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.

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© NASA

 

 

Becoming the Best: Women in Science

Women have made great strides towards achieving equality in science, but there’s a still a long way to go – according to a leading scientist from The University of Manchester.

Dr Hema Radhakrishnan, one of the nation’s top sight researchers, today launched a programme of events at The University to encourage women to advance in their field.

Called ‘Becoming the Best’, women from across science spoke to an audience of female academics and students on International Women’s Day.

The event was organised by Dr Radhakrishnan, Deputy Associate Dean for Social Responsibility and Professor Amanda Bamford, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility – both at the Faculty of Life Sciences.

The move builds on the prestigious Athena Swan Silver Award given in October 2015, which recognised the Faculty’s commitment to tackling gender inequality in higher education.

The Equality Challenge Unit gave the award to just 87 departments in the whole of the UK.

The Athena SWAN charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science.

Dr Radhakrishnan said:

 “Even though we are a long way forward from even 10 years ago, women are still more likely to progress in their careers at a rate that is slower than their male counterparts.

“Men and women do things differently and offer different perspectives; it doesn’t make sense to lose the talents of half the population.

“Women often drop out of science in the period between getting their PhD and finding an academic position and it’s family life which can act as a barrier.

“Sometimes, though it’s simply a question of women not putting themselves forwards for promotion.

“So to break that barrier, we have implemented flexible working, coaching and mentoring schemes – as well as establishing a Women in Life Sciences Group.

“And this programme is part of that ethos.”

Professor Bamford added:

” We strive to develop a culture of fairness, opportunity, flexibility, and respect and want to be a beacon in gender equality.

“So there is no pausing in our efforts, especially as we are now working towards our Athena Swan Gold award”

The event included a keynote speech from Professor Teresa Anderson MBE, Director of the Jodrell Bank Discover Centre

Other speakers at the event included:

Lopa Patel MBE – digital entrepreneur and founder of inclusion think tank ‘Diversity UK’.

Dr. Heather Williams – Director of ‘ScienceGrrl’, which celebrates and supports women in science.

Dr. Narmeen Varawalla – Executive ice-president and chief scientific officer of Lambda Therapeutic Research.

Dr Santos Bhanot – Chair of Asian Circle, a charity which supports vulnerable and disadvantaged women in India.

Professor Susan Kimber – Co-director of NEWSCC.

Angela Saini – Science journalist, author and broadcaster.

Professor Amrita Ahluwalia – Deputy director, The William Harvey Research Institute.

Professor Aline Miller – Professor of biomolecular engineering, The University of Manchester

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Famous Women Life Scientists

Women have shaped the history of life sciences. To celebrate UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we take a look at some of the famous and influential women life scientists from throughout history.

rachel-carson

Rachel Carson: An American marine biologist, her iconic 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’ brought attention to the dangers of synthetic pesticides accumulating in the natural ecosystem, and kick-started the global environmental movement.

 

jane_goodall_gmJane Goodall: Perhaps the most famous primatologist ever, this British OBE spent many years of her life in Tanzania studying man’s close relatives, and is considered the world’s number one expert on chimpanzees

 

marie_curie_c1920Rosalind Franklin: It is often assumed that Watson and Crick were responsible for discovering the molecular structure of DNA, but in actual fact, much of their work was based on earlier research done by this English X-ray crystallographer, who successfully identified the double helix nature of DNA molecules.

 

nobel_prize_2009-press_conference_physiology_or_medicine-11Elizabeth Blackburn: This Australian-American Nobel Prize winner made incredible advances in our knowledge of the telomere – the structure that protects the ends of chromosomes, and co-discovered telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres.

 

barbara_mcclintock_281902-199229Barbara McClintock – This American geneticist made incredible advances in the field of genetics by studying maize crops, uncovering various processes such as genetic recombination, transposition, and gene regulation.

 

dorothy_hodgkin_nobelDorothy Hodgkin – An American biochemist, she developed the technique of protein crystallography, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, being only the third woman in history to have received this (the previous two being Marie Curie, and her daughter Irène).

 

mary_anning_paintingMary Anning – An English fossil collector; despite having no formal education in science, she discovered a huge variety of Jurassic fossils along the coast of Lyme Regis, including never-before-identified species such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, and became one of the foremost figures in palaeontology at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LGBT History Month

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

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

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

Alan_Turing_Aged_16
Alan Turing, aged 16

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

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

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

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

Lynn conway
Lynn Conway

 

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:

Tuesday Feature episode 8: Benjamin Stutchbury

Benjamin Stutchbury is a PhD student in the Faculty. As you’ll see below, it took him a while to find the topic he wanted to study,Ben Stutchbury but now that he has he seems to excelling.

With ambitions of being involved in science communication, Ben has already been involved in some exciting events. In fact, the day after this article goes live he will be performing in the national final of the FameLab competition. You can see his North West Final performance in one of the videos below.

We’re confident that you’ll be hearing Ben’s name in the future, so we thought we’d get in on the ground floor and interview him for this week’s Tuesday Feature.

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

I research how a cell in your body is able to understand the environment that it’s in.

Particularly how it’s able to understand the mechanical properties of the environment; so how soft it is, or how rigid it is. For example, brain is very soft and bone is very rigid. Cells in these areas of your body need to respond to, and change how they react to, changes in these different environments.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

It’s difficult to say, really. It’s a very, very young area of research. It was only in the last ten years that this idea of cells responding to forces rather than chemicals has really emerged as a field. So at the moment it’s more that we’re trying to understand how they’re actually doing it and what’s actually going on.

Eventually, where it will benefit people is cancer. Which is kind of what every researcher says.

It’s about how cells sense and respond to changes in the mechanical properties of their environment and cancer is a stiffer environment than normal tissue. That’s why you can feel a cancer lump underneath your skin.

Cancer cells are stiffer than normal tissue. They respond differently to this stiffer environment, and that’s one of the reasons they divide faster and move faster. Which is why cancer is so good at killing.

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

Yeah, it kind of happened by accident to be honest.

I always thought I was interested in immunology, the study of the immune system. Then I went and did an immunology placement in a lab for three months and absolutely hated it.

I went into my final year of undergrad knowing that I wanted to carry on doing science, but with no idea of what I wanted to do. And then I kind of stumbled upon this area of, I guess they call it, mechanobiology; the cells and mechanical forces.

It was quite interesting and different to anything I’d seen before because it’s such a young area. I did a placement in a lab as a kind of try out before doing a PhD and really enjoyed it so decided to stick with it as a PhD topic.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Not really, to be honest.

This might be a new one, but I was actually more inspired by a disease than anything else. I have type 1 diabetes and I was diagnosed when I was eleven. When I was twelve I decided that my life dream was going to be to cure diabetes.

I kind of went down the path of doing science, and was interested in it enough to want to carry on looking into curing diabetes. Then I did a module in second year about metabolism and metabolic diseases and found them really dull. So then I decided that diabetes was really boring.

But actually, my desire to sort of carry on researching other things kind of stuck.

And then I chose immunology, and hated immunology. Everyone was getting a bit worried that I hated all biology but still wanted to do it. And then I found my area to focus on.

But I don’t think I have an individual who kind of fuelled my desire to do science, it was more my own personal circumstances.

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

I do a lot of sport. If I hadn’t done science, if I hadn’t got a PhD offer, my fall back was to train as an outdoor instructor. Mountaineering, mountain biking, kayaking, and that kind of thing. I do a lot of rock climbing and mountaineering.

Oh, and squash. I play a lot of squash, kind of three or four times a week. If it involves an activity, I’ll generally be happy to do it.

How has working at the Faculty benefited your research?

Stutchbury, BenMassively, I think.

The main reason for that is the size of the Faculty and the huge variety of different areas of science that are being carried out within this one Faculty.

As I said I kind of came into this not knowing what area I wanted to go into. The PhD I’m doing allowed the opportunity to go into and try out a couple of different labs before choosing one to settle in.

There aren’t many universities in the UK that offer that kind of PhD. It’s becoming more popular now, but it’s still not that common. So the fact that Manchester allowed you to do a PhD where you could sample labs before choosing one means you can find out if you enjoy the topic, if you  like doing the techniques that you have to do, if you like the people you’re working with, and if you get on with the supervisor.

