Tuesday Feature episode 32: Liz Toon

Please explain your research for the general public.

I do a whole bunch of different kinds of research, with most of it focused around issues of women’s health and relationships between patients and doctors. One of the projects that I’ve been working on for a while is a history of breast cancer treatment and experience in 20th century Britain. What I want to know is how has treatment changed in Britain over the course of the last century, but also how has the experience of being treated for breast cancer changed.

In relation to my research, I am working on a newer project on women’s cancer screening and prevention.  Basically the project is about how interventions like cervical smears and the mammograms became expected parts of women’s healthcare. I am looking at how interventions become a way for women to think about the status of their health in their everyday lives; part of this looks at how these types of treatments were built into the National Health Service.

How does this research benefit the general public?

Breast cancer services in the UK are often used as a proxy for the state of Britain’s commitment to women’s healthcare and I want to know how this came to be. The project will also explain why certain practices are organised the way that they are, for example, you get cervical cancer screenings from your GP whereas you get breast cancer screenings through specialised centres and so my research hopes to answer how this happened. I think we all need to know why our healthcare system is set up this way.

The project also allows me to understand how everyday people receive health care; it gives me the ability to understand what it is like for patients who have to go through the current health care system in comparison to patients from earlier in the 20thcentury and how these changes in practices affect the patient.

How did you first get interested in the history of science and medicine?

Well it’s sort of a long path. I started out, like many people in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, really interested in science as a kid. I used to like to read old medical books and old science books. I actually went to University in the US and I wanted to become a research biologist. I loved working in the lab but I was not so good at other elements of research and at the same time I found that what I really cared about was the history of science and medicine. Doing History is great for the curious, because it’s basically reading other people’s mail!

I worked for a while as a technical writer and then I went onto graduate school in history and sociology of science. At that point I decided I actually wanted to look at how it is that everyday people learn about science and medicine.

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

I was a big reader as a kid and I loved reading biographies of scientists and I especially loved reading biographies of women scientists; Marie Curie of course, but lots of others too. Like a lot of people of my age group and that are American, the thing that really did it for me was Carl Sagan and Cosmos. I realised later that this was partly because he didn’t really just tell you the scientific information, but he gave you a really good picture of how that information came to be. He made it clear that you have to understand the history to really understand the present and the future and I think he was terrific at that!

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

It’s helped me a lot to work here in Manchester, especially at the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, because CHSTM is internationally known with a really strong sense of cross-discipline collaborations. I have great colleagues and there are a lot of elective and joint projects that we have going on and it’s really good in that sense because as a historian a lot of the work that you do is individual. When you sit in the archives you’re looking at papers on your own but being able to do historical projects whilst working with other people is really special. Manchester has been great!

Manchester has also been really great because there’s a lot of interest all over the University in the human elements of medicine. I have colleagues in Humanities, in Medicine and Human Sciences, and here in Life Sciences, that are not historians, who all want to think about the more human experience side of biomedicine. In fact, we’ve started a new group that’s called the Medical Humanities laboratory and that is bringing together those people from all over the University to look at the relationships between art, history and science.

What do you do outside of work?

Anyone who follows my Twitter Feed will know that I am a very avid knitter and crafter. I probably tweet as much about knitting as I do about history!

Anyone who has come to a CHSTM seminar will have probably seen me knitting during the seminar itself because it really does help me concentrate better. It allows me to get my nervous energy out by knitting a sock whilst I try to think of a question to ask. I also read a lot of mystery novels and, of course, I do a lot of things like travelling and visiting museums.

Tuesday Feature Episode 13: Mais Absi

Last week we looked at stroke and the brain so we thought it was only right to now check out the heart. This episode centres around Mais Absi, a British Heart Foundation Fellow here in the Faculty of Life Sciences. 

Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

The focus of my research is vascular pharmacology. As you may know, blood vessel function and tone are regulated by the endothelium, which is the innermost part of the blood vessel, and smooth muscle cells which are the middle part of the blood vessel. Both endothelial and smooth muscle cells contribute to the contraction and dilatation of the blood Mais TF 2vessel and consequently blood flow. We also know that vascular disease is one of the main causes of death in the world – especially in Westernised countries. This actually raises the need to find urgent and effective treatment. One of the main features of vascular disease is endothelial and/or smooth muscle dysfunction which leads to a reduction in the endothelium-dependent vasodilatation or increase in smooth muscle constriction. There are other factors that contribute to the dysfunction of endothelial and smooth muscle cells such as changes in the expression and/or function of membrane ion channels as well as impaired intracellular calcium signaling pathways. My research therefore focuses on trying to understand the mechanisms of endothelial and smooth cells dysfunction, how they communicate with one another and, more importantly, how this is affected by various diseases with emphasis on cardiovascular disease.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Before I answer this, I believe that science is like a jigsaw puzzle and every scientific research is like a piece of this puzzle. The effort of every scientist, no matter how small, will contribute to building the whole picture together. So I won’t claim and I don’t think any scientist should, that I will find the cure for any particular disease. But I hope that the results of my research will contribute to the building of this whole picture.

