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.




Be a school governor

The University is aiming to help create the largest growth of school governors in the UK. To do this, they need the help of staff members to become volunteer governors in local schools.

School Governors play an important role in the long-term development of local education by providing support and strategic advice to head teachers. They also make executive decisions over budgets and staff appointments.

Becoming a governor is a great way for staff to learn new skills, with 93% of governors claiming that they had ‘gained new skills’. What’s more, many feel proud of the work that they are doing and feel as if their contribution is making a real difference to local schools.

A governor usually serves a 4 year term and the average time commitment is 10-15 hours a term. The social responsibility team, alongside SGOSS – Governors for Schools, have made becoming a governor as easy as possible. They have a dedicated network of staff members set up for people to share best practice as well as give support and guidance to one another. Additionally, the University will make some allowance for staff to take paid time off if their governorship  overlaps with their work commitments.

For more information and to sign up for this great scheme, head over to the SGOSS – Governors for Schools website.

Study explains why our organs are bendy

An international team of researchers has discovered how one of the body’s crucial building blocks allows human tissues to be so flexible.

Faculty scientist, Professor Clair Baldock, working with researchers from the University of Sydney and MIT, now has a better understanding of how elastin – which makes our organs and vessels flexible – moves.

The research could one day help us to understand why some diseases weaken blood vessels, or improve the ability of scientists to artificially engineer new tissue.

Elastin allows skin to stretch and twist, blood vessels to expand and relax, and lungs to swell and contract – and is present in many of our body’s structures.

Elastin tissues are made up of a protein called tropoelastin, which are strung together in chain-like structures.

The findings were published this week in the journal Science Advances.

Professor Clair Baldock used a synchrotron – a type of particle accelerator which propels charged particles to near light speed – to reveal the shape and structure of tropoelastin molecules.

Her colleagues at Sydney and MIT revealed how it moves by using a combination of computer modelling and laboratory work.

Professor Baldock said:

“Thanks to this collaborative approach, we now understand that the scissor shaped ‘bump’ of one tropoelastin molecule locks onto the narrow part of another, eventually building up a chain.

“It is these long chains that weave together to produce the flexible tissues so essential to human life such skin, lungs, and blood vessels.

“The ultimate goal of this work is to apply this research to medical practice, though that still is probably a long way off.”

The research team, which also included Steven Wise of the Heart Research Institute in Sydney, was supported in part by grants from the Australian Research Council, the National Institutes of Health, the BBSRC, Wellcome Trust, and the Office of Naval Research.

The findings were published this week in the journal Science Advances. The paper: “Subtle balance of tropoelastin molecular shape and flexibility regulates dynamics and hierarchical assembly.” is available at

Henry’s Placement Year Blog

Manchester Life Scientists

Hello everyone!

My name is Henry and I’m a third year Neuroscience student on placement in the USA! I’m lucky enough to be working in the University of Nevada Reno’s Physiology and Cell Biology department, looking at energy utilisation in a giant synapse called ‘the calyx of held’. So far it’s been an absolutely invaluable (and all-round-incredible) experience and the three months have already transformed me from a bumbling undergraduate into a (mostly) competent lab worker!

 “But what actually happens on placement?” is the question that I think crosses most people’s mind when they sign up for industrial experience. Sure, you know you’ll have to do ‘a project’ which you’ll have to write up to earn those sweet, sweet percentage points towards your final grade. But beyond that is kind of a mystery, right? Now, I won’t pretend that I have all the answers, but I can at least give…

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Pit Vipers, Floods and Cacao farms – Costa Rica 2015

Digital Media Intern Theo Jolliffe recently accompanied 2nd year students on the Costa Rica field course. Here he tells us a bit about his experience producing a short film while out there.
Rained out of jungle I am back where I started, at the Holiday Inn outside San Jose.

More rain than La Selva Biological Station has seen in the last 10 years caused serious flooding in the area, leaving many locals homeless.

Two of the three roads out were shut due to flooded bridges and a landslide so we decided to cut our loses and make a beeline for the exit.

It a good job we acted quickly as the third exit was blocked off right behind us leaving our slightly slower American friends scratching their heads figuring a way out.