That’s quite a unique thing for Manchester, I think. It was a big influence on me choosing here for my PhD placement.

And so we come to the end of another Tuesday Feature. Our thank yous go to Ben and we wish him a great deal of luck in the FameLab final. 

Ben’s is a great story, and it’s fascinating to see how a love for science drove him on even when he struggled to find the exact topic that suited him. That’s pretty inspirational! If you want to hear more from him, please head over to his blog.

Anyway, enough mushiness for now. Thank you, Ben – and thank you all for reading. Please come back next week!

Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Theo Jolliffe and Ben Stutchbury, Images courtesy of Nick Ogden and Ben Stutchbury

Tuesday Feature episode 7: Dr Emma Gowen

After only seven episodes we’ve already seen an exciting array of research being carried about by Faculty members. From air Emma overseeing movement experimentpollution to immunology to Alzheimer’s, it’s fascinating to see the things were affecting.

This week, we speak to movement researcher Dr Emma Gowen. Taking a trip to her lab, it was interesting to see the experiments her team carries out. With tin cans full of beans and door handles stuck to the wall testing people’s motor skills, it was refreshing to see that great work can still be done without expensive equipment. Emma is co-director of the Body Eyes and Movement (BEAM) lab and also recently set up the exciting Autism@Manchester project. You should check them both out. She’s also faced some challenging personal circumstances, which make her achievements all the more impressive. More about that in the interview below:

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

I study how we make and control, or how our brains make and control, movements and actions in response to objects or people that we might see in the environment. This is actually quite important for survival. If you think about crossing the road, you’ve got to make the appropriate movements with your head to look at the cars moving. Then you’ve got to coordinate your body to get you across that road. Another example is in a social situation – if you’re interacting socially you might find that it’s useful to imitate somebody to try and increase the social rapport and liking of that person for you. But on the other hand, if you imitate them too much, that could annoy them. So you have to get the balance right. So this seems quite simple to most of us – how we move our bodies and control our actions. But the complexity of these actions and how we produce them really comes across when people have certain conditions. If you think about if you have a stroke, or people with Parkinson’s disease or autistic people, it really becomes more obvious how complex it is for our brains to control our movements.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

In the last few years my research has turned more towards real world problems. I can give you one example. Most people when they hear about autism will know about the social interaction problems that autistic people have, but fewer people, including those in the research community, are looking at the motor problems that autistic people face as well. These can come across as problems with balance, difficulties with hand-eye coordination, and general clumsiness.

Even though these movement problems are very important, there are very few therapies at the moment. So at the moment I am trying to develop a motor therapy for autistic children. This involves combining my work on motor control in imitation with the Xbox Kinect. This is a new area for me – it’s involving a games company, a software company, occupational therapists, parents, and teachers. So quite an exciting project – very early days, but what we’d hope is that, if we can find some evidence that this motor therapy can help the motor skills of children with autism, they could then use this to help improve their motor coordination.

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

Emma running eye movement test

I started off with eye movements. That was during my PhD. Then when I did my post-doc at Birmingham I broadened out into more general motor control, so eye-hand coordination for instance. It was also at Birmingham that I started my research on autism. I think autism is a really quite challenging but rewarding area to work on. Autistic people have many different aspects that affect them so they’ll have sensory perception problems, they’ll have the motor problems, they’ll have the social cognition problem. So you as the researcher really need to have a broad understanding of all these different disciplines. The other element is that my research really involves working with people. So rather than being in a wet lab, I actually invite people into a lab and we ask them to do a few simple things such as imitating some videos of movements. I enjoy working with people and I also enjoy understanding the autistic perspective of the world as well. It can be a quite refreshing view of the world and I sometimes think more people should actually try and understand what the world feels and looks like for an autistic person.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m going to slightly side-step that and say more about the volunteers and the general public. Over the years there have been many volunteers who have contributed to research. Healthy volunteers, but also those who’ve got disabilities or various conditions. Without their help we would know far less about the brain than we do now. It’s often that they come and help and they know that it won’t immediately benefit them, but it’s for the next generation. So that maybe we can develop more understanding of the brain which could lead to improvements in medical conditions.

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

I tend to like being outdoors. I like walking and wildlife watching, so I often go walking in the Peak District or the local area with a pair of binoculars. Also, I quite like gardening as well. But that can play havoc with holidays during the gardening season, when I can’t go on holiday because I’ve got all my veg growing!

How has working here in Manchester benefited your career?

We’ve definitely got some very nice facilities here and I’ve got a very nice lab. It has air conditioning, which is fantastic when you’re doing experiments with people! Also, I have Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the Disability Support Office here has been very good. They’ve helped me access particular support that I need. For example, my MS tends to affect me in terms of fatigue – I can get cognitively and physically fatigued. I have to be really careful about how much I do in one day. The Disability Support Office helped me to identify a government service that allows me to get taxis to and from work a few days a week, which really helps. Before, it was always train and walking. That really impacted my fatigue levels.

So how has MS impacted your career in general?

I suppose having the MS and trying to be an academic at the same time can be quite challenging. As you’re probably aware, academics tend to work quite hard. Before MS I used to work weekends and evenings as well – and now I have to really make sure that this is confined to the week so that I don’t have a relapse and increase my symptoms.

In some ways in can be like having small children I suppose, except the MS won’t go away or grow up at the end of it. But a more positive aspect of having MS, I think, is that it’s given me balance and perspective. I think all of us could benefit from sometimes standing back for a while from a problem, such as a science problem that you’re trying to work out. Stand back from it and have a think and just have a bit more of a balanced lifestyle and you can often work through those questions and work out which ones are the most important – which ones you need to be spending your time on.

Well, what a nice inspiring thought to end this Tuesday Feature on. We definitely agree with Emma and it’s great to hear she’s overcome her own struggles to forge a great career. Thanks for chatting to us, Emma.  We’ll be with Ben Stutchbury next week. Ben’s a PhD student who has a pretty inspiring story to tell himself. See you next week.  Interview by Fran Slater. Photos and videos courtesy of Matthew Spencer

Tuesday Feature episode 6: Professor Amanda Bamford

Are we really already on Episode 6 of the Tuesday Feature? That’s gone so quickly – please let us know what you think of the series so far in the comments below.
Bamford Amanda

Today we talk to the Faculty’s Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Professor Amanda Bamford. Amanda now focuses on teaching rather than research, so we thought we’d delve into her past to find out how she got to where she is today.

We know you’re focused on teaching nowadays, but could you tell us a little bit about what you used to research?

Well, I used to work on air pollution.

I did my PhD on the effects of air pollution on crops and crop production; plants like barley and crops like that.

Every time you drive your car, you produce nitrogen dioxide. I was looking at the effects of nitrogen dioxide on plants.

Could you tell us how did you first get interested in your research area?

I got to the end of my first degree and I thought to myself ‘I’m really enjoying this. I’m not ready to finish.’ I was just getting the hang of it.

I really, really enjoyed my first degree – probably a bit too much!

So I got to my final year and I kind of thought – ah, I think I need to settle down here and really get something going.

I’ve always been really interested in social responsibility and I used to go on marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). I belonged to the Student Union’s Eco Action. We used to go out looking at plants and fungi.

By my third year I thought, I’m enjoying this life, I’m enjoying the people I’m working with, and I feel as if I’m starting to get to grips with the topic. I wanted to carry on.

Air pollution was something I was interested in because it was the days of acid rain. The 1980s – The Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. There were lots of campaigns around acid rain. I don’t know if anyone remembers that there used to be these big posters, and every time it rained the poster changed colour because it was made of litmus paper. So it would be saying ‘it’s raining and it’s acid rain coming.’

The huge poster at the side of the road used to change colour – and that’s what got me into air pollution.

Amanda being interviewed for the Tuesday FeatureWho inspired you? Do you have any science heroes?

No, I don’t. Not really.

When I grew up in Essex, rough Essex right next to the Thames, nobody went to university. You had to look hard to find nature, put it that way. But we did find nature.

There was a local quarry called Gray’s Quarry or Gray’s Pit or something like that. It was an old chalk quarry and if you looked carefully you could see orchids growing in there. At one time there were six different species of orchids; bee orchids, man orchids. And then I found out that they were going to build a shopping centre on it.

