For episode 16 of our Tuesday Feature, we are joined by Faculty Scientist Professor Andrew Loudon. Professor Loudon is one of the world’s leading experts in body clocks and circadian rhythms. He is the Beyer Professor of Animal Biology here in Manchester. It is for his work on clocks that he was recently awarded a fellowship to the prestigious Academy of Medical Sciences. Who better then to star in this week’s Tuesday Feature!
Explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.
I’ve been interested all my life in biological clocks – timing systems in biology. I got into this by studying seasonal breeding animals in their natural environments. Their behaviour is very strongly driven by clock based processes. My initial interest came from studying hormone cycles and the mechanisms that control the activation and suppression of reproduction in wild animals. Then, around about 20 years ago, I came particularly interested in some of the genetic mechanisms that were being unravelled for the circadian clock. So I’ve maintained an interest in annual cycles and seasonal breeding but more recently in circadian mechanisms with a very strong interest in genetics.
How could your research benefit the people reading this blog?
Well in the context of circadian biology, there’s an awakening interest in the way in which this field can contribute to medicine at multiple levels. One of the most obvious applications is so called chrono-therapy. This is where you try to deliver drugs or therapeutic treatments to patients at the optimum time of day. That’s a non-trivial business. There are a number of drugs for instance that have to be delivered at a particular time of day. Probably most people know about statins and some people take low-dose aspirin – those sorts of drugs are really not effective at the wrong time of day.
This is the tip of the iceberg and there are a large number of other pharmacologies that would be much better if they were adapted so that they were highly potent, one time of day drug. We would then not have to expose the body to a continuous high dose of this drug throughout 24 hours when we really have to only expose the target tissues for a matter of 2-3 hours.
I think there’s likely to be a very large amount of interest in this area. There’s evidence now that pharmaceutical companies are finally waking up to this and it has been led very much by university based scientists around the world.
How did you first get interest in body clocks?
As I said earlier, it relates to my original studies of the reproductive biology of wild animals. My PhD actually was in territorial and sexual behaviour. That’s what introduced me first to hormones. I was studying wild animals. Rather like Springwatch, I was out there at 4 o’clock in the morning with my binoculars for several years. My animal was a small species of deer (the Roe deer) and I spent several happy years tracking deer in the wild doing endocrinology and taking tissues samples from them. My background is really in behavioural sciences and then I moved very quickly in my 20’s to endocrinology, the study of hormones, and then as I’ve indicated, I moved into areas such as genetics.
Have you got any science heroes? Who inspired you?
Of course I’ve been around a while so I’ve got quite a few. I’ve been fortunate to work with and interact with terrific people. I guess one of the early mentors was a wonderful man called Roger Short who was a reproductive biologist. He had a huge impact in the UK on developing the field of reproductive sciences and endocrinology. He then moved to Australia. He’s still alive and I keep in touch with him, he’s well in to his 90’s now. Then another colleague in the United States who I worked with when I was over there, Michael Menaker, who is kind of the grandfather of all biological clock researchers around the world. All of the key people seem to have interacted with him; he was an absolutely wonderful man – a terrific insight into biology generally. I guess other colleagues like Joe Takahashi, who is really quite a friend, has been extremely helpful to everyone in the field and has taken a major lead in pioneering new genetic approach to how biological clocks and timing processes operate generally. It’s quite a long list, but there’s three there for a start! Without these people in science, life would be so much duller.
How has working in Manchester helped you?
Manchester has got the major asset that it is very large and yet it is possible to interact at multiple levels in different disciplines without the enclaves and territorial/departmental structures that you find in some of the older Universities. The thing that attracted me to Manchester and the reason I came here, to be quite blunt, was the animal facilities which are unique. They are very well run and the head of the animal facility has been extremely accommodating to myself and all of the other circadian workers in allowing us to kind of take over the facilities and put lots of equipment in there to allow us to monitor the behaviour of the animals. That really was very important to me because I’m very focused on studying the behaviour of animals and seeing how they operate in real time. I don’t just study cells and tissues so obviously that’s important.
More recently, the growing alliance between the Life Sciences and medicine has been extremely important and is very much the future of all of us. I’ve been working very closely for the last 10 years or more with a good friend and colleague called Professor David Ray in the medical faculty and we have a lot of very exciting science going on together. Manchester is a great place to be – it offers a great opportunity to undertake science across multiple levels with lots of different colleagues and disciplines.
What do you do outside of work?
I’m a keen woodworker and furniture maker. I turn wood. I also fly fish and I’m a life-long, passionate motor cyclist. I have several motorbikes including one very large one and I haven’t fallen off it recently! All of those hobbies have one common feature which is that they require an enormous amount of concentration. If you let your concentration drop in any of those activities the result is chaos. Especially, if you’re motorcycling particular! It’s kind of relaxing to have to concentrate on something different. Those are the kind of things that I do when I’m not working.
Thank you again Andrew for a thoroughly enjoyable Tuesday Feature. Good luck for your induction to the Academy on July 1st and we hope it all goes well!