Behind-the-scenes at Cancer Research UK

We can send a man to the moon, so why can’t we beat cancer?

Just a few years ago, we at last reached the point where half of all people diagnosed with cancer could expect to survive it. Within 20 years, scientists hope that figure will rise even further to 3 in 4 people.

Reaching these milestones does not happen easily. It is the culmination of years of research by thousands of scientists around the world, working in fields as diverse as genetics, pharmacology and biochemistry – as well as medicine.

Much of this research takes place here in Manchester. In fact, cancer is one of The University of Manchester’s five main ‘research beacons’ – priority research areas in which we are world leaders – the others being industrial biotechnology, advanced materials, energy and addressing global inequalities.

Beyond the main university campus, we also have the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, situated over the road from the Christie Hospital in Withington, south Manchester. Their brand new £28.5 million building opened its doors last year, and is jointly funded by The University of Manchester, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and Cancer Research UK.

Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity, and funds and conducts research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Its work is almost entirely funded by donations from the public.

The Christie Hospital is one of Europe’s leading centres for cancer treatment and research, treating over 40,000 patients a year, and around 400 early phase clinical trials are taking place here at any one time. This makes The Christie an ideal next-door-neighbour for the new Cancer Research UK Institute.

Research in places like Manchester has vastly improved our knowledge of cancer and how we can treat it over the past decades. The discovery of epigenetics has shone a new light on the different ways this disease can arise, while genome sequencing has given us new and highly effective methods of diagnosis, allowing us to accurately tailor treatments to each individual’s needs.

There’s still such a long way to go however.

Cancer is not one disease nor one hundred diseases but many thousands, each unique and requiring a different response. Such a diverse assortment of diseases is only possible because the body itself is so diverse.

37 trillion cells, and 10,000,000 components per cell make the body 125 billion times more complicated than the Saturn Rockets that allowed humans to go to the Moon. It is only when we consider this staggering complexity that we can begin to appreciate the immense challenge we face in trying to treat the numerous different types of cancer.




LGBT History Month

This February it’s LGBT History Month: a month-long celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, the history of gay rights and the struggle for equality.

LGBT History Month aims to increase the visibility of LGBT people both past and present, promote awareness of issues affecting the LGBT community and generally improve the welfare of LGBT people, who continue to face discrimination and inequality here in the UK, as well as internationally. It is held in February to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 abolition of Section 28, a rule that forbade the promotion of homosexuality in the UK education system.

To mark LGBT History Month, we here at FLS take a look at some of the famous figures in the history of science who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender:

Alan Turing, aged 16

For example, Alan Turing, one of Manchester’s most famous alumni and a world-renowned computer scientist and mathematician, was a gay man. Famed for his work on cracking the Enigma code while working as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, Turing was prosecuted for committing homosexual acts in 1952, which were then a crime in the UK. Despite his heroic contribution to the Allied war effort, he was found guilty and sentenced to chemical castration, which back then was regarded as a ‘treatment’ for homosexuality. This was a punishment that was sadly given to thousands of others like him at the time. Turing died of an apparent suicide two years after his conviction. Homosexual acts were not made legal in the UK until 1967. Turing was given a posthumous pardon by the Queen in 2013, and his life was recently dramatised on the big screen in ‘The Imitation Game’. A building and an institution at The University of Manchester are both named in his honour.

Possible self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1513

Looking further back, perhaps one of the most famous figures in the history of science (not to mention the arts, mathematics, architecture, literature etc.), Leonardo da Vinci, is thought by many historians to have been homosexual. The Italian polymath made incredible advances in fields such as anatomy and palaeontology, and invented early versions of modern day technologies such as the helicopter and the parachute. He also produced many of the most famous artworks of the Renaissance, such as the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper. Court records of the time show that da Vinci and several others were charged with the crime of sodomy involving a male prostitute. However, the charges were ultimately dismissed, perhaps due to pressure from the accused parties’ powerful relatives.

Looking to recent history, many prominent scientists and mathematicians have identified as LGBT. These include Nate Silver, the American statistician who correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states during the 2012 US Presidential Election, who identifies as gay. Lynn Conway, a celebrated American engineer and computer scientist, came out as a trans woman in 1999, having undergone gender reassignment during the late 1960s. At the time of her reassignment, it had resulted in her being fired from her job at IBM. Today she is perhaps the most prominent transgender activist from the scientific community.

Lynn conway
Lynn Conway


When fashion meets science.

Two scientists have launched a fashion blog which aims to break the stereotypical image of the dowdy middle aged scientist.

The Tumblr site, called Sartorial Science, asks scientists to send in fashionable pictures of themselves.

Visitors to the site can also learn about each contributor’s research and gain some style inspiration as well.

The site is the work of Sam Illingwortha 31-year-old science communication lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and Sophie Powell, a 24-year-old PhD student from the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Though the site has only been live for a few days, there has already been a lively response from all across the world, with entries ranging from clinical psychologists in Costa Rica to zoologists in Belgium.

Biochemistry student Sophie, who studies arthritis, also publishes a blog called The Scientific Beauty, where she explains the science behind the latest beauty products and writes about being a female researcher.