Being in one of the most important research centres in the tropics, boasting over 500,000 species, yet not being able to get into the rainforest because of the torrential rain was frustrating to say the least. Even the leaf-cutter ants were nowhere to be seen. But, in the wise words of OutKast: ‘You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.’ However, the few days we had in La Selva were definitely exciting.

Before La Selva we stayed in a town named Cahuita on the Caribbean coast. A far cry from the deep rainforest, the Caribbean offered sun, sea and biting sandflies. On one day we explored a trail where the jungle met the beach, sloths chilled alongside racoons, pit vipers basked in the sun next to the path and White-faced Capuchin monkeys chattered in the trees.

11223536_10206771370421310_5039346299413345344_nThe team

The day before we had been shown around a botanical garden and cocao farm belonging to probably the coolest person I have ever met. ‘Tarzan’, as he soon became known amongst the group, brandished an nasty looking machete as he chopped bizarre fruit from trees for us to try.

Before heading to the Caribbean we stayed just outside of a town called Turrialba. Our first true destination was a serene spot, our abode was comfortable and certainly not lacking in the wildlife department. This seemed to be a particularly good spot for fans of bird (particularly of the humming variety). The moth trap also attracted an array in interesting (and often large) insects.


Filming exotic insects in Turrialba

Whilst in Turrialba we visited the renowned tropical research centre, CATIE. As well as maintaining a vast bank of endangered seeds they have also developed a strain of cacao supposedly immune to a deadly fungus that had pretty much wiped Costa Rican chocolate off the face of the planet. We also visit the Costa Rican Amphibian research centre for a night time walk where my head torch picked out beautiful multicoloured frogs in the darkness.

Before Turrialba it was San Jose. Arriving in San Jose the first time felt very different to the second time. First time round I was raring to go; the city was just the final frontier before I could truly embrace the Costa Rican wildness. I was naive and slightly overwhelmed by the fact it was hot and people were talking in Spanish. Arriving in San Jose now, I am both wiser and stronger and a lot more grateful for a Denny’s burger.

One thing I have learnt on this trip is that I am city boy. As much as try and convince myself that the country runs in my blood and that the stifling city scape of Manchester is restricting my creative horizons – I don’t think it is true. There may be a small part of me that longs to be knee deep in mud baths surrounded by bullet ants and eating weird fruit off another man’s machete. However, I think it is a small part of me that I am happy to leave at San Jose Airport.


Enjoying a Denny’s burger

Anna Kell Student Diary – Costa Rica Field Course

Some of our (lucky!) 2nd year students are currently undertaking a field course in Costa Rica! For the past two weeks they’ve been studying the breathtaking biodiversity in the Costa Rican rainforests. They’ve even had to deal with rainforest floods – more on that later! One of our students, Anna Kell, has taken some time out to write up this quick blog post to give you a feel of what it’s like to go on a University of Manchester field course:

 2015-06-18 17.55.26What is Costa Rica like?

Costa Rica is such a beautiful country with a range of life zones including premontane rainforest, Caribbean mangrove forests, cloud forest and dry forest. It also has numerous endemic species unique to Costa Rica including 60 amphibian species, 20 reptile species, 7 bird species and 6 mammal species. The country is only really touristy by the coast and when you get into the mountains and rainforest, only volunteers and researchers really visit.

Why did you choose to do this field course?

I thought this field course would be a wonderful opportunity to explore and study an ecosystem that I would never get the chance to otherwise. It’s such an amazing experience to be thrown into conducting your own research on something you’re passionate about in a new and beautiful environment. Having the opportunity to work in a rainforest with home comforts of beds, good food and even wifi, was so attractive for me.

What have you been up to on the trip?2015-06-19 20.27.53

We started in Turrialba mountains to acclimatise to the heat and the humidity at the Turrialtico lodge. Here, we were very busy: we went on walks through the forest to collect insect samples and bird spot for our species logbooks, we went to the Costa Rican Amphibian Research Centre for a night hike to find lots of interesting frog species, we surveyed bats with detectors and we even had a day off to go white water rafting!! We then moved to the Caribbean coast to experience lowland coastal forests before moving to La Selva cloud rainforest to conduct our research projects.