My friends and I had a big campaign to try and save the quarry. We failed, but it really inspired me to carry on and try and make a difference. And that’s one of the reasons why I went to university. Which was very unusual from where I lived.

Could you please tell us a little bit about your role as Associate Dean for Social Responsibility?

I see my role, leading on from what we’ve just been talking about, as really empowering people to exercise their own social responsibility.

But if everybody in this huge university of ours did only a little bit, got out there and made a difference in any which way; volunteering, going and talking to schools, helping in Platts Field, imagine it.

If everyone only did one hour a year or a day a year, we would have a huge impact.

I see that as the crucial part of my role – supporting and encouraging and making it a part of the ethos of everybody that’s at the University.

Have you always been interested in social responsibility? And how did you first get involved?

The only time I realised that social responsibility is a part of me is when I applied for this role. I had to write out a reason why I wanted to do it. I talked about Gray’s chalk quarry.

When I went to university I did Applied Biology, not just Biology. I didn’t do Zoology or Plant Sciences. I wanted to do something more applied.

So I went to do Applied Biology, and there weren’t many places that did Applied Biology then. The degree I went to do included three placements. So each year there were six months at university and six months working somewhere.

I worked for Kew Gardens and Kew Seed Bank, so that was conservation. Social responsibility. I worked for Shell looking at herbicides for controlling weeds and improving crop production. More social responsibility.

But it wasn’t my reason for doing them – I was just interested in them. It wasn’t as if I was an eco-warrior going around. It was just that those were the sort of topics that interested me.

Then my final placement was a place called Silwood Park, which was a university field station. There, I worked on root disease of potatoes. I really enjoyed that one the most and that’s why I stayed on. I wanted to do more. So from that, I stayed on and did my PhD in air pollution. And from air pollution I did my post-doc in climate change. The effect of climate change on rice production.

I’m sure everybody knows that rice feeds most of the world’s population. It’s a very, very important crop. And at those times in the late 80s global climate change was just coming into the fore. I went to America to do my second post-doc working on rice and climate change.

So even though it wasn’t a deliberate, conscious decision to have that social responsibility as part of my agenda, looking back it was obviously a thread going through my life.

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

What else do I get up to?

Well, I used to do fencing! Until last year when I ruptured my Achilles tendon. So I’ve been told I can’t go back to do fencing.

But I’m a bit geeky – I like going birdwatching. Whenever we go on holiday or wherever I go I always visit the nearest botanical gardens. I like walking.

But I don’t really like exercising – you won’t ever get me jogging or running or doing anything like that!

Can you tell us a bit about how working here in Manchester has helped your career?

Coming to Manchester has really helped me because it has given me the opportunities that I needed.

I have three children. When I came here it was originally a full time post, but I said I can’t do full time. I had two young children at that time. And they said, well, ‘how many hours do you want?’

So I came back 40%, and then as the children got older I went to 50%, 60%. And it’s only since 2011 that I’ve been full time.

They gave me the flexibility, as a mother, to keep my career going.

And they gave me other opportunities. They sent me on leadership programmes. Manchester has really been good to me and I’m very loyal to Manchester. It’s been a fantastic place to work.

Well that seems as good a place as any to leave it!

Thank you, Amanda – that was another fascinating installment of the Tuesday Feature. Great to hear how someone’s determination led them to a role that seems to fit perfectly with everything they’ve done before. And who knew we all had an eco-warrior in our midst!

Next week we talk to Dr Emma Gowen about her intriguing studies of autism and how her personal circumstances have shaped her career. Come back for that, you won’t want to miss it!

What I learnt this week part 4 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHi everyone! For the last time, I will be talking you through what I learn this week. Given that it’s Easter, expect a lot of older things that have been squeezed out of my memory after going over my old notes, a few titbits from the lectures I dozed off in this semester, and maybe even something from the news. What did I finally decide to write about? You’re not going to find out if you stop reading after the introduction…

Double, double, toil and trouble!

I will start this off by being completely honest with you all: when I first read this news story, I was completely enthralled. It was almost unbelievable…then I began to get suspicious. Were the details of this experiment, announced on various websites on March 31st, an early April Fool? As the day went on, I became more convinced that actually, this was too good to have been true. I eagerly awaited the news that it had all been a hoax, however, none came. Therefore, to the best of my knowledge, what I am about to impart is fact. If it should be revealed that this was all a big joke (or it already has and I’ve just missed the memo), I beg your forgiveness. As a hoax, I must say it is really rather good, and even more so if not.

Scanning electron micrograph of a human neutrophil ingesting MRSA National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)It has been reported that academics at the University of Nottingham have discovered a potential new/old method of destroying the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. An antibiotic resistant strain of this bacteria is responsible for disease MRSA, and other strains can be the culprit of conditions such as food poisoning and boils. It is also responsible for some eye infections, and this is where our story begins.

Allegedly, a conversation between a microbiologist and an Anglo-Saxon historian at the University of Nottingham led to the historian mentioning a very old remedy to soothe the eyes -an eye salve. The microbiologist decided it might be interesting to recreate the potion and see if it had any anti-microbial properties. The list of instructions appeared rather complex and involved leaving the potion to rest for nine days and addition of ingredients such as leeks and wine. Once the microbiologists-turned-witches were satisfied with their brew, the testing began. The resulting slime was tested on pieces of skin taken from mice with MRSA. Here comes the shocker: it worked.

It’s been claimed that around 90% of the antibiotic resistant bacteria were killed by the potion, approximately the same percentage as are killed by the primary antibiotic used in the treatment of MRSA in humans. Considering antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasing problem for the modern world, this could be a huge step forward in the effort to find alternative medicines that, in the long term, won’t do more harm than good. The scientists reported that one interesting point to note about the potion was that it smelt of garlic – something wicked this way comes!

Some people have better humour(s) than others…
Stretching right back to a Bodies in History lecture form week two, I rediscovered the concept of the four humours. Interested by this, I went on to do some further reading into the topic, and here I am to report my findings.

In ancient Greek and Roman medicine, one of the main concepts related to person’s state of health was the four humours. The Aristotlefour humours, usually attributed in part to Aristotle and Galen, were four liquids that were present in the body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. For a person to be in good health, their individual balance of the humours must be correct. Imbalance, naturally, led to disease. But it doesn’t stop there – the theory of the humours became extremely embellished to the point where it seems that there were few factors that weren’t involved. For example, each of the humours had qualities which were related to the seasons, the environment, the four elements, your personality and maybe even how you looked. It was assumed that each person had their own set-up of humours that was formed at conception, and this differed between individuals. Therefore, rather than simply assessing symptoms, doctors were concerned with all of the factors mentioned above too – talk about getting personal!

Various elements of the humours persisted in medicine for many hundreds of years. Unfortunately, the treatments they offered where not always useful. For example, it was thought that some diseases were a result of too much blood in the body, so one treatment might be placing leeches on the body to suck out the excess – what a lovely way to recharge your batteries!

 

And on that note, now we must conclude the series that I have been forcing upon you over the last month. I have enjoyed sharing what I’ve learnt with you, and I hope I’ve made it somewhat more interesting that it would have been from a thick book with no pictures and lots of long words. Enjoy the rest of your Easter break, and hopefully your rest and recuperation won’t involve leaches. Farewell!

Tuesday Feature episode 5: Roberta Oliviera

We’ve spent a lot of time talking to researchers in the Tuesday Feature so far. It’s been fascinating. But, so far there’s been little Roberta in the labmention of those people in the background who make the research possible.

So today we chat with Roberta Oliviera, a Research Technician in the Manchester Immunology Group. She tells us a bit about her role, her inspirations, and how she got to where she is today.

Hi Roberta. Could you tell us a little bit about being a research technician? What does your day-to-day involve?

My role in the University is to provide support for other academics and students with their research.

Technicians sometimes run their own projects and report the results to the supervisor and at other times they can support to researchers running specific experiments or techniques. We also help with students and their projects.

I suppose we run the upkeep of the lab, the organisation, and the smaller functions like that.

What about the researchers you work with and the research you do? What is being studied?

Well, I work for Professor Richard Grencis in the Immunology Group in the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Professor Grencis is looking at the immune responses against the whipworm. He looks at the balance of the immune response in an individual and what dictates whether that individual is susceptible or resistant to infection.

