Tuesday Feature Episode 37: Kunal Chopra

This week we’re interviewing an International PhD student who is doing some fascinating research into wound healing.

Please explain your research for the public in ten sentences or less.

I’m looking at the role of biomolecules known as reactive oxidative species. These have previously been shown to play a role in wound healing and we are studying how these species behave in the Zebrafish. Specifically we’re looking at how reactive oxidative species help with wound healing in the zebrafish.

The good thing about using zebrafish is that they are 60% genetically identical to humans and so we can use them as a very useful model of studying wound healing for humans. The other thing that I am studying is the involvement of hormones in wound healing because previous research has shown that certain hormones are actually beneficial in the wound healing process.

How will this benefit the general public?

It might be useful to mention here that I am funded by the healing foundation. The foundation is looking to fund research that will have general benefits to the public. To specifically answer the question, wound healing can be quite a problem in diseases like diabetes where it is delayed and wounds can be left open for long periods of time which can lead to other health complications. What we are doing here in the lab will essentially help us understand how we can help counter those problems in patients.

How did you first become interested in wound healing?

I have been very open-minded about what I have wanted to research but recently I really became interested in wound healing at the genetic level. There are a number of genes involved in wound healing during the developmental process and I became interested in these. Any given organism during its development has these sets of genes that helps it grow into a mature adult. The thing about wound healing is that many of the same genes and mechanisms get switched back on and it was my initial interest in developmental genes that got me more involved in wound healing.

Did you have any science heroes or people that inspired you?

No I don’t idolise anyone but there is one person that I really like and his name is Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel published a very beautiful book called ‘Art forms of nature’, which has some wonderful illustrations of different life forms. When I saw the symmetry in animals like jellyfish or butterflies, it inspired me to study developmental science to see how life grows this way.

How has studying here in Manchester helped you?

Oh it’s great! It felt very unreal in the beginning when I was offered the position to study here because this is a city that I had visited so many times and I never thought that I would get the chance to study here. The environment is great, the student support is fantastic and I have been lucky to get the healing foundation scholarship – so all in all it has been a very good experience.

What do you do outside of studying here?

I do a lot of travel photography. Whenever I get the chance, I try to escape to mainland Europe and try to photograph different cities. When I was young I used to read a lot of books but I think that the interest in them has faded now.


Tuesday Feature Episode 33: Natalie Gardiner

Episode 33 of the Tuesday Feature highlights Natalie: someone who is doing fantastic research and making a real difference for gender equality here in FLS.


Please explain your research to the general public in about ten sentences or less.

I work on diabetic neuropathy a disorder that can affect the nervous system in diabetes. It is associated with a die-back of the nerve endings that supply skin, muscles and internal organs. This can lead to a whole host of symptoms – from unpleasant gastrointestinal and bladder problems to increased skin sensitivity and pain, often even the pressure of clothes or bed sheets can cause discomfort.  A loss of sensation can coincide with the die-back of the nerves, and this increases the chance of tissue damage and ulceration – which sadly often necessitates amputation of toes, feet or lower limbs.  In my lab we are characterising key changes that occur in gene, protein and metabolite levels in the peripheral nervous system in diabetes. We are interested in finding out what causes the nerve problems and are looking for ways to promote regeneration of damaged nerves and protect nerve function.

A Minute lecture on diabetic neuropathy by Olly Freeman, see recent paper in Diabetes

How does this research benefit the general public?

The World Health Organisation estimated that almost 1 in 10 adults worldwide have diabetes, and the incidence of diabetes is ever-increasing. Approximately half of all patients with diabetes will develop some form of diabetic neuropathy, from mild to more chronic. This can have a huge impact on health, happiness and quality of life. There is currently no treatment. Basic research is therefore needed to better understand diabetic neuropathy and ultimately develop an effective treatment that prevents or limits the progression of the disorder.

What are your other roles here in the Faculty?

I am currently the coordinator for the Women in Life Sciences (WiLS) group here in the faculty and also a member of the Equality and Diversity Leadership team and ATHENA SWAN self-assessment team. I first started going to the WiLS meetings when they were organised by Kathryn Else.  At this time, I had just returned to work after my first maternity leave and started my RCUK fellowship, so I had a lot to learn – how to manage a lab, how to get lab work done in time for nursery pick-up time, and how to cope with very little sleep! I found the WiLS meeting really helpful – learning new management skills and strategies, making new contacts and friends and forging new research collaborations.  Since taking over as coordinator I have organised several bespoke training programmes and workshops based on demand identified through suggestions and surveys (such as a 6-month Coaching and Leadership Program) and talks from internal/external speakers (such as Prof. Dame Athene Donald). I would particularly like to get more students and postdocs involved. Last year I worked with a number of very talented and enthusiastic undergraduates to arrange talks and create a great WiLS photoproject around the time of International Women’s Day. I am always looking for more ideas for workshop/meeting/International Women’s Day events– so if anyone has any suggestions please do email me.