What was your research project about?

Hummingbirds. There are more than 300 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica, all with beautiful colours and patterns and I thought it would be really interesting to study an animal I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to. Because hummingbirds have a poor sense of smell, I investigated the extent to which colour determines which flowers hummingbirds visit for feeding. This was determined by studying different coloured flowers and observing how many birds and of which species, at specific points in the day, come and visit those flowers.

2015-06-13 17.34.30Would you recommend field courses to other students and why?

Definitely! Field courses are an unbelievably amazing opportunity to develop your science skills in a field environment and to investigate ecosystems and parts of the world you may otherwise never have the opportunity to go. I also went on the South Africa field course last year and that again was an outstanding opportunity to conduct research in a new habitat and on animals you would never have had contact with. Everyone should experience these field courses – they are so rewarding and when you go back to labs in Manchester, you realise how much you’ve learnt and can apply your skills.

What has been the highlight of the trip?

Probably having the freedom to not only conduct my own research but to also enjoy the area you’re in e.g. by going on a canopy cable car and white water rafting. You’re treated as adults on field courses unlike trips with school so you actually get the opportunity to explore the areas you’re working in which is a great experience and obviously really enjoyable.

What have you learnt from this experience?

I think I’ve learnt how flexible science is: how science isn’t just about someone sat in a lab in Manchester but includes applying your skills in less conventional environments. For example, the scientists we were working around in La Selva spend so much time researching the rainforest and it can be easy to forget that science isn’t any less important or interesting because it doesn’t involve lab coats and test tubes. The whole experience has also been extremely rewarding in terms of developing essential skills that I can apply to my upcoming placement and final year, and the field course has inspired me to pursue a career in science communication to educate people about science and the environment around us.

Gut-feelings about infections prove to be right!

An international collaboration between Faculty scientists and the National Institutes of Health in America have discovered a new finding about how immune cells determine whether to repair or protect damage to the body.

Grainger in the labThe research, led by Dr John Grainger and Dr Yasmine Belkaid (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, USA) will lead to improved treatments for a range of conditions from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) to cancers.

Their work specifically looked at specialised immune cells called monocytes. Monocytes, which are continuously being made in the bone marrow, are rapidly called to sites of injury in order to help the body heal. What makes monocytes so effective is their ability to change their function depending on the need of the body. For example, some can be used to repair and heal wounds, whilst others are used to protect the body from invading attackers.

However, in some situations, these monocytes choose the wrong function – choosing to protect when they should ‘attack’. This can have disastrous results, leading to disease like IBD and some types of cancer.

What’s been a puzzle for scientists is how these immune cells determine what action to take. Researchers assumed that the cells decide which function to fulfil when they arrive at the point of injury. Dr Grainger and his team used mouse models and the parasite Toxoplasma gondii to investigate how, and where, monocytes are programmed in response to toxoplasmosis.

Dr Grainger explains the results:

“Very soon after the toxoplasma invades the gut, the tissue starts to communicate with other parts of the body to alter the immune system. One particular cell-type in the gut, the dendritic cell, can act as a beacon sending out long-range signals to the bone marrow where monocytes are produced. Cells in the bone marrow then pick up the signal and pre-programme monocytes with the appropriate function to either protect or repair.”

This means that rather than waiting to get to the site of damage, monocytes are already programmed with a specific function.

This discovery could prove crucial because, based on the previous assumption, existing therapies focus only on the site of infection. This means a lot of therapies are reactive to the symptoms and do not treat the underlying cause. It is now thought that this research can help develop much more effective treatments which will help prevent inflammatory diseases before they start.

One final discovery the team made was that monocytes are able to change their behaviour from their pre-programmed state if they come across commensal (good) bacteria. Dr Grainger concludes:

“We were really blown away by the fact that the monocytes could change their function depending on the commensal bacteria in the gut. We’re all becoming increasingly aware of how different types of commensal bacteria can affect our health – what we need to do now is test whether specific species within the whole commensal group are responsible for influencing monocyte function in a particular way.”

The paper “Bone-Marrow-Resident NK Cells Prime Monocytes for Regulatory Function during Infection” will be published by the journal Immunity on Tuesday 9th June.