When you look at parasitic infections and their responses, you learn a lot about the immune system. We can always apply those lessons to other things such as cancer, auto immune diseases, and allergies.

Roberta at workHow did you first get interested in science? Or in particular, this research area?

I did my undergraduate degree in pharmacy back in Brazil.

Working in the care industry in a developing country can be daunting so I wanted to do some work in the background and learn more about tropical diseases.

I did a bit of work with malaria and Chagas disease and then I moved onto pulmonary hypertension in cancer, and then I started working on parasites again with Professor Grencis.

 

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Every woman in science is a bit of a hero  – especially the ones trying to raise a family alongside building their career. That’s a challenge I’m facing myself.

If I had to give a name I’d have to go with Marie Curie, obviously. She had a very strong work ethic and she was very generous with her work colleagues.

So I’d say Marie Curie.

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

I like reading. I like British and American authors and use it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about the Anglophone culture since I didn’t grow up in the UK.

But, because I have a baby son, I have to admit that currently my activities involve play dates and play groups.

How does being here in Manchester help with the work you’re involved in?

Working in Manchester is amazing. I think mainly the people – they’re very happy, friendly, and helpful.

I think The University of Manchester is ideally what you’d expect academia to be – everyone is very creative and very helpful. It’s a democratic environment to work in.

I think working at the Manchester Immunology Group is very nice because we have cutting edge research going on and amazing scientists in our group. Since I started working here, I have felt at home and made lots of friends, so what else I could ask for?

 

And what more we could we ask for from an interviewee? Thanks, Roberta. A fascinating insight from a slightly different perspective – invaluable information that’s made us want to talk to more ‘tekkies’ in the future.

But it’s another slightly different perspective next week as we chat to Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Professor Amanda Bamford. Amanda has put research aside to focus on her new role and her teaching, so we’ll be finding out what helped her make that decision.

We hope you’ll join us!

 

Interview by Fran Slater and Kory Stout, Videos by Theo Jolliffe, Images by Nick Ogden

What I learnt this week part 3 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHi everyone, I’m back – which fortunately means I wasn’t crushed under a growing pile of books last week in an effort to finish my coursework on time. Lucky for you, this past week of essays and a brief tryst with some early revision have taught me a lot. Now, it is time for me to pass the fruits of my laborious week onto yourselves. Please enjoy these seeds of knowledge, and let us hope your metaphorical mind is awash with lichen so that they may germinate.

I’m lichen the side of this mountain

Yes, it is pronounced lie-ken, not lich-in.

Lichen are a symbiosis between two types of organism, as I rediscovered during an optimistic, yet ultimately short-lived, revision session for Microbes, Man and the Environment. Lichen are made up of two components: a photosynthetic alga and a fungus. Each organism has something to offer its partner – rather like any partnership. The alga provides the fungus with sugars, while the fungus attaches to a surface for the lichen to live on and protects the alga from desiccation. While this might sound likeLichen-covered_tree,_Tresco something of a fragile being, these little guys are extremely hardy. They can live in incredibly harsh environments, and as alluded to above, are the only known organism type that can colonise bare rock. It is a testament to their toughness that they can survive on mountains for over 4000 years.

Colonisation by lichen is vital for ecosystems in certain areas, with lichen also making homes on tree bark and rooftops. When the lichen colonises a new substrate, it brings organic molecules into the area. When the lichen dies, it breaks down and forms a basic soil. If a lucky, wind-dispersed seed drifts in the right direction, it might just find itself landing on a spot that used to be a lichen. The presence of the soil means it is possible for the seed to germinate in that particular place, leading to a plant growing on the previously bare surface. This can begin a chain reaction which eventually leads to a whole community of organisms living in a place that was once as barren as the library during the Easter break.

(Foxg)love hearts

Despite the enduring chill, its undeniable that spring is in the air – a time associated with flowering plants and new love. While this post may be rather heavy on the plants, the closest we get to love is rather symbolic – hearts. For an essay exploring the influence of herbal remedies on modern medicine, I found myself learning an awful lot about hearts and the common foxglove.

Digitalis purpurea2 by Kurt StüberThis plant has been used as a herbal remedy for centuries, intended as a cure for a huge variety of illnesses. It has even been used to encourage vomiting in patients as it was sometimes believed that this would help them – because all you need when you’re under-the-weather is a poisonous plant rubbed onto your skin to make you vomit. Fortunately, the wonderful William Withering published something that could be recognized as a scientific study into foxglove in 1785. Here, he discussed use of foxglove in helping those with heart problems. As it turns out, he was onto something. Today, a compound from the foxglove is used in the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias – irregular beating of the heart. In just the right quantities, the compound alters the behaviour of the sodium-potassium pump in cell membranes to encourage a stronger and steadier heart rate.

Unlike in Withering’s time, the doses given today are highly researched and unlikely to poison you, but if you see a foxglove when you’re out and about I wouldn’t recommend giving it a try!

 

Thus concludes another summary of what I learnt this week. I am now preparing to delve into the darkest, messiest and most incomprehensible lecture notes ever scrawled in an attempt to make some sense of them. Hopefully I will be able to tease some interesting stories out of them for my final instalment on this blog. Until next week!

Chaim Weizmann continues to inspire Manchester research 100 years on

A century after the first President of Israel made his vital discovery about acetone at The University of Manchester, we are celebrating his legacy through a collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

In 1915, Chaim Weizmann discovered a more sustainable way of making acetone which was required for the manufacture of cordite. His work attracted the attention of the British Government and six distilleries were requisitioned for the mass production of this explosive powder. As shell production rose from 500,000 in the first five months of the First World War to 16.4 million in 1915, Weizmann was credited with a significant impact on the war effort.

Today, the Faculty has eight links with the Weizmann Institute all of which are undertaking significant research. Now, thanks to the Alliance Family Foundation, funding is in place for seven further partnerships.

The Weizmann Institute hosted a two day symposium on March 24 to celebrate the scientific discoveries already made through Professor Steffen Jung (Weizmann Institute of Science), Lord Alliance and Professor Werner Muller (University of Manchester)the Lord Alliance Get Connected Grants. Faculty scientist Professor Werner Muller’s partnership with Stefan Jung was awarded the Lord Alliance Prize of £100,000. Their work has shed light on how the cells in our gut respond to foreign parasites such as worms and how they may trigger diseases. Other discoveries made possible through the grants have impacted neural conditions, food security, wound healing, and cancer. Professor Martin Humphries, Dean of the Faculty, says:

“In establishing the concept of the Get Connected scheme, Benny Geiger and I aimed to build on this historical link and provide a means for the excellent scientists in both institutions to forge new interactions. The Get Connected programme is a shining example of what can be achieved when such researchers are given the freedom and resources to join forces with other like-minded teams. Put simply, what is achieved is progress at an accelerated rate.”

Sea slug provides new way of analysing brain data

Sea SlugScientists say our brains may not be as complicated as we once thought – and they’re using sea slugs to prove it.

Led by Chicago-based graduate student Angela Bruno, Faculty researchers and colleagues at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago have been investigating how neurons ‘fire’ in the brain of the sea slug while it moves. Dr Mark Humphries explains why they made this interesting choice of animal:

“What happens in the brain during movement is currently only well understood for small, dedicated neural circuits. The sea slug brain has some of the complexity of higher organisms, yet has large neurons that make it possible to record a substantial amount of what is happening in the brain during movement.”

Until recently, scientists have had to study brain activity one neuron at a time. However, the latest imaging methods make it possible to take a systems approach and record entire neural networks. The resulting data flood is creating fruitful new collaborations such as this study. Dr Humphries adds:

“My role in this project was to find the hidden organisation within the data collected by the Chicago team. Describing the dynamics of a neural population and decoding the neural programme is still very challenging. We hope that this research will help to build a language and toolkit for future researchers using any network-scale recording technology.”

The researchers demonstrated how the sea slugs’ complex locomotion network can be dramatically simplified and interpreted. They found that co-active neurons formed large groups that were laid out like tiles across the network. One group’s activity was repeatedly drawing a loop across the network, leading researchers to believe that this loop is the source of constant activity needed to sustain movement. Dr Humphries concludes:

“This research introduces new methods for pulling apart neural circuits to expose their inner building blocks. Our methods could be used to help understand how brain networks change in disease states and how drugs act to restore normal brain function.”