For example, my current project on pulmonary hypertension is looking at smooth muscle cell dysfunction, with an emphasis on potassium channels. These are proteins in the cell membrane. I’m looking at how the modulation of these proteins might improve the function of the pulmonary arteries. So hopefully this will contribute to the improvement of symptoms and prognosis of pulmonary hypertension in patients.

How did you first get interested in your area of research?

I’ve always had strong interest in science since at very early age and my parents encouraged my interests. I had my BSc in pharmaceutical sciences from Aleppo University in Syria. During my undergraduate study, I found both pharmacology and human physiology quite amazing. They were my favourite subjects. I also found that working in the lab and experimenting fascinating. Basically, then taking the decision to a master’s degree and then a PhD was quite easy so I obtained my MSc and PhD from the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I chose cardiovascular sciences in particular because there a number of family members of mine who suffered from cardiovascular diseases.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Not really. Since my early childhood and throughout school and University, I worked extremely hard – maintaining top student position. My parents believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my career in science. I am also a mother of two. Raising children alongside pursuing my career in science is not only really challenging it is also very motivational. Frankly, I’m proud of what I’ve become so far because I’ve been through a lot of hard work and obstacles, especially coming from a University that, unlike Manchester, doesn’t have the funding to support excellence in scientific research. I do agree that there are no heroes in science because science is inspirational in itself.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is a very big, cosmopolitan city which has great equality and diversity at heart. I’ve lived here for more than a decade and have found working at the University of Manchester excellent for both study and work.  There are also very good research facilities here.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside my work I could spend hours with my husband and children cooking, especially for my family and friends. I also like walking with my children and I like mushroom hunting in the mountains, especially in the Alps.

A big thank you for the a great interview Mais! We hope that one day you get to put a piece of the puzzle in the jigsaw in cardiac health! This was episode 13 of the Feature, if you want to look back at some of the best bits, watch the video below:

Dementia Awareness Week 2015.

This week is Dementia Awareness Week, which looks to raise awareness of this debilitating disease. Dementia is an incurable disease that can strip you of your most cherished memories, your relationships and your identity – leaving you feeling isolated and alone. This does not have to be the case. This year, the Alzheimer’s society, who heads up Dementia Awareness Week, are promoting the idea that Dementia sufferers can #DoSomethingNew. The campaign hopes to spread the idea that life does not have to end when dementia begins.

The University of Manchester has teamed up with Dementia Friends, a programme that tries to change people’s perceptions of dementia. It aims to transform the way people think, talk and act about the condition. Kate Middleton, Admin Support Manager in the Faculty, is a volunteer Dementia Champion. She says:

“I became a Dementia Champion as I have personally been affected from a family member living with dementia; this initiative by the Alzheimer’s Society is to change society’s negative perceptions of dementia as people living with the condition can experience loneliness and social exclusion.  As a Dementia Champion volunteer, I talk to people to hopefully give them a better understanding of dementia and ask them to consider the small things that they can do to make the difference to people living with condition.  People can then turn their understanding of dementia into practical action by becoming a ‘Dementia Friend’ and help in creating dementia-friendly communities.  Being a ‘Dementia Friend’ doesn’t mean you have to commit to doing something time-consuming, every small action counts – such as behaving patiently with someone showing signs of dementia – or helping or supporting a friend or relative affected by dementia.  By raising awareness in society through talking about dementia, we can enable people living with the condition to go about their daily lives and feel part of their community.”

To find out more about the way this Faculty is helping to tackle the disease, watch our Life Science Broadcast on the topic:

Discovery could lead to better treatment for CKD patients

Faculty scientist Dr Donald Ward has discovered that small changes in blood acidity levels could have detrimental impacts on the health of kidney disease patients.

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) affects roughly one in five men and one in four women between the ages of 65 and 74 in the UK. Dr Ward’s research, published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, suggests that very small changes in the blood’s pH level prevent the body from accurately monitoring calcium levels. This causes too much of the hormone PTH to be released, which leads to a greater risk of artery damage when the body releases calcium and phosphate from the bones. This often proves fatal to CKD patients. Dr Ward explains:


“The diseased kidneys prevent the body from getting rid of both excess phosphate and excess acidity. So if that acidity also causes the body to release more PTH then this could compound the problem by releasing further phosphate from the bone. This vicious circle might accelerate the potentially fatal calcification of the arteries. What is so important about this research is that we have demonstrated that changes in PTH release can be prompted by very small changes in blood pH level. Before, it was assumed that only a larger change in acidity would cause problems for patients.”

The research was funded by Kidney Research UK. Elaine Davies, Director of Research Operations from the charity, says:

“Donald’s work has used novel pharmacological and molecular tools in generating these new findings which increase our knowledge about the complex balance that clinicians need to consider when treating patients with CKD.”


Insulin offers new hope for the treatment of acute pancreatitis

Faculty scientists have discovered that insulin can protect against acute pancreatitis, a disease for which there is currently no treatment. The condition involves the pancreas digesting itself, resulting in severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and systemic inflammation. There are around 20,000 cases every year in the UK, with around 1000 proving fatal. There is currently no immediate cure. Dr Jason Bruce, the research team leader, said:

“The major causes of pancreatitis include bile acid reflux from gall stones and excessive alcohol intake combined with a high fat diet. When alcohol and fat accumulate inside pancreatic acinar cells — the cells that secrete digestive enzymes into the gut — the resulting small molecules (metabolites) deplete cellular energy levels and increase cellular calcium. This causes uncontrolled and catastrophic cell death and the cells burst, releasing their toxic enzymes, which digest the pancreas and surrounding tissue.”

However, recent research from Dr Bruce’s laboratory shows that insulin, which is normally released from the beta cells of the insulinpancreas, prevents the toxic effects of alcohol and fatty acid metabolites.

The team decided to look at insulin because it has been used to treat obese pancreatitis patients by reducing fatty acids on the blood. Diabetes makes pancreatitis worse and diabetics are at higher risk of developing the disease, but the team noticed that the incidence of pancreatitis is reduced in diabetics who receive insulin. Although tenuous, these findings suggested that insulin might have a protective role, but it remained unclear how the insulin was working. This research provides the first evidence that insulin directly protects from the disease in the acinar cells, the place of initiation. Dr Bruce explained:

“Insulin works by restoring the energy levels of pancreatic acinar cells, which fuels the calcium pumps on the cell membranes. These calcium pumps help to restore cellular calcium and prevent the catastrophic cell death and autodigestion of the pancreas. Although more research is needed to confirm that insulin works in animal models and human clinical trials, this study suggests that, combined with tight control over blood glucose, insulin may be an effective treatment for pancreatitis. Furthermore, if we can better understand how insulin works, then we might be able to design new and more effective drugs that might one day provide the first curative treatment for this disease”

Computer models helping to unravel the science of life

Scientists have developed a computer modelling simulation to explore how cells of the fruit fly react to changes in the “Cell, Martin Baron et al.”environment. The research is part of an ongoing study that is investigating how external environmental factors impact on health and disease.

The simulation shows how cells of the fruit fly communicate with each other during their development. The current phase of the study looks at how temperature affects cell signalling networks during development. This will help explain how flies – and other organisms – develop across a wide range of temperatures. Dr Martin Baron, lead researcher on the study, said:

“It is exciting that the computer model was able to make predictions that we could test by going back to the fly experiments to investigate the effects of different mutations which alter the components of the cells. It shows us that the model is working well and provides a solid basis on which to develop its sophistication further.”

The next phase of the study will see the team research how cell signalling networks adjust to other environmental changes, including nutrition. Dr Baron said:

“There is a lot of interest in how environmental inputs influence our health and disease by interacting with our genetic makeup. Our initial studies have already shown that changes to the adult fly’s diet can also affect how cells inside a fly communicate with each other and produce responses in certain fly tissues. This is a promising avenue for future studies.”

Baron explains that there are wider implications for understanding human health and disease:

“Many different types of signal control normal development but when some of these signals are mis-activated they can result in the formation of tumours. What we’ve learnt from studying the flies is that some communication signals can arise in different ways and this means that, in cancer, mis-activation of these signals can also occur by different routes. This is important because it can help us to understand how to stop mis-activation from occurring.”

Bacteria on the Skin: New Insights on Our Invisible Companions

A Faculty study examining how skin-dwelling bacteria influence wound-healing could help address chronic wounds, a commonbacteria ailment in the elderly.

Despite the fact that we spend our lives covered in a thin veneer of bacteria, little is known about the microbes that dwell in and on our skin. A new study suggests that the interplay between these bacteria and our cells could influence the healing of wounds. Faculty researcher Dr Matthew Hardman said:

“These wounds can literally persist for years, and we simply have no good treatments to help them heal. There’s a definite need for better ways to predict how a wound is going to heal and develop new treatments. This study gives us a much better understanding of the types of bacterial species that are found in skin wounds, how our cells might respond to the bacteria, and how that interaction can affect healing. It’s our hope that these insights could help lead to better treatments to promote wound healing.”

Chronic wounds are a significant health problem, with an estimated 1 in 20 elderly people living with cuts or lesions that never seem to heal. They often result from diabetes, poor circulation, or being confined to a bed or wheelchair.

Hardman and his colleagues compared the skin bacteria from people with chronic wounds to those with wounds that healed. The results showed markedly differing bacterial communities, suggesting there may be a bacterial ‘signature’ to wounds that refuse to heal. Dr Hardman said:

“Our data clearly supports the idea that one could swab a wound, profile the bacteria that are there, and then be able to tell whether the wound is likely to heal quickly or persist. This could impact treatment decisions.”