining the human knee joint, grown in a dish. These cells can repair
damaged cartilage and are being trialled in the clinic. Individual stem cells are labelled with different fluorescent colours. Image credit: Nathan White, University of Aberdeen.
Continue reading: Regenerative medicine: from the lab to the clinic, and back
4 Jan 2017
In her commended 2016 Max Perutz Science Writing Award article, PhD student Edie Crosse, from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, describes her research aiming to generate healthy stem cells from patients to treat leukaemia.
Blood, both vital and sinister, is tied so closely to our ideas of what it is to be human, warm and alive.
Throughout history people have felt connected to their families, tribes and countrymen imagining that the same blood flows through their veins – as if more than just cells but spirit is circulated. Nordic people often allude to their Viking blood making them hardier and stoic; the ancient Mayans believed blood was given by the Gods to bestow them with life, and frequently gave ritualistic blood-letting ceremonies to return it to them. [...]
Continue reading: Back to blood’s beginning
8 Jun 2016
Professors Irv Weissman and Ravi Majeti at Stanford University and Professor Paresh Vyas at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit in Oxford, are working on an antibody from the Stanford investigators that enables the immune system to detect and kill cancer cells. They are now testing whether it’s safe and effective for use in people with blood cancer. In this week’s blog they tell us how they collaborated across the Atlantic to get public funding for a project that has led to a spin out with multiple backers and a promising clinical trial.
What if we could make our immune system fight cancer like it fights infection?
These aren’t the only teams in the world grappling with that question but for Professor Irv Weissman and Professor Paresh Vyas, the solution feels tantalisingly close for patients with blood cancer. [...]
Continue reading: Fighting cancer like an infection
20 Jul 2015
Today researchers at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine announced that they have regrown damaged livers in mice. It’s just one example of scientists growing tiny versions of organs in animals and in the lab to study development and disease, and test potential treatments. Many of these organs also represent the first steps towards growing whole organs – or parts of organs – for transplant. MRC Science Writer Cara Steger rounds up progress.
Why might you want to grow a tiny organ? Small organs, or parts of them, are useful for studying both development and disease, and for toxicity testing or testing new treatments. In some cases, mini organs will be able to replace research using animals.
But they also offer a tantalising glimpse of a world in which we can grow complex solid organs for transplant. These tiny organs – often more like proto-organs with just some of an organ’s functions – are quite literally ‘starting small’, first seeing if it’s even possible.
Here we list eight tiny organs that have been grown so far.
Transplanted hepatic progenitor cells can self-renew (yellow) and differentiate into hepatocytes (green) to repair the damaged liver (Image: Wei-Yu Lu, MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, The University of Edinburgh’)
The MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine researchers used liver stem cells, called hepatic progenitor cells, to regrow damaged livers in mice. After extracting the stem cells from healthy adult mice and maturing them in the lab, the researchers transplanted the cells into mice with liver failure.
In three months the cells had grown enough to partly restore the structure and function of the animals’ livers, providing hope that this technique could one day replace the need for liver transplants in humans.  [...]
Continue reading: Eight tiny organs grown by scientists
15 Jan 2015
The lessons in action (Copyright: EuroStemCell)
Not many researchers go directly into schools to teach science lessons, but that’s what Professor Ian Chambers from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine did when he teamed up with EuroStemCell science communicator Emma Kemp. They have just published an academic paper on their experience of bringing stem cell research into schools. Here’s what they learned.
Not all schoolchildren want to grow up to be scientists, but they can be enthused about science, and equipped with the knowledge and skills to understand the relevance of science to their lives and decision-making.
Lots of adults can remember a particular time when they got the science bug. For Ian, this was a visit to a university lab aged 13. For Emma, it was her first physics teacher’s enthusiastic introduction to fundamental questions about the universe. We wanted to provide some moments like these to high school students, and we started with Ian’s old high school, the very one that had taken him on that early university visit. [...]
Continue reading: Stem cells in the classroom
20 Feb 2014
Pete Coffey (Image copyright: UCL)
Professor Pete Coffey, Professor of Cellular Therapies at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London, is an MRC-funded researcher who is developing a stem cell therapy for a degenerative eye condition that is the leading cause of blindness in UK adults. He spoke to Katherine Nightingale about the long road to the clinic.