What I learnt this week part 2 (Guest blog by Elinor Bridges)

Elinor BridgesHello again everyone. I hope it’s been a good week, and not too stressful for those with deadlines. For me, it’s been another week of exploring the weird and wonderful world of living things, a few of which shall feature in this blog. Once again, I have whittled down everything I have learnt this week to the most interesting (and sometimes amusing) nuggets of information.

Life isn’t Fir
I am currently taking part in a community project which involves volunteering at the university’s experimental gardens – also known as ‘The Firs’. This was going swimmingly, despite constantly looking over my shoulder for frogs, which I have an irrational and uncontrollable fear of. Then, as I had dreaded, a green blur in corner of my eye alerted me to the presence of one of the little croakFrog for blogers. While mildly traumatised by the event, I was unharmed. Unfortunately, many people do not face the same fortunate fate upon encountering amphibians – some frogs contain toxins that can be very dangerous.

As explained as part of the Drugs: from Molecules to Man module I am taking, the molecule responsible for making some amphibians best avoided is epibatidine. Epibatidine binds to a certain type of receptor in the nervous system, called the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, and prevents proper control of parts of the nervous system. Additionally, it stops pain sensation from being felt, so the molecule can act as a painkiller. Due to this, epibatidine is a starting point for the development of some painkilling drugs.

Gut flora is for life, not just for Christmas
I have always had mixed feelings about being born the day after Boxing Day. It’s a nice uplift when everyone is miserable about Christmas being over, but it also means everybody is busy and any restaurant I should visit may not have had stock deliveries, leaving half of the menu temporarily defunct. Despite this, it’s my birthday and I’m stuck with it, just like the gut flora that was also bestowed on me at birth.

E. ColiAs was explained to me in Microbes, Man and the Environment, everybody has around a kilogram of bacteria living inside their body. A lot of this bacteria survive in the GI tract, and this is known as the gut flora. Your gut flora is determined by several factors and, surprisingly, is unique to each individual. The first factor that determines the types of bacteria in your gut flora is one of the first things humans ever experience: birth. How you were born affects your gut flora for the rest of your life. For example, if you were born by caesarean section, the first bacteria you were exposed to would have been very different to that of a natural birth. Your gut flora also depends on your diet – vegetarians generally have very different bacteria to those who eat meat. The interesting thing about this is that it’s very difficult to change your gut flora. If you go from eating meat to being a vegetarian, it can take as long as a year for any change in your gut flora to occur.

The fact that your gut flora can’t be changed can be somewhat unfortunate. The bacteria help you to digest the food you eat into products for absorption, and some people’s gut flora are better at this than others. Having gut flora which break down more carbohydrates can be a big factor in weight gain. The result of this? Don’t just blame a few extra pounds on the burgers – it might be because of your bacteria!

 

So, there are the two most interesting things I have learnt this week. I am delighted to find that I have a good reason to be scared of frogs, even if I am more concerned about their slimy skin, unpredictable hopping, and beady little eyes. I hope you found the story of your gut flora interesting – I find it rather comforting to know that you’re carrying a kilogram of tiny little friends with you that will never change. I look forward to seeing you next time, where biological anecdotes and rather awful puns shall continue to abound.

FLT take part in Swimathon

SwimmerThe Faculty’s Leadership Team (FLT) are putting forward a team for this year’s Swimathon. They will be raising money for Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Swimathon is the UK’s biggest fundraising swim and there were many people in FLT keen to take part. The rules state that no more than five people can be in one team, though, and after much discussion it was decided that Professor Martin Humphries, Dr Caroline Bowsher, Professor Liz Sheffield, Nicola Smith, and Professor David Thornton would make up the team.

Dr Catherine Porter will cover for injuries or cold feet and Professor Amanda Bamford will be on the sidelines, waving the flag and cheering them on.

The team will be attempting the maximum distance of 5k. Their swim will take place on Saturday April 18 at 2pm in the Aquatics Centre, and you can sponsor them on their Just Giving page. They hope to raise £500. Professor Bamford says:

This is really good cause which is close to my heart and I am so proud that they have stepped up and put their swimsuits on to fund raise for Marie Curie. I will be there on the day cheering them all on, ready with the energy drinks. 5K is not a trivial distance but as Michael Phelps said “You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get”!

Tuesday Feature episode 3: Dr Jack Rivers-Auty

In week one we caught up with long-standing Faculty professor, Matthew Cobb. Next, we went Stateside to have a chat with alumni Matt Paul. And now, in week three of the Tuesday Feature, it’s time to catch up with a relative newcomer.

Dr Jack Rivers-Auty has been with us for five months, but as you’ll see below he’s already getting into some fascinating research.Dr Jack Rivers-Auty

Jack studies Alzheimer’s Disease, which made him a perfect candidate for this week’s chat, right in the middle of Brain Awareness Week. We hope you enjoy it!

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

Alzheimer’s is a disease in which there’s a build-up of an unwanted protein that seems to be toxic to the cells and sets off a chain reaction in the brain that kills neurons. It seems to kill the neurons in the area of the brain associated with memory first and then goes on to kill things in the outer cortex. There seems to be many processes involved and one of the processes is inflammation.

When you roll your ankle it swells up and you tend to put ice on it to mend. This is because you want to reduce the amount of immune cells in there because they produce toxic compounds. We’re investigating whether the diet will affect the inflammatory response in Alzheimer’s disease in a similar way. What we think might happen, and this is just a hypothesis, is that people who are deficient in zinc will be shown to have an exaggerated inflammatory response which causes swelling and tissue damage in the Alzheimer’s brain. So we’re really testing whether having a healthy diet will slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.

How can your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Fingers crossed, and it’s always a long way away because I’m doing pre-clinical research and takes a long time to confirm that the research works in a clinical setting, but it could lead to dietary interventions into Alzheimer’s patients and slow the progression of the disease.

It’s really interesting actually, because older people have worse absorption of micronutrients so having a good diet is even more important as you get older. So the older an Alzheimer’s patient is, the more likely they are to be zinc deficient. The more likely they are to have a hyper-inflammatory response to their condition causing accelerated Alzheimer’s disease.

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

I guess it goes back to a long time ago. My general area of research is neuroinflammation and I really stumbled into it, which I think most scientists will tell you; they stumble into their research fields.

I did a degree in neuroscience and then I did an honours, which is kind of like a masters, in botany. Then I was looking for a PhD topic and there were several being advertised around the University of Otago, where I’m from in New Zealand. One of them was on the effects of cannabinoids, marijuana like substances, on stroke. This combined my degree and my honours.

Marijuana is anti-inflammatory, so we were seeing if marijuana-like substances could suppress the inflammation following stroke and prevent the swelling, just like the ice when you roll your ankle. What we found was that it did supress the inflammation, but then actually made things slightly worse.

So that was really what it was. I was interested in the combination of botany and neuroscience and that got me into the neuroinflammatory field. But I always want to be a scientist of some kind.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?Jack at his desk

I have lots of science heroes. This is such a suck-up, but Nancy Rothwell is highly climbing up my science heroes list.

But other than that – oh, there are so many I want to talk about.

Ernest Rutherford – he’s a New Zealand physicist, so that’s why I like him. And he came here to Manchester to do his amazing research. He’s such a hero of mine.

In New Zealand we have this term for doing something on a budget and it’s called ‘number eight wire.’ Fencing wire is number eight wire – you can fix anything with it. It’s the cheap way of doing things. Ernest Rutherford is famous for being the ‘number eight wire scientist’. He was the guy who could just do anything on a budget, and he ended up with Nobel worthy science.

Another guy is Richard Feynman. He’s a physicist as well – damn physicists! But he is fantastic for being incredibly critical of science. He has beautiful commentary on how science shouldn’t get carried away and how there should be proper controls and how we should be really self-critical and self-reflecting. To really produce something meaningful you need to be rigorous and self-controlled, which is what he advocates.

But there’s so many, I could talk for hours.

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

I’d love to say cricket, especially at the moment with the English flying home from the World Cup and New Zealand top of the pool. And I have loads of other interests. I play rugby, I golf, I play cricket, and I surf. I like hiking and I like a lot of activities.