How important is it for Women to be represented in life sciences?

Very! Life sciences does have a better gender balance than some other STEM areas, if you look at the profile of FLS from our ATHENA SWAN Silver renewal application you will see that women are generally well-represented (61% of our undergraduates, 50% of postgraduates and 51% of research staff are female). The proportions do decrease in academic positions and with seniority (32% of all academic staff in FLS are female; 17% of the professors are female),  but there are signs that this gap is narrowing (for example, an increase in the proportion of female senior lecturers/readers over the last 5 year from 18% to 37%) hopefully this will continue.

Do you have any science heroes? who inspired you to do science?

Not sure I particularly have a hero – I was always interested in life sciences and was strongly encouraged by my teachers to study Biology at University. I caught the research bug during my final year project and decided to do a PhD.  I greatly enjoyed the Royal Institutional Christmas lectures given by Nancy Rothwell, and this helped convince me to pursue a career in neuroscience.  After some time doing postdoc positions in London, I moved to Manchester and Nancy became my mentor during my RCUK fellowship!  I try to mention the work of Rita Levi-Montalcini in undergraduate lectures – a key woman in neuroscience! During World War II, her academic career was halted by Mussolini’s ‘Manifesto of Race’ so she responded by setting up a research lab in a bedroom in her parents’ house to study nerve development. She moved to a lab in the US in 1946 and six years later isolated Nerve Growth Factor – a factor which promotes nerve development, survival and regeneration. She shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for her role in this discovery.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester has a great research environment and people are willing to collaborate, so I have got to do work that I would not have been able to do elsewhere. The support facilities, and most importantly the people who run these facilities, are fantastic – a great source of advice.

Finally, what do you do outside of work?

I have two young sons which means that home life is loud and busy.  We try and burn off energy at the weekends going walking, kicking/throwing/hitting balls around and recently by digging – as we have just taken on the challenge of an overgrown allotment.




Tuesday Feature Episode 29: Alexander Ryan

From science on the screen, to science in the labs – this week’s Tuesday Feature looks at Alexander Ryan. He’s a new post doctoral researcher in the Faculty, so read about his research into his congenital hyperinsulinism.

Please explain your research for the general public in ten sentences or less.

At the moment I’m looking at congenital hyperinsulism which is when the pancreas secretes too much insulin. It affects roughly 1:50000 new-borns and its potentially really awful because the high levels of insulin leads to low levels of glucose which can have major problems with development, especially in the brain. My research is looking at trying to stop the insulin secretion and to prevent the hypoglycaemia (the low levels of glucose) and therefore help the children.

How can this benefit the person reading this blog?

Obviously with it affecting 1:50000 children, it’s not particularly common but it is devastating to those families which are affected. Also, understanding more about how blood glucose levels are controlled may lead to new treatments for diabetes which is a much more common condition affecting blood glucose levels. There are some medications that can be used for treating congenital hyperinsulinism but they don’t always work, and have quite a few side effects.  Quite often the children need a pancreatectomy (removal of the pancreas) to stop hypoglycaemia, and this is a very drastic measure.  Hopefully my research should allow a new rage of medications to be developed which would help enormously.

How did you first become interested in this?

I did my PhD in Manchester where I looked at diabetes and I focused on skeletal muscle and fat. Then I moved to San Diego to do my postdoc and I looked at the effects the muscle and the fat have on the pancreas. I became interested in how the beta cells function as a whole and this is a natural progression from that. I look at the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too much insulin and so the whole combination of being able to fully understand the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too little or too much insulin is really interesting to me.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Growing up, not so much. The main thing that wanted me to get into research science was my undergraduate degree. During this I did a project with Alan Dickson and everything he taught me was really really interesting. I got reading papers and I got excited by the idea that no one had done my work and that I was finding out new things. One of the people who I read was Randall Kaufman and I actually got the chance to meet him when I was in San Diego at a conference. It’s an embarrassing story but I completely ‘fanboy’d’ out. I basically told him I loved his lectures, his papers and so he’s closest thing to an actual hero. Other than that it’s people who I work with on a day to day basis. They do my sort of work but better than me!

How has studying and working here in Manchester helped you?

The University is fantastic. The reason I chose my undergraduate degree is that The University is one of the best in Europe, if not the World. When I was actually looking at the research the Faculty does, it seemed so fantastic and that’s what prompted me to do my PhD there. When I was coming back to England, I knew I would be coming back to the north so when I was trying to find universities to apply for, Manchester just stuck out as the best one. This was especially true for the research. The lab I’m working in now is one of the few labs in the country, if not the world, that is actually looking at congenital hyperinsulism in this manner and so it’s really unique to Manchester.