Double award for Faculty Professor

IanKimberThe US Society of Toxicology (SOT) recently announced that Professor Ian Kimber will this year receive the SOT Distinguished Toxicology Scholar Award for 2015

This award is bestowed on an SOT member who has made substantial and seminal scientific contributions to the understanding of the science of toxicology. Recipients of the Award deliver a featured lecture at the Annual Meeting of the SOT. In 2015 the meeting will be held in San Diego. Dr Norbert E Kaminski, the President of the SOT, said:

“Throughout his career Dr Ian Kimber has made seminal, substantive contributions to the field of toxicology which is why we are proud to honour him with the 2015 SOT Distinguished Toxicology Scholar Award. With the leadership role Dr Kimber played in developing the local lymph node assay (LLNA) which has replaced more animal intensive alternative standard test methods, and his work that has furthered the scientific community’s understanding of chemical and protein allergenicity, Dr Kimber has helped further toxicology’s ability to protect the general public and well as workers in the occupational setting.”

The US Society of Toxicology was founded in 1961 and is now the world’s largest toxicology society or association with 8,000 members drawn from academia, industry, and government across the US and globally.

In addition, Professor Kimber has been awarded the 2015 Barnes Prize Lectureship by the British Toxicology Society (BTS). This prize is awarded biennially at the Annual Congress of the Society for achievements in toxicology. The title of Professor Kimber’s lecture will be: ‘Immunotoxicology and Beyond’.

Professor Ian Kimber is currently Professor of Toxicology and Associate Dean for Business Development in the Faculty, he has published over 600 research papers, review articles and book chapters, and serves currently on the editorial boards of toxicology, immunology, dermatology, and pathology journals.  Professor Kimber has received a number of awards and prizes and in 2011 was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to science.

Faculty of Life Sciences confirmed as research powerhouse

REF2014logo3The latest 2014 REF results confirm that the Faculty of Life Sciences is a powerhouse for research in biological sciences. The Faculty’s submission was ranked fourth nationally for power.

Associate Dean for Research, Professor Ian Roberts said:

“These results reflect the excellent research performance across the breadth of biological sciences taking place within the Faculty. They reaffirm that the Faculty is a first class environment in which to conduct world-leading research. This provides a strong base from which to deliver our new ambitious research agenda.”

Alcohol Awareness Week interview with Sylvia Lui

Alcohol Concern use their annual Alcohol Awareness Week to encourage organisations and individuals to highlight the impact thatSylvia Lui the substance has on our health and communities.

As part of this year’s campaign, running from the 17th to the 23rd of November, we sent Kory Stout to interview Faculty PhD student Sylvia Lui. Her project, led by Professor John Aplin and Dr Clare Towers and funded by the British Medical Association, looked at the effect of alcohol on pregnancy during the first-trimester. It was the first time that such a study had focused on this early stage of pregnancy. Sylvia says:

“It appears that alcohol, even at moderate levels, reduces the growth and function of the placenta resulting in less support and nutrient supply for a rapidly growing baby. It was interesting to find, though, that ethanol at very low concentrations (1-2 units, equal to half or one standard drink) did not have any effect on placental growth or function. Unfortunately, people find it difficult to judge what a unit is and often underestimate how much they are drinking, so erring on the side of caution may be the best practice.”

The team hope to conduct a much larger study in the future. Because guidelines on alcohol intake are often contradictory and confusing, they hope to produce some more specific advice to pregnant women about the individual dangers that they and their babies would be subject to through drinking alcohol.

You can read the whole interview over at the Life Sciences Blog.

What were the aims of your research?

Working in partnership with Tommy’s [a UK based charity that supports research into problems in pregnancy] and funded by the British Medical Association, we decided to look at the impact alcohol had on placental growth and function, and hence fetal development. My project, led by Dr Clare Towers and Prof John Aplin, looked at the effect of ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde on first-trimester pregnancy. We wanted to see if there was direct scientific evidence that would support the existing medical advice of avoiding alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Why did you choose first-trimester pregnancy?