But the other thing, and this is one of the great things about my job, is that I go home and I’ll read a science book. I love science at all times. I’ve got science experiments sitting on top of my fridge right now.

One of my extra-curricular activities is science, which is completely geeky. But that’s one of the great things. I get to do what I love for a job as well as well as going home and doing it. And I write blogs about it. And I read about the latest science and the latest science books that are coming out.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

The first thing I noticed about coming to Manchester is the amount of opportunities that there are. We get emails on a daily basis about millions of things that you can do. You can go see Nobel laureates doing talks, which you could never see where I’m from in New Zealand.

You can do outreach programmes like this through blogs and the Minute Lecture series. I’m also going to schools. So there’s such an amazing encouragement to develop your skills and your outreach here at the University.

The other thing I noticed was that it’s such a team environment. It’s unbelievable. The whole building all gets together and every Friday we talk about the research we’re doing and we get positive feedback. I’ve really just found that amazing – how much of a hive of activity it is and how interested everyone is in other people’s research.

There’s a real team environment. It was an awesome environment to land in when I got here five months ago.

 

And that’s wraps it for this week. Jack has got us feeling extremely positive about the Faculty with that last answer, so we’re off to find our next interviewee!

Our thanks go to Jack – it’s great to see somebody so enthusiastic about what they do. Thanks for reading and please come back next Tuesday!

 

Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Matthew Spencer, Images courtesy of Nicholas Odgen

Scientists make surprising finding in stroke research

Faculty scientists have made an important discovery that could lead to new treatments for stroke and other related conditions.  Brain Scan

Inflammation is activated in the brain after stroke, causing potentially devastating damage. Stroke is actually responsible for approximately 10% of deaths worldwide and is the leading cause of disability. Understanding how inflammation is regulated in the brain is vital for the development of drugs which can limit the damage caused by stroke.

Working alongside Professors Dame Nancy Rothwell and Stuart Allan, Dr David Brough has been studying the role of inflammasomes in stroke. Inflammasomes are large protein complexes essential for the production of the inflammatory protein interleukin-1, which contributes to cell death in the brain after a stroke. Dr Brough says:

“Very little is known about how inflammasomes might be involved in brain injury. Therefore, we began by studying the most well characterised inflammasome, called NLRP3, known to be activated when the body is injured. Surprisingly, we found that this was not involved in inflammation and damage in the brain caused by stroke, even though drugs are being developed to block this to treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

Further studies demonstrated that it was actually the NLRC4 and AIM2 inflammasomes that contribute to brain injury. This was unexpected because NLRC4 was previously known as a fighter of infections. This will help the team to understand more about inflammation’s involvement in brain injury and aid the development of new drugs to treat stroke.

Manchester researcher takes gold for biology display in Parliament

Dean with MP Rosie WintertonA University palaeontologist won the gold award at the SET for Britain competition on Monday March 9. Mentored by Faculty scientist Dr David Penney, Dean Lomax presented his research to a panel of judges at the House of Commons and claimed the £3000 prize.

The SET for Britain competition aims to improve the understanding of our politicians when it comes to the UK’s thriving science and engineering scene.  It rewards the excellent research being done in the country.

Dean’s research focused on how he discovered a new species of Ichthyosaur, an extinct marine reptile. It was judged against 59 other shortlisted researchers’ work. Dean said:

“It is truly an honour to win this prestigious award. To think that my research has been acknowledged in such a prominent capacity helps to show the importance of palaeontology, and that what I contribute has meaning. This has given me an incredible boost to continue to aim high, work hard, and communicate further the study of the science I love. This is a win for British palaeontology. Thank you to everybody involved; what a magnificent event.”

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

Worm Wagon – From Parasite Selfies to worms in a jar

On Friday 6th March, The University of Manchester hosted the ‘Worm Wagon’. The Worm Wagon, which started here at the Kory as a wormUniversity in 2009, has gone around the UK teaching the public about neglected tropical diseases. Specifically, the group looks at parasitic infections and how our bodies help fight against them. With over 25 different locations visited and with more than 5,000 people attending events, the Worm Wagon has proven to be a huge success.

The Worm Wagon workshop uses various different interactive elements to effectively communicate ideas about parasites. For example, the ‘parasite plunge’ is used to teach participants about how our body produces mucus which helps to purge the invaders from our bodies. The volunteer has to place their hands inside a mucus and parasite filled container (made up of rubber worms and jelly) and pick out a worm which they get to keep. This activity is coupled with some fascinating teaching resources which look at the lifecycles of worms such as Helminths and Tapeworms. Perhaps the most bizarre activity you can take part in is the ‘Parasite Selfie’. A cut out of a Whipworm, a type of Helminth which affects the large intestine in humans, is set up so that guests can be pictured as if they were the worm!

Visitors can also get up close and personal with worms by viewing specimens in jars.  From the tiny little Ascaridia Galli which is found in chickens, to the potentially enormous tapeworms that are found in millions of people, guests get to see exactly how these parasitic worms enter our bodies. This allows them to get a better idea of what the parasites look like and helps to educate them about preventative measures they can take to ensure they don’t become infected. This knowledge can then be tested in a fun game of Parasite Top Trumps! This specially designed game helps participants compare parasitic infections to other global diseases to help raise awareness of just how prevalent these conditions can be.

When asked about the importance of a better understanding of parasitic worms, Professor Kath Else, a Senior Research Fellow at the FLS and Worm Wagon coordinator had this to say: “They [parasitic diseases] have huge consequences because of the ill health – they trap whole countries into poverty because they have a knock-on effects on worker productivity and big effects on child development”

With parasite infections affecting well over a billion people worldwide, perhaps more people should come visit the worm wagon!

 

Guest blog by Kory Stout, Video by Matthew Spencer

Faculty scientists closer to treating osteoarthritis using stem cells

Repair of rat cartilage defect by human pluripotent stem cells-derived chondrocytes, courtesy of Aixin ChengFunded by Arthritis Research UK, Professor Sue Kimber and her Faculty team have developed a protocol to grow and transform embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells (also known as chrondrocytes). This could one day be used to treat osteoarthritis. Professor Kimber said:

“This work represents an important step forward in treating cartilage damage by using embryonic stem cells to form new tissue, although it’s still in its early experimental stages.”

During the study, the team analysed the ability of embryonic stems cells to become precursor cartilage cells. They were then implanted into cartilage defects in the knee joints of rats.

After four weeks, cartilage was partially repaired. Eight weeks after that a smooth surface resembling normal cartilage was observed. Further study showed that cells from the embryonic stem cells were still present and active within the tissue.
Despite the fact that this still needs to be tested on humans, researchers see this as an extremely promising outcome. Not only did this protocol generate new, healthy-looking cartilage but there were also no signs of any side-effects. Further work will hope to demonstrate that this could be a safe and effective treatment for people with joint damage. Prof Kimber added:

“We’ve shown that the protocol we’ve developed has strong potential for developing large numbers of chondrogenic cells appropriate for clinical use. These results thus mark an important step forward in supporting further development towards clinical translation.”

Osteoarthritis affects more than eight million people in the UK, and is a major cause of disability. It occurs when cartilage at the ends of bones wears away and it causes joint pain and stiffness. Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Research at Arthritis Research UK, said:

“Current treatments of osteoarthritis are restricted to relieving painful symptoms, with no effective therapies to delay or reverse cartilage degeneration. Joint replacements are successful in older patients but not young people, or athletes who’ve suffered a sports injury. Embryonic stem cells offer an alternative source of cartilage cells to adult stem cells, and we’re excited about the immense potential of Professor Kimber’s work and the impact it could have for people with osteoarthritis.”

International Women’s Day events (Guest blog by Natalie Gardiner)

It was International Women’s Day yesterday, and we hope you all saw our inspiring quotes for females across the Faculty. nataliegardinerToday, Dr Natalie Gardiner, our Women in Life Sciences lead, tells us a little bit about the people who put this project together. We also hear from a few more women working in the Faculty.