She said:

Sartorial Science is all about challenging the stereotype of what a scientist looks like in the eyes of the public and actually, other colleagues. It’s really because as a young woman, there’s a fear I won’t be taken seriously if I care about the way I look, which is kind of frustrating. As a 14-year-old school girl, I was good at science but I remember feeling unsure if it was for me, as it seemed that it was for dowdy, middle-aged ‘boffins’ .

She is hopeful that this will change:

But hopefully this blog will challenge that. And I hope it will encourage young people into science when they realise that actually, we are real people with real interests. It’s not at all about being beautiful: anyone can send us their photos and it doesn’t matter if you think you’re good looking or not. It’s just about taking science out if its pigeonhole and showing that scientists can be fashionable too.

#PlayingGod videos

We told you all about the Playing God Film Series in a previous post, but now we have even more information from the organisers and contributors.

Dr David Kirby tells us the idea behind the series:

Amy Chambers discusses the potential audiences:

And Dr William Macauley gives a bit more info about the films included:


All six films will be shown at The Anthony Burgess Foundation and entrance is free. They’ll be looking at The Bride of Frankenstein, The Exorcist, Planet of the Apes, Solaris, Creation, and Altered States.

Which ones are you most looking forward to? Tell us in the comments.

Irene Manton Lecture

mantonlectureProfessor Dianne Edwards, The President of the Linnean Society, travelled up from London on November 28th to present the inaugural Irene Manton Lecture. This annual Lecture was in honour of Professor Manton, who became the first women president of the Linnean Society in 1973 and received her PhD at the University of Manchester.

Professor Edwards gave a talk in the Faculty’s Michael Smith Building, entitled ‘In the footsteps of Manton: Spores and early land plant evolution.’ This was followed by a wine reception. Over 55 people attended the talk and the audience included members of the Linnean Society, University students and staff, and members of the general public. Some attendees even travelled from as far away as Ireland and Wales.  Amanda Bamford, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, said:

“This evening was a resounding success. It was great to see so many members of the public at our event, along with so many students and staff. We are already in discussion with the Linnean Society about next year’s event!”

The Worm Wagon at the Great British Bioscience Festival – a student perspective

sheenagbbfResearchers from the Manchester Immunology Group’s outreach activity the Worm Wagon lead by Dr Sheena Cruickshank and Professor Kathryn Else and aided by FLS researchers Emma Murphy, Lydia Castelli, Mushref Assas, Vicky Kinsley, Lydia Castelli, John Lees, Maria Glymenaki, Ruth Stoney, Katherine Roberts and Michael Bramhall were in Bethnal Green, East London from the 14th to the 16th November. They were part of just 20 selected groups from across the UK taking part in the BBSRC 20 year anniversary celebration ‘The Great British Bioscience Festival’. A giant, pink, inflatable bowel stand about gut activity was fittingly placed next to Team Worm as they showcased wriggly parasites. Disturbingly long tapeworms in jars were swirled by the hands of thoroughly unperturbed children. Parents stared engrossed by tiny schistosomes and then encouraged their children to pose as the blood fluke Schistosoma for a photo in our Parasite ‘selfie’ stand. The ‘Schistosome selfie’ stand was a great success with many people, young and old, providing a talking point on Twitter.
The Worm Wagon was answering the important question: “How do we catch infections?” With an eye-catching range of enticing activities and real parasite samples, Team Worm talked to people about parasites and infections and learned from the stories they shared on infection. On the Friday the festival was populated with groups of School children, engaged in the most shockingly visual lesson on the importance of good hygiene of their lives. On Saturday and Sunday the public were invited to stare in cold disbelief at the grim size of a giant roundworm (Ascaris – 35 cm long and the width of a earthworm), as a cheerful volunteer informed them that these enormous parasites infect one billion people in countries where faecal matter (poo) is not properly disposed of. Feedback included “Good presentation, very informative”, “Enlightening, most imaginative” and “The person who spoke to me was very informative and the displays were visually enticing- I really enjoyed the display”.
The stand’s giant jigsaws were a hit with the younger children and, once completed, showed the life cycle stages of various parasites – often highlighting the key role of poo for many parasites and the importance of washing your hands (always a hit with the parents!). Other children wandered across to the rangoli to draw colourful worms, while their parents discussed parasite infections with the Worm Wagon volunteers. Videos of life cycles accompanied the jigsaws and can be seen here. People were given Parasite Top Trumps and World Diseases Top Trumps cards to take home with. Many visitors also chose to take on the scientists, to some tense Top Trump challenges!
Before leaving visitors were encouraged to vote on important questions such as “Should all pregnant women be screened for Toxoplasma?” and “Can parasites be controlled?” by placing balls in tubes in our evaluation stand. People were shocked to learn about the impact of Toxoplasma on pregnancy and how little testing or information is provided. Other people commented particularly on the lack of funding for the neglected tropical diseases we study; “Really interesting research. Gets one’s mind thinking. Research truly hasn’t been advancing as fast as technology and needs more attention”.

Written by Ruth Stoney and Michael Bramhall