What do you do outside of work?

I play bass and guitar quite a lot. I do a lot of musical stuff and I also play football. I took up surfing in San Diego, but that’s kind of useless here. Other than that, it’s just boring things like cooking, reading and travelling.

Tuesday Feature Episode 21: Olly Freeman

Episode 21 of the Tuesday Feature is with Olly Freeman who is beginning on his Post-PhD research here at the University of Manchester. Without further adieu, find out what he’s up to and how he got to this point!

Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I look at energy generation in the brain and the nervous system. Now, the brain is really electrically active and this needs lots and lots of energy to keep it going. There are these cells called glia, which wrap around the neurons, the nerve cells in the brain, and these were classically thought to be like insulation on a wire to insulate the signal. That is the case, but actually what we think now is that they may play a more direct role in energy generation – generate some energy themselves and pass that to the nerve cell. So, this is the research I’m looking into at the moment.

olly freeman

How might your research benefit the person reading this blog?

I look at fundamental mechanisms, fundamental cellular mechanisms at the basic level but what we hope is that these will be able to be translated through to the clinic. There are many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s which have all seen deficits in energy production in how these nerve cells communicate because they lack the right energy. So what I hope, and it’s paramount to say that this is a long way in the future, that the basic research that we’re doing at the moment could in some future time help patients.

How did you first become interested in Energy Generation?

It’s stemmed from my PhD research really. So, my PhD was looking at a condition called diabetic neuropathy which is a very common condition but it’s not very well known. It’s where patients with diabetes commonly get pain right down in the hands and feet and what we don’t really understand is why you’ve got a whole blood sugar all over the body but painful symptoms right down in the distal areas. So what we found, or what we think we found, is that actually it could be the energy generation could be different at one end of the nerve to the other. So the nerve at the bottom has a problem making its energy while the one at the top is fine. So what I’m now trying to do is look at the fundamental mechanisms behind how energy is maintained in different parts of the nervous system. The role of the glia in energy generation of the nerve seems to be a really important feature.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

So I guess towards the top of the list has to be a guy called Eric Kandel. He won the Nobel Prize in the year 2000 for his pioneering work on learning and memory. What I like about Kandel so much is that actually he wanted to study these big phenomena – learning and memory, but what he wasn’t afraid to do was take it down to a really basic level. And what he did was take a sea slug, aplysia, which is a ridiculous little animal. But he used this against most of his colleagues who were telling him ‘no – you’ve got to study this in the brain of mammals’. He used this little sea slug to study actual cellular mechanisms of learning and memory and he managed to outline this cellular process, which has now been shown in higher organisms in mammals and humans to actually be a fundamental mechanism of learning and memory. I think he’s a fantastic example of just going with your gut and studying what you want to study and it can go really great.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

One of the best things about Manchester is that there is a real can do attitude about Manchester. If you want to do something, you can find people who are willing to support you doing that and just give it a go. It may be a ridiculous idea but people around will support you in chasing that and trying to do what you want to do. There is fantastic expertise in loads of different areas, which will support you to do that.

What do you do outside of work?

One of my great passions is football. I love playing football, I love watching football. Also love to travel which being a scientist is fantastic, you get to go away a lot with work and that really helps to wind down.

Scientists closer to understanding why weight-loss surgery cures diabetes

Hormone cells interspersed throughout other intestinal cells

Faculty scientists are a step closer to understanding why diabetes is cured in the majority of patients that undergo gastric bypass surgery. It appears that the cure can be explained by the effect of surgery on ‘reprogramming’ specialised cells in the intestine that secrete powerful hormones when we eat. Dr Craig Smith, research leader on the study, said:

 “Our research centred on enteroendocrine cells that ‘taste’ what we eat and, in response, release a cocktail of hormones that communicate with the pancreas to control insulin release to the brain, convey the sense of being full, and optimize and maximize digestion and absorption of nutrients. Under normal circumstances these are all important factors in keeping us healthy and nourished. But these cells may malfunction, resulting in under- or over-eating.”

In the UK, approximately 2.9 million people are affected by diabetes. Among other factors, the illness is linked to genes, ethnicity, diet, and obesity. 75% of people suffering from both obesity and diabetes are cured of diabetes after a gastric bypass. Understanding how this surgery cures the disease is the crux of Dr Smith’s research:

“The most common type of gastric bypass actually also bypasses a proportion of the gut hormone cells. It is thought that this causes the cells to change and be reprogrammed. Understanding how they change in response to surgery may hold the key to a cure for diabetes. Our next challenge is to investigate the messages the gut sends out when we eat food and when things go wrong, as is the case in diabetes. We hope this work will result in the development of drugs which could be used, instead of surgery, to cure obesity and prevent diabetes.”