I worked initially with Moyin Kwok and Sarah Ingham to develop events for International Women’s Day, aimed at engaging with FLS undergraduates. So we were pleased to be joined by a team of enthusiastic undergraduates, Lara Clauss, Christina Mott, and Khatsha Ali  who all took leading roles in the projects and events.  I’d like to thank them all; Nick Pettican who designed the posters and of course everyone who gave up their time to join in these events, particularly Nancy Rothwell, Sheena Cruickshank, Kathryn Else, the Worm Wagoners, Helen Ryder, and Manchester Debating Union.  I hope we can continue to run annual events.

The University of Manchester should be really proud of its cultural diversity and of course, its achievements in Life Sciences – do I need any more reason to participate in such an exciting project?

Moyin Kwok | International Recruitment and Marketing Manager

I am a firm believer that institutions have both a social responsibility and a key part to play in reducing gender inequality, boosting the representation of women in academia and working to remove obstacles to their participation in public life. I see the events we are organising for International Women’s Day as being a small part of that overall process which the University of Manchester is striving to attain and am proud to play my part.

Sarah Ingham, Faculty Development Manager

I’m really keen for undergraduates to recognise the role of Women in Science, so that in future we may be better represented

Laura Clauss

The idea behind the Women In Science photo series was to challenge the perception of what most people instantly think of when they hear the word ‘scientist’. It was more than just highlighting that there are increasing numbers of women in the STEM workforce. It was about capturing the ‘individual’ within the white lab coat

Christina Mott, who worked with Shi Yu (Arthur), Cecil Barnett-Neefs, and Chen Xin En (Felicia) to create the portfolio of photos taken with some of our Faculty’s life scientists

I think its important for women in science to inspire and celebrate each other, the events organised in honour of international women’s week promotes this at a wider scale

Khatsha Ali

Tuesday Feature episode one: Prof Matthew Cobb.

Welcome to the first Faculty of Life Sciences’ Tuesday Feature. We’ll be here each week with somebody connected to the Faculty,Professor Matthew Cobb be it a researcher, an alumni, a postgrad, or an undergrad, finding out more about their interests, what makes them tick, and how they got to where they are today.

As a Professor of Zoology with a very interesting and unique research subject, who has also written books on hugely differing subjects, we thought Prof Matthew Cobb would be the perfect person to start with.

Hello, Professor Cobb. Thanks for joining us. We’ll start with an easy one – can you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

I study the sense of smell because I want to know how we’re able to detect different smells. A human being has about 4 million different smell cells divided into about 400 different types, so it’s very difficult to study humans and understand how the process works. So I study the maggot.

A maggot is very simple, it has only 21 smell cells, but the way the maggots brain and nose are wired up are essentially the same as ours. Because these are very special, very tiny maggots that we understand the genetics of, I can make a maggot with just one smell cell. I can record from that cell and see exactly how the maggot responds to different odours and how the whole organism moves when stimulated.

The idea is to try and grasp a very complicated process, which we understand very poorly, using a simple model system.

How could your research benefit the people reading this blog?

Well, I don’t think there’s any applied aspect to what I’m doing. It’s possible that the kind of research I’m engaged in may help us understand anosmia, which is the loss of the sense of smell. If you can’t smell, you can’t taste and people who smoke or have a cold know that stuff just doesn’t taste as nice.

This is a major issue, especially with an increasing aging population. As you get older the smell cells in your nose fail to regenerate and gradually you lose your sense of smell; things don’t taste as nice and your jeau de vivre in general declines. So it’s possible that the research I’m doing, in the end, may contribute to this general problem. But that’s not the focus of my research; it’s more a pious hope.

It’s obviously quite a specific subject, can we ask how you first got interested in this research area?

There are two aspects to what I do. The first is the subject I study; the sense of smell. The second is the organism which I use to study it; the tiny maggot and the fly that produces it. I became interested in studying the genetics of the fly, and the genetics of behaviour using the fly, while reading a very small piece in New Scientist as an undergraduate. It described a study that had just been done in America in which they had made a fly that was stupid; a mutant fly that couldn’t learn. I was a young student studying psychology at the time, very interested in behaviour, and I thought right, that’s what I want to study. And so for the last forty odd years, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

I got interested in the sense of smell when studying sexual chemical signals between flies as a way of understanding their mating behaviour. Then we decided, in the late 1980s, to move into olfaction – the sense of smell in general. The person I was working with said I should try and use maggots instead of flies. I told him that was stupid and I didn’t want to do it. That maggots were boring and didn’t do anything. What I was in fact describing was the reason for studying them. They are very, very simple. They only move in two dimensions. They’re not interested in sex. They’re only interested in feeding, which means their sense of smell is a very important drive of their behaviour.

The person I was working with basically told me to experiment and see if it would work. I put my maggots on a little dish of jelly. I put them in the middle. I put the smell on one side and the maggots all moved towards the smell. The difference in that very strong response, compared to the very difficult responses I was getting when studying sexual behaviour in flies, instantly convinced me that this was what I wanted to study.

Do you have science heroes? Who inspired you?

I think I was probably inspired most by one of my lecturers at The University of Sheffield, Professor Kevin Connolly. He was, on the one hand, one of the UK pioneers of the behaviour of this tiny fruit fly, but he was also somebody who was more interested in child development and a lot of other aspects of behaviour. Firstly, he provided me with the opportunity to study this fly – if I’d been virtually anywhere else in the UK I wouldn’t have been able to do that at the time. Secondly, he also inspired me with his lectures. In particular a very intriguing one that I still recall in which he showed that if rats were deprived as pups, which means simply not being held by their parents, they later showed their own strange parenting behaviours. They displayed a non-genetic transference of behaviour and their offspring became deprived as well. That intrigued me at the time and has continued to do so.

Could you tell us a little about your interests outside your research area?

I’ve written two books about the history of science, one about the 17th century and our discovery of eggs and sperm and another about the history of the genetic code which will be published soon. I’ve also written two books about the history of the Second World War, one about the French Resistance in general and one about the liberation of Paris. They’re aspects of history that interest me outside of science.

And that’s it from the first of our Tuesday features. We’re off to learn more about maggots and buy a book about the French Resistance. Many thanks go to Matthew Cobb, and we hope you’ll join us next week when we’ll be chatting to Faculty Alumnus Matt Paul about his research in New York! Thanks for reading. 

Interview by Fran Slater, video by Theo Jolliffe, Image courtesy of Nicholas Ogden

#PlayingGod videos

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

Dr David Kirby tells us the idea behind the series:

Amy Chambers discusses the potential audiences:

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

 

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

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

Faculty events for International Women’s Day

IWD LOGOThe Faculty will be running a short series of events for staff and students in the lead-up to International Women’s Day on March 8.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell will kick the series off with her talk ‘A Life in Science’, which will be followed by a Q&A session. It promises to be an intriguing account, covering Prof Dame Rothwell’s research in the field of neuroscience, her contributions to the understandings of brain damage after stroke and head injury, and her path to becoming the first woman to lead The University of Manchester. The talk will take place on Tuesday March 3 in Stopford Lecture Theatre 1. Doors will open at 12.50 and the talk will start promptly at 1. You can pre-submit any questions by completing this survey and please book online if you wish to attend.

On Thursday March 5, there will be a panel discussion on ‘Women in Science’. This will take IWD posterplace in the Roscoe Building between 5 and 6.30pm. The panel, including female members of the Faculty, will discuss the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and possible ways to resolve the issue.

The series will close with two events on Friday March 6. Dr Sheena Cruickshank asks the question ‘Are we too clean?’ in her 1 o’clock talk in Stopford Lecture Theatre 1. With improvements in hygiene and the availability of treatments increasing life expectancy for many, the talk will look at how this may make us more vulnerable to other diseases. Sheena will then join Dr Joanne Pennock and Professor Kathryn Else, who will be presenting the Worm Wagon initiative in the Stopford foyer from 12-3pm. The Worm Wagon raises awareness of global worm infection through interactive games, traditional Indian art, and informative displays. The team won the 2013 Manchester International Women’s Day award for Women in STEM.

The series offers a fantastic opportunity for staff and students to learn more about the work of women in life sciences. We hope to see you there.

Playing God in Manchester

Playing God postcardA unique and fascinating film series kicks off in Manchester on March 5, bringing together the diverse themes of religion and science.

The Playing God Film Series will explore the portrayal of these subjects in six classic movies. Each screening, showing at the Anthony Burgess Foundation across March, April, and May, will be introduced by an expert speaker and followed by a panel discussion.