Although there are many studies on the effects of high levels of alcohol through the duration of pregnancy, this is the first time a study has shown the effect of alcohol in such an early stage. Previous research has centred on fetal outcomes at the end of pregnancy after massive levels of alcohol intake. Whilst this is obviously very important, we believed that understanding the effects of alcohol at the very early stages, when the fetus is at its most crucial stages of development and all the organs are just being programmed, was crucial in understanding the overall effects of alcohol in pregnancy and on fetal health.

How did you go about investigating the effects of alcohol on the developing fetus?

We are very fortunate to be working here at the Maternal and Fetal Research Centre at St. Mary’s hospital, one of the UK’s largest human placenta research centres. We are in an unparalleled situation in terms of having access to donated placental tissues and all of the work we did here was done in the laboratory and on donated tissue samples. The placenta was used as a means of assessing the potential effects on the development of the fetus because of its crucial role in providing nutrients and oxygen during pregnancy. Poor placental development is very strongly linked with poor fetal development and risk of fetal death. With the documented detrimental effects of alcohol, we were interested in how it would affect very early pregnancy, when the pregnancy is less likely to be known and more alcohol consumed.

To test the effect of alcohol on the placenta, we incubated the placental tissue with low (equal to half to one standard drink), mid (2-3 standard drinks), and high (4-6 standard drinks) levels of ethanol and acetaldehyde (the major metabolite of ethanol). After doing this, we measured the amount of vital amino-acids (including taurine) taken up by the placenta, that would act as markers of nutrient transfer for good fetal development. We then wanted to see if the levels of ethanol and acetaldehyde would affect the growth of the placenta. If they did, we could then draw conclusions from this about the consequent effects on the development of the fetus.

What were the results of your research?

The biggest and most surprising effect we found was that mid to high levels of both ethanol and acetaldehyde had detrimental effects only on taurine transport. Taurine is an important amino acid that is vital for normal brain development. In extreme cases of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome, infants are often diagnosed with lifelong neurological problems. There are documented negative effects on behaviour and physical development with extended low taurine levels. Our results may indicate how alcohol can affect the baby’s brain development during pregnancy via the reduced placental transport of taurine to the fetus.  Another important finding was that the same middle to high levels of ethanol and acetaldehyde also reduced placental cell growth.

In summary, it appeared that alcohol, even at moderate levels, reduced the growth and function of the placenta and resulted in less support and nutrient supply for a rapidly growing baby. It was interesting to find, though, that ethanol at very low concentrations (1-2 units, equal to half or one standard drink) did not have any effect on placental growth or function. Unfortunately, people find it difficult to judge what a unit is and often underestimate how much they are drinking, so erring on the side of caution may be the best practice.

What’s next?

Ideally, we would be able to do a much larger study. We want to see what alcohol’s effects are on a range of specific attributes. Advice on alcohol intake is confusing and studies have shown that alcohol has varying levels of effects, depending on genetic/race factors, different body types, socio-economic backgrounds, and gender. We want to see how much these factors affect the detrimental effects of alcohol during pregnancy and so the development of the fetus. This would help us to give much more specific advice to pregnant women about the individual dangers that they and their babies would be subject to through drinking alcohol.


You can read the paper,  entitled Detrimental effects of ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde, on first trimester human placental cell turnover and function, on PLOS ONE.

Brain Attack 2014

A model brain

Faculty researchers recently took part in Brain Attack, an innovative public engagement event that formed a part of Science Stroke Art 2014. As part of May’s Action on Stroke Month, Science Stroke Art brought together the Stroke Association and The University of Manchester to raise awareness of stroke. The programme of events included talks, theatre, storytelling, and science and art demonstrations.

Alongside colleagues from across the University, Professor Stuart Allan presented a series of table-top activities to explain how stroke occurs and the effects it has on the brain. Professor Allan also performed guided dissections of the sheep brain on the Museum of Science and Industry’s new Platform for Investigation.

Brain Attack attracted hundreds of participants, of all ages. Professor Allan said:

“The highlights were the Cub Packs and Girl Guide groups, for whom impromptu brain dissections were run. All in all Brain Attack was a most successful and enjoyable day and we plan to build upon its success with future public engagement initiatives.”