Researchers seldom like to predict how long it might be before their discoveries are tested in patients. “At least five years” is a typical response, but one that should usually be taken with a pinch of salt. Research is complex, there are many obstacles to overcome, and some promising ideas never get anywhere near a clinic.
All the more surprising then that Pete Coffey gave himself and his team five years from 2007 to ready a stem cell therapy for a degenerative eye condition for clinical trials. And perhaps more surprising still — he’s done it.
The condition in question is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Most people with AMD have the ‘dry’ form, which occurs when a carpet of cells behind the retina start to die. These retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells nourish the ‘seeing’ cells of the retina, as well as removing dead cells that would otherwise build up and cause damage. People with AMD gradually lose sight from a part of the retina called the macula, which is responsible for sharpness of vision in the centre of the visual field — the vision needed for reading, driving and recognising faces. There is no treatment for dry AMD. [...]
Continue reading: Pete Coffey: Driving stem cells to the clinic
29 Oct 2013
Members of the public at T in the Park: the festival atmosphere lent itself to open discussions about stem cell research (Image copyright: Hope Beyond Hype)
Often communicating science is about going where people are, rather than expecting them to come to you. The people behind Hope Beyond Hype, a project based at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, took that advice to heart this summer, touring Scottish festivals with their tales of stem cell biology and medicine. Here Public Engagement Manager Cathy Southworth reports back.
Some time ago, while working during the summer as a play leader, I became quite adept at painting butterflies and tigers on the faces of young Liverpudlians. Who would have thought that two decades later an opportunity would arise to hone these latent skills on the festival-going Scottish public? It turns out that face painting was ideal for setting up a relaxed context for some interesting chat about stem cell biology.
Engaging people with stem cell research was our aim this summer as we embarked on a five-festival run across Scotland, taking in The Royal Highland Show, T in the Park, Tiree Music Festival, The Wickerman Festival and The Cowal Highland Games. [...]
Continue reading: Stem cells, face paints, and Highland shows
17 Sep 2013
A male opossum in its cardboard tube (Image copyright: NIMR)
Mice, rats, macaques, ferrets … there are quite a few well-known laboratory mammals. But opossums? What can these solitary marsupials offer science? Katherine Nightingale went to the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (MRC NIMR) to find out.
It’s Thursday morning at the MRC NIMR and the institute’s 100 opossums are going about their usual business. Being nocturnal, that means not a lot. In their room, most of the female opossums are burrowed into their nests, big eyes peering out from under shredded paper. Next door, the males are settling into their new double-height cages, tails dangling from one end of their cardboard tubes and long noses protruding from the other.
Native to South America, the grey short-tailed opossum (Monodelphis domestica), also known as the laboratory opossum, is a fairly unusual research animal. The NIMR is the only place in the UK to keep a colony, with other larger colonies at the University of Trieste in Italy, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in the United States.
Yet in recent years, scientists have begun to recognise just how useful the opossum can be to medical research. Being mammals, they share many genes and biological processes with humans, and so can be used as model animals in much the same way as mice or rats.
But opossums have other tricks up their sleeves. They are marsupials, meaning their branch of the mammal family tree split from ours around 148 million years ago. This means they differ from us in crucial ways, and by comparing these differences, researchers can learn more about the biology of people. [...]
Continue reading: Making a name for itself: the laboratory opossum
9 Sep 2013
The potential to use stem cells as therapies is one of the most exciting areas of biomedical research. But how do we turn the promise of the lab into reality in the clinic? Prof Peter Andrews, director of a new regenerative medicine research ‘hub’ announced today, explains what lies ahead.
The idea of replacing worn out or diseased tissue with new healthy cells grown from stem cells is an attractive one.
And it’s certainly an idea that captures the imagination. Although we’re never going to transplant brains, the announcement last month that researchers had grown tiny brain-like ‘organoids’ in the lab gained a huge amount of press attention.
But how close are we to a point where having a cell transplant is the same as any other treatment? It’s fair to say that we’re a long way off. I don’t expect cell therapies to be commonplace for at least another 20 years, and probably a lot longer.
But one thing I can see more clearly is what we need to do to get to that point — and it’s a lot of careful, painstaking work in the lab. [...]
Continue reading: From artisan to industrial: getting stem cells ready for the clinic