The events have been organised by the Science and Entertainment Laboratory, based in the Faculty’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Dr David Kirby explains the thinking behind the series:

“We wanted to look at all six films in a new and different way, asking fresh questions about the content and challenging audiences to consider the nature of, and connections between, science and religion.”

The films are free to attend and booking is not required. All screenings, listed below, start at 18:30:

Bride of Frankenstein5th March: The Bride of Frankenstein

The film will be introduced by the science studies scholar Dr David Kirby.

Exorcist_19th March19th March: The Exorcist

With an introduction by film scholar Professor Mark Jancovich.

Planet of the Apes_16h April16th April: Planet of the Apes

Introduced by sci-fi expert Dr Amy Chambers.

Solaris_30th April30th April: Solaris

With an introduction by filmmaker Sean Martin.

Creation_14th May14th May: Creation

Introduced by theologian Professor Peter Scott and historian Professor Joe Cain.

altered_states_198021st May: Altered States

With an introduction by historian Dr William Macauley.

With a list of such controversial and at times genre-defining films, the discussions surrounding the Playing God Film Series promises to be fascinating. You can follow the conversations using the #PlayingGod hashtag on Twitter.

How tuna stay warm with cold hearts

Working with colleagues at Stanford University, Dr Holly Shiels and her team have discovered how bluefin tuna keep their hearts pumping during temperatures that would stop a human’s heart from beating. The research answers important questions about how animals react to rapid temperature changes, knowledge which becomes more important as the earth warms.

Bluefin tunaPacific bluefin tuna are top predators renowned for their epic migrations. They are unique among bony fish as they are warm-bodied and capable of elevating their core temperature up to 20°C above that of the water that surrounds them. They are also capable of diving down to the colder waters below 1000m, which affects their heart temperature. Dr Holly Shiels said:

“When tunas dive down to cold depths their body temperature stays warm but their heart temperature can fall by 15°C within minutes. The heart is chilled because it receives blood directly from the gills which mirrors water temperature. This clearly imposes stress upon the heart but it keeps beating, despite the temperature change. In most other animals the heart would stop.”

 

The team conducted their research at Stanford University’s Tuna Research and Conservation Center, one of the only places on the planet with live tuna for research. They used archival tags to track and monitor the fish in the wild, measuring the depth they swam to, their internal body temperature, and the ambient water temperature. They then used the data to set experimental conditions in the lab with single heart tuna cells, investigating how they beat. Dr Shiels explained the findings:

“We discovered that changes in the heart beat due to the temperate, coupled with the stimulation of adrenalin by diving, adjusts the electrical activity of the heart cells to maintain the constant calcium cycling needed to keep pumping. If we went through this temperature change our calcium cycling would be disrupted, our hearts would stop beating, and we would die.”

The next step for the team will be to test other fish species to see if this method of keeping the heart pumping at low temperatures is unique to bluefin tuna. Dr Shiels concluded:

“This research was about understanding how animals perform under dramatic environmental changes. This gives us a clear insight into how one species maintains its heart function over varying temperatures, something we will need to study further given recorded changes in the earth’s temperature.”

 

 

Minister in Manchester to announce £40 million funding boost

Vince Cable MP speaking to Professors Perdita Barran and Bob KellBusiness Secretary Dr Vince Cable has visited the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) to meet scientists working on synthetic biology. This follows the announcement of £40million funding into this cutting-edge research area, £32 million of which is being split across new research centres in Manchester, Edinburgh, and Warwick.

The investment comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the Medical Research Council (MRC), as well as via capital investment from the UK government. Funds will be awarded over a five-year period, boosting national research capacity and ensuring that the expertise to nurture this growing industry exists in the UK.

The MIB will receive £10.3million to establish the Centre for Synthetic Biology of Fine and Speciality Chemicals (SYNBIOCHEM). This centre will develop new products and methods for drug discovery and production, agricultural chemicals, and new materials for sustainable manufacturing. Professor Nigel Scrutton, Co-Director of SYNBIOCHEM, said:

“Our vision is to harness the power of synthetic biology to propel chemicals and natural products production towards ’green’ and sustainable manufacturing processes. More broadly, the Centre will provide the general tools, technology platforms, and ‘know-how’ to drive academic discovery and translate new knowledge and processes towards industrial exploitation.”

Synthetic biology is a new scientific method that applies engineering principles to biology to create new biological parts, devices, and systems. It has been used to generate biological ‘factories’ producing useful products such as medicines, chemicals, green energy, and tools for improving crops. It has been identified by the government as one of ‘Eight Great Technologies’ in which Great Britain can be a world leader. Fellow Co-Director, Professor Eriko Takano, added:

“Synthetic biology is an emerging science that has the capacity to transform the UK and European industrial landscape. It will revolutionise manufacturing processes to deliver renewable and sustainable materials, biopharmaceuticals, chemicals, and energy that will impact significantly on our economic, social, and environmental landscape. It promises a brighter future for all.”

Business Secretary Dr Cable discussed the funding:

“From materials for advanced manufacturing to developing new antibiotics and better tests for diseases, this new £40million investment is in one of the most promising areas of modern science. It will see our world class researchers using bacteria to produce chemicals to make everyday products like toothbrushes and credit cards, which are currently made from unsustainable fossil fuels.  Not only will this help improve people’s everyday lives in the future but it will support long-term economic growth.”

Unique partnership brings new expertise to online learning

The Faculty has established a unique partnership with the Natural History Museum (NHM) to create a series of short, online extinctionscourses for the public. The courses will combine the world-leading knowledge and teaching expertise of the two institutions, with courses looking at extinctions, forensics, and the biology and classification of biodiversity. These will be the first online courses ever developed between a university and the NHM.

The first course will start in April 2015, focusing on extinction events ranging from the dinosaurs to modern and possible future extinctions. Professor Norman MacLeod, Dean of Postgraduate Education and Training at the Museum, says:

“The researchers and curators of the Natural History Museum are world-renowned for their contributions to scholarly knowledge through their books and technical journal articles, and also through the lectures they give and students they supervise. Now, advances in information technology and our partnership with The University of Manchester will enable us to reach out to audiences beyond London and the UK. We hope these courses will advance awareness, curiosity, and learning about the natural world, as well as promoting responsible stewardship of our planet.”

£3 million grant for cutting-edge biotechnology

MIB BuildingProfessor Nigel Scrutton and his team at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) have been awarded nearly £3million to create sustainable ways of manufacturing chemicals used in everyday products. They are one of five long-term research projects benefiting from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Strategic Longer and Larger Grants (sLoLaS) scheme.

The team will design and assemble bespoke biological parts to be used in a synthetic, engineered microbial factory. They hope these biological compounds will replace those currently taken from fossil fuels. Professor Scrutton says:

“Our vision is to harness the power of Synthetic Biology to propel chemicals and natural products production towards ’green’ and sustainable manufacturing processes. More broadly, the programme will provide the general tools, technology platforms, and SynBio ‘know-how’ that will impact widely in the sustainable manufacture of chemicals and natural products for development by the industrial sector.”

£15.8 million is being awarded to five projects in the UK. They were chosen based on the basis of their scientific excellence, long timescales, extensive resources, multidisciplinary approaches, and internationally leading research teams. Professor Jackie Hunter, BBSRC Chief Executive, said:

“BBSRC’s sLoLaS scheme gives world-leading scientists long-term funding to work on critical research challenges. In this round those challenges include producing clean energy, new ways to produce medicines and other valuable chemicals, and protecting livestock from disease. Not only will these funded projects help the UK and the world to address these challenges, but it will build vital research capacity here in the UK and provide opportunities for economic and social benefits.”

Computer model explains how the brain selects actions with rewarding outcomes

Brain modelFaculty research conducted in conjunction with The University of Sheffield has developed a computer model which charts what happens in the brain when an action leads to a reward. The model could provide insights into the mechanisms behind motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and conditions involving abnormal learning, such as addiction. Faculty researcher Dr Mark Humphries explains:

“We wanted to look at how we learn from feedback – particularly how we learn to associate actions to new unexpected outcomes. To do this we created a series of computational models to show how the firing of dopamine neurons caused by receiving reward ultimately translates into