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.




Go red to crack the confidence blues

A new book developed by a University of Manchester expert could be a boost for Brits who suffer from poor confidence.

Davina Whitnall, a skills trainer, says the often hidden problem can cause misery at home and in the workplace for millions of people at some stage in their lives.

After studying the problem for 6 years , Ms Whitnall has devised a 90-page guide, based on her work with PhD students called Confidence ketchup: pour on the confidence condiment.

By examining survey data between 2011 and 2015, the trainer identified how confidence was a recurring theme not only for many post graduates, but for the public as a whole.

And working through the book, she argues, will give readers a noticeable-  and measurable – confidence boost through motivation and support.

She said:

“It’s surprising the sort of people who are affected by confidence: journalists, for example can be confident at work, but not in other contexts.

“Indeed, poor confidence has long been a problem for many; over recent years, the political spotlight on mental health and stress has meant that we are becoming more open about it.”

She added:

“The method I have developed is unusual in that it’s very quick to learn, uses a system of self-measurement and teaches you to isolate confidence from the social stigma of low competence.

“There are plenty of competent people out there who are being held back from achieving because they lack confidence.

“Confidence enhances an individual like ketchup – hence the name or the book. The more you practice being confident, the better you get at it: if you do think this is a problem for you, maybe it’s now time to think about changing.”

To try out one of  confidence needs analysis contained in the book, visit:

Confidence ketchup is published by  and is available at Blackwell’s, Amazon,

Manchester scientists recognised with Academy Fellowship

Two scientists from The University of Manchester have been elected to the prestigious Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Judith Allen, Professor of Immunobiology and Graeme Black, Professor of Genetics and Ophthalmology and  Deputy Director, Biomedical Research Centre will join 45 other UK researchers who have been elected to the renowned body.

The Fellows have been elected for their contribution to medical research and healthcare, the generation of new knowledge in medical sciences and its translation into benefits to society.

This year’s elected Fellows have expertise that spans paediatrics, genetics, neuroscience and oncology among many.

13 of the new Fellows are women, representing 28% of the total elected in 2016. The total women in the pool of candidates was 25%.

Graeme Black said:

“It is an honour to be elected: my work focuses on understanding the molecular basis of rare inherited conditions associated with blindness and aims to improve the diagnosis, management and treatment of such conditions.

Such a recognition is a reflection of the fact that this is a scientific area that has seen huge progress over recent years, including work done in the University of Manchester and within St Mary’s and the Manchester Royal Eye Hospitals.

Consequently this also underlines the hope there is that further progress can be made, here and elsewhere, to build on such foundations.”


Judith Allen said

“I am honoured that the academy of medical sciences has chosen to recognise my contributions to parasite immunology and macrophage biology.

I very much looking forward to working with the academy, particularly on their efforts to support and recognise the value of teams in science.”


Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences said:

“These new Fellows represent the amazing diversity of talent and expertise among the UK medical research community. Through their election to the  Fellowship, we recognise the outstanding contributions these individuals have made to the progress of medical science and the development of better healthcare.

“Thanks to the experience and expertise of its Fellows, the Academy can play a crucial role in addressing the great medical challenges of our time, such as maintaining health in an ageing population, the spread of non-communicable diseases and multiple morbidities.

“We work with our Fellowship to create the essential connections between academia, industry and the NHS and beyond, to strengthen biomedical research and facilitate its translation into benefits for society.

“We are delighted to welcome this year’s new Fellows to the Academy and I look forward to working with them all in the future.”

The new Fellows will be formally admitted to the Academy at a ceremony on the 29th June 2016.

Future Month

Future Month is happening, and it’s packed full of events and workshops designed specifically for research staff and students. Whether you are trying to figure out your next career move or need to finish your thesis there is something for you.

Future Month brings together a group of events that are designed to:

  • support researchers in exploring future plans
  • connecting with other researchers and discovering the breadth of opportunities available
  • discover the breadth of opportunities available to researchers at the University.


So take a look at

What we’re doing right (and wrong) on autism

As World Autism Awareness Week goes into full swing Dr Emma Gowen, a University of Manchester expert in the condition explains what more needs to be done to make autistic people’s lives better.


“As a researcher, I’m struck by how much more we talk about autism nowadays – but also by how many misconceptions still predominate. World Autism Awareness Week is a fantastic opportunity to talk about these issues and that’s been helped no end by the excellent drama on BBC 1, the A Word. Our project at Manchester, also aims to make an important contribution.

“The A Word does seem to reflect the difficulties that parents face after diagnosis, as support is so patchy and often poor: they are often left in limbo – with little or no support over decisions such as whether to be home schooled or not, and are often spoken to in professional terms that mean little to ordinary working people.

“Our project runs in partnership with Salfordautism, a local peer-support and advocacy organisation. During three workshops, we met many people who live with autism to discuss how academics and autistic people might work together to learn more about autism, resulting in a series of honest and revealing short films The films highlight misconceptions autistic people face – as well pointing us researchers to those areas which are important to autistic people themselves.

“Many people think that autistic people have extraordinary talents, but in fact, only at most 1 or 2 in 200 individuals can be described like that. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and that includes all autistic people.

“And while many people think the condition just affects children, it is simply not true: less than 25% of all autistic people are children and all autistic children grow up to be autistic adults. While over 75% of autistic adults are capable of and wish to work, only 15% are in full-time paid employment. And at least one in three autistic adults experience severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support.

“And yes, women can be and are autistic, too. Officially, five times as many men than women are diagnosed with autism but research shows that autism spectrum disorders are vastly under-diagnosed in women, so the balance between the sexes may be much closer than that.

“Societies awareness of autism has increased, so that’s a good thing. Sadly, this can lead to the misleading impression that it’s on the increase when there’s no indication that it is any more or less common now than at any time in the past. What we are seeing is actually a result of changes in how diagnosis was carried out up to the 1980s – when autism was defined very rigidly and perhaps inappropriately. The definition has now been much improved by greater awareness of newer discoveries.

“There is also a growing understanding of the inappropriateness of the ‘medical model’ of autism, which tends to look for a cure, and uptake of the ‘social model’ which seeks to understand and accept everyone’s individuality: many healthcare professionals and most autistic people now seek to create a supportive environment in which autistic people can flourish. And that, most of all, is what I hope this week will get across.”

Zika virus vaccine to be developed in Manchester

A University of Manchester team is to develop a new vaccine against the Zika virus as part of a new initiative to counter the disease which has spread rapidly across the Americas in the last few months.

The team will create and test a vaccine based on a safe derivative of a pre-existing smallpox vaccine – the only disease to have been successfully globally eradicated.

Dr Tom Blanchard, Honorary Senior Lecturer at The University of Manchester and Fellow of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Consultant in Infectious Diseases at North Manchester General Hospital and the Royal Liverpool Hospital will lead the project. Professor Pam Vallely and Dr Eddie McKenzieare University of Manchester experts involved in the project and the work will be done in collaboration with Professors Miles Carrol and Roger Hewson from Public Health England.

Dr Blanchard said:

“As we have seen in the case of Ebola there is now a real need to react quickly to fast spreading tropical diseases. Zika can cause serious illness, but it often has no visible symptoms, so a vaccine for those at risk is one of the most effective ways we have of combatting it.”

Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and the disease is mainly spread by mosquitoes, though there have been reports of human to human transmission. It is particularly serious for pregnant women, as it’s been linked to birth defects – in particular, microcephaly, a condition where a baby’s brain doesn’t grow properly and it is born with an abnormally small head and serious development problems.

A recent and particularly severe outbreak which began in South America and has since spread north to United States Territories prompted the Medical Research Council, The Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund to launch a £4m rapid response funding initiative at the beginning of February.

The results of this call for proposals have been announced today and Dr Blanchard and his team were awarded £177,713 to build and test a vaccine as part of this.

It is expected that the results will be delivered within 18 months and although the first target will be the Zika virus, the nature of the vaccine candidate may enable it to combat many infectious diseases simultaneously.

Dr Blanchard added:

“We know that there’s an urgent need for this vaccine but we’ll be working carefully to deliver a product which is safe and effective and which can be quickly deployed to those who need it.

If we can also use this vaccine on multiple targets then this will represent an exciting step forward in dealing with these kinds of outbreaks.”


Huge carbon stores discovered beneath UK grasslands


A nationwide survey by ecologists has revealed that over 2 billion tons of carbon is stored deep under the UK’s grasslands, helping to curb climate change.

However, decades of intensive farming, involving heavy fertilizer use and excessive livestock grazing, have caused a serous decline in valuable soil carbon stocks in grasslands across the UK.

The nationwide survey was carried out by a team of scientists from the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Reading and Newcastle, as well as Rothamsted Research.

The team found that 60% of the UK’s total soil carbon stored in grasslands – covering a third of UK land surface – is between 30cm and 1m deep. The team estimated the total grassland soil carbon in Great Britain to be 2097 teragrams of carbon to a depth of 1m.

Though the effects of high intensity agriculture are strongest in the surface layer of soil, they also discovered that this deep carbon is sensitive to the way land has been farmed.

Dr Sue Ward, the lead author of the paper from Lancaster Environment Centre, said:

“What most surprised us was the depth at which we were still able to detect a change in soil carbon due to historic land management.

“We have long known that carbon is stored in surface soils and is sensitive to the way land is managed. But now we know that this too is true at considerable soil depths under our grasslands.

“This is of high relevance given the extent of land cover and the large stocks of carbon held in managed grasslands worldwide.”

In contrast, the soils that were richest in carbon were those that had been subjected to less intensive farming, receiving less fertilizer and with fewer grazing animals. The team found that soil carbon stocks were 10% higher at intermediate levels of management, compared to intensively managed grasslands.

Professor Richard Bardgett from The University of Manchester said:

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

He added:

“These findings could impact how grasslands are managed for carbon storage and climate mitigation, as current understanding does not account for changes in soil carbon at these depths.

“Our findings suggest that by managing our grasslands in a less intensive way, soil carbon storage could be important to our future global carbon targets, but will also bring benefits for biodiversity conservation.”

The research is part of a five year research project, supported by DEFRA, aimed at managing UK grassland diversity for multiple ecosystem services, including carbon capture.


The paper, ‘Legacy effects of grassland management on soil 1 carbon to depth’ is available in the journal Global Change Biology.

Academics and the autistic community to collaborate on research projects

The interdisciplinary group, autism@manchester are looking to work with the autistic community to improve the effectiveness and impact of their research. Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how the autistic person makes sense of and interacts with other people and the world around them, often causing them, and those affected by them, considerable difficulty, discomfort and anxiety.

autism@manchester involves autism researchers from the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and the NHS, as well as autistic individuals and parents of autistic children.  The group are concerned that the research they do should be relevant and of real advantage to those who live with the condition.  At the same time, many of those affected by autism feel disconnected from the very research that is supposed to be helping them, and voice concerns that researchers are not working on issues that are important to them.

This is why researchers from autism@manchester are very keen to involve those who live with autism in the research process and were awarded Welcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Funding to hold a series of three interactive workshops with members of the autistic community during November 2015. The project was run in partnership with Salfordautism, a local support group who work in the community to support autistic people and those around them. During the workshops, the autism@manchester team met with those who live with autism to discuss how best to work with the autism community in developing, choosing and designing research projects that would have real meaning for autistic people.

Emma Gowen, one the lead academics on the project, concludes:

“This was a highly challenging and exciting project to work on. One challenge was that the researchers involved were from a wide range of research disciplines – so we had to address communication barriers between the researchers as well as between researchers and the autism community. In the end, it all worked brilliantly! Everyone involved was very open and generous with their time and we learnt a lot from each other. It was a very enjoyable and encouraging interaction. However, this is only the beginning – we need to use the findings to develop some longer lasting initiatives”

Findings are currently being analysed and written up and will appear here when finished (

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.

Tuesday Feature Episode 14: Hema Radhakrishnan

Our eyes are one of the most interesting and crucial body parts in the entire human body. In this week’s episode, Faculty of Life Sciences Lecturer Hema Radhakrishnan tells us all about her research into the human eye and how one day we may not need to wear reading glasses.

Explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

My research focuses on accommodation of the eye. The eye functions very much like the auto-focus on a camera. If you are looking at something in the distance – your eyes will perfectly focus on that object and you will see clearly. As soonHema at her desk as you start to look at things closer to you, your eyes will focus almost instantly (accommodate) so you can read those things close up. As we get older, this ability to focus declines. When you see a young child you’ll often see them hold the book close to their eyes whilst they read. As you age, you start to move objects further away from you in order to focus – this becomes an impossible feat when you get to about 45 or 50 because your arms are not long enough to hold the book far enough away from you.  This is why people will start to wear reading glasses because the accommodation changes, declining as we get older.  It is the ‘mechanism and repairing’ of a decline in accommodation that I research.

How does your research benefit the person reading this blog?

First off, the loss of accommodation happens to everyone – it’s a natural aging phenomenon by the age of 45 – 50. By this age we would have lost enough function in order to have a significant impact on how we focus and read things at a near. Understanding this mechanism better is the first step towards developing better treatment methodologies which could be in terms of spectacle lenses or contact lenses. What we do is study the optical reflexes in the eyes which are called ocular aberrations, to understand how these change when we change focus, particularly when we get older and this information is likely to be very useful in designing optical corrections for people who are starting to lose the ability to accommodate.

How did you first get interested in accommodation of the eye?

I did my undergraduate degree in optometry in India. We had an extremely good library which was very well stocked with not just optometry books but also the most recent optometry journals. I was always really keen on reading these and trying to understand what was happening in the eye and accommodation was something that fascinated me right from the start. I read some papers that interested me and I thought that I would like to go and do some further research on that. That’s where it all started really.

Have you got any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m going to take that as two separate questions. At present I consider every woman who is managing a young family and doing well in her research to be a science hero. Being a scientist is not really a 9-5 job, I’ve never seen a scientist work 37 or 40 hours a week and achieve the results that they get.  It requires total dedication to the work that you’re doing and people often work 50+ hours a week to be able to do their research properly. Doing that while you have a young family is an extremely difficult task as I’m now understanding. I really do take my hat off to any person who can do both of those things together.

In terms of inspiration, my biggest inspiration has been from Professor Neil Charman who used to work at the University of Manchester for a number of years and is now an Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester. His work has always inspired me – he was one of the pioneers who studies accommodation and optics in the human eye. His papers were some of the papers that I read as an undergraduate student and they inspired me do research later on in the future. He was one of my PhD examiners and subsequently one of the key influences on me wanting to move to Manchester. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to work with him and publish papers with him since I’ve been in Manchester. It’s a joy to work with him, not only is he so accomplished (he has won every major award that anyone who does optics or the human eye could win) he’s also very humble and down to Earth.  Someone like that is definitely an inspiration to people who want to do optometry.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Hema in the LabWorking in Manchester has been great. I’ve always enjoyed working here; I’ve got some very nice colleagues who are very helpful and really easy to work with. Also, Manchester has the culture of appreciating results and doesn’t always look at the number of hours you spend at your desk. It’s your contribution that matters – both to the University and to the Faculty of Life Sciences. That is extremely helpful. I’ve got two young children and being able to manage a family and work would be really difficult if I was expected to be at my desk all the time. Here in Manchester I’m able to do my research whilst teaching and doing administration and management roles which is what really counts. Being able to work flexibly means I will often come in early in the morning and leave early in the afternoon which is perfectly accepted because it is more about the contribution you give to the University. Also, the University of Manchester and Faculty of Life Sciences take social responsibility extremely seriously and it is one of the top things on their agenda which benefits the society which is great and I really appreciate that.

What do you do outside of work?

I love painting – I used to do a lot of painting outside of work when I did have the free time. Currently I don’t get much free time because I have a 4 year old daughter and a 1 year old son. I’m usually going to play dates,  swimming lessons and dance lessons – that’s what I usually spend my free time on!

Thank you once again Hema for a fascinating insight into the human eye. I was unaware of the certainty that everyone would require reading glasses, so I hope for my sake that your research into accommodation goes extremely well! 

Million pound success for Manchester body clock researchers

Almost £1.3 million has been awarded from Arthritis Research UK to scientists at the University of Manchester.

Faculty scientist Dr Qing-Jun Meng and his colleague, Dr Julie Gibbs from the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, have been awarded the fellowships (worth £845,918 and £434,767 respectively) in order to study the effects the body clock has on two common types of arthritis: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It is well known that the symptoms of arthritis fluctuate during the day and it is thought that this is linked to our internal body clocks.

Meng and GibbsDr Meng is an expert in cartilage and joint damage linked to the 24 hour body clock of the human body. He’s now looking to use the fellowship to get a better understanding of how disruptions in the natural body clock could lead to an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis. He says:

“I am very pleased to receive this fantastic award, which will enable me to continue in this potentially very fruitful area of biomedical research. I believe this research will provide novel and medically relevant insights into one of the most common joint diseases that affect most elderly.”

Dr Gibbs’ research specialises in body clocks and inflammation. In particular, her research has shown that the body clock is a key regulator in inflammation. Arthritis is an inflammatory disease of the joints and so a better understanding of how the body clock helps to control inflammation may give us a greater insight into the role body clocks play in arthritis.

The duo are part of a larger team based here at The University of Manchester which collectively makes up one of the largest and most productive clock research communities in the world. Having successfully collaborated on previous projects, both researchers are looking to use their complementary research skills to tackle one of the biggest research problems in the arthritis field.

Professor Ian Roberts, Associate Dean for Research of the University’s Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “We are delighted by the two recent prestigious fellowship awards to these two excellent young researchers. They reflect the quality of research on body clocks ongoing in both faculties and offer a real opportunity to answer important questions on body clocks and human disease.”

Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Research and Programmes at Arthritis Research UK commented: “…we’re  hopeful that these two fellowships will take us closer to much-needed, more effective treatments for people with these painful, debilitating conditions.”

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:

How the blues could help reduce jet lag

Faculty researchers have revealed that the colour of light has a major impact on how our body clock measures the time of day.

It’s the first time the impact of colour has been tested. The research, published in PLOS Biology, demonstrates that the colour of light provides a more reliable way of telling the time than its brightness.

University Sunset1Faculty members, led by Dr Timothy Brown, looked at the change in light around dawn and dusk to analyse whether colour could be used to determine time of day. Their key discovery was that light was reliably bluer during twilight hours, compared to daytime.

The team recorded the electrical activity of the body clock of mice while they were shown different visual stimuli. They found that mice were much more sensitive to changes between blue and yellow in the colour of light, than to its brightness.

The scientists then created an artificial sky which imitated the daily changes in colour and brightness. Mice were placed underneath the synthetic sky for several days whilst their body temperatures were recorded.

Researchers found that the highest temperatures occurred just after night fell – when the sky had turned a darker blue, optimal for a nocturnal animal. When only the brightness was altered, the mice became active before dusk, demonstrating that their body clock wasn’t properly in sync with a normal day/night cycle.

The team concluded that colour must therefore play a role in the determination of the time of day.

On the importance of the research, Dr Brown says:

 “This is the first time that we’ve been able to test the theory that colour affects the body clock in mammals. It has always been very hard to separate the change in colour to the change in brightness but using new experimental tools and a psychophysics approach we were successful.”

He continues:

“The same findings can be applied to humans. So in theory colour could be used to manipulate our clock, which could be useful for shift workers or travellers wanting to minimise jet lag”

Faculty scientists make trees grow bigger, faster

Image22Faculty scientists have discovered a way to make trees grow bigger and faster. The research, published in Current Biology and funded by the BBSRC, has identified two genes which are involved in the growth process of poplar trees.

Professor Simon Turner, who led the research, says:

“The rate at which trees grow is determined by the rate of cell division in the stem. We have identified two genes that are able to drive cell division in the stem and so override the normal growth pattern”

The genes, called PXY and CLE, control tree trunk growth. When they were overexpressed, the trees grew twice as fast as normal – being wider, taller and producing more leaves. As well as increasing the biomass available for the growing biofuel and biotechnology industries, trees may be better prepared to handle the pressures of climate change. Professor Turner explains:

“Most plants, including crops, respond to adverse environmental conditions with lower growth rates that result in correspondingly lower yields. Understanding how the plants respond to environmental signals and to what extent we are able to manipulate them to override these signals is likely to be very important for continued improvements to crop performance. In future, it may be possible that manipulating the expression of the PXY and CLE genes can override environmental signals that normally alter plant growth.”

The team now plan to work with a forest products company to test their findings in the field. It is hoped that this research will be used to address the pressing challenge of keeping crop yields high in an increasingly harsh climate.

Tuesday Feature episode 2: Matt Paul

So, last week we opened the Tuesday Feature and it went down brilliantly! It’s already the second most viewed post we’ve ever had on the blog. Thank you all for reading and we’re really glad you enjoyed it.

Matt in New YorkThis week we cross the pond to New York to catch up with Faculty Alumnus Matt Paul. Matt studied BSc Genetics with Industrial Experience here at the Faculty, graduating in 2012, and he tells us below just how inspiring he found some our staff.

He is now a 3rd year PhD student in the Department of Biology, New York University, in the labs of Dr. Andreas Hochwagen and Dr. Sevinc Ercan. It’s been an exciting journey for Matt, and you can find out more about it below.

Hi Matt. Thanks for talking to us. Can you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

I study the three-dimensional organization of the genome. DNA is not just randomly packaged into the nucleus, like a bowl of spaghetti. Regions of the DNA tend to be found in specific places, next to other regions. Where a loci is positioned can have an impact on various processes including transcription and DNA repair.

I use yeast and worms to study how genome organization regulates cell division to produce sex cells (meiosis) and the balancing of expression of X-chromosome genes between sexes (dosage compensation).

How could your research benefit the people reading this blog?

The study of chromosome structure and how it alters genome function is very basic and can have a wide varietyMatt in the lab of impacts.

The most direct example for the translation of my work to the real world would be in meiosis. During this cell division you produce the sex cells. The three-dimensional structure of the genome is important in ensuring that there is correct segregation of chromosomes into these cells. Errors could result in infertility, miscarriage, or disorders such as downs syndrome.

Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?

Growing up was a very exciting time to be a budding biologist. Genomes were being sequenced and the promise that these projects brought was exciting. Though this was a huge step, there now seems to be even more questions about how the genome works.

The study of chromatin was definitely one of the hot topics in biology when I arrived at University of Manchester. Specifically, what I found fascinating was how so called ‘junk DNA’ actually coded for important information.

I got a chance at Manchester to investigate this topic by looking at non-coding RNAs with Dr. Matthew Ronshaugen in my final year. Many of these help organize genome structure, so it was a small leap from my work there to what I do now.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

There been a steady stream of inspiring people without whom I wouldn’t have got so deep into science.

I have been fortunate to have many good science teachers, lecturers, and mentors along the way. Now, just being around my colleagues, the many hard-working biologists who are so passionate about their work, provides a lot of inspiration.

One person who I haven’t had contact with directly but admire is Craig Venter. Though I don’t necessarily agree with some of the moral aspects of his work, his insight and force of will played key roles in the genomic revolution. Furthermore, his current work in synthetic biology continues to be really exciting.

Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?

Matt with crazy eyesLiving in New York certainly allows you to explore many interests. It’s a big city with a big cultural output, so I like to try and do as many new things as possible.

My favorite activity is going to gigs, and as good as it is here, I do occasionally miss the Manchester music scene.

Beyond this, I am also captain of NYU squash team so that keeps me busy and healthy.

And that wraps up the second Thursday Feature from the Faculty of Life Sciences’ blog. If anyone’s wishing they were in New York, or fit enough to be the captain of a squash team, have a look outside. At least it’s sunny today.

Our thanks go to Matt Paul – it’s great to see an ex-student thriving! It’s Brain Awareness Week next week, so we’ll be here with Dr. Jack Rivers-Auty. Thanks for reading and please come back next Tuesday!


Interview by Fran Slater, Images courtesy of Matt Paul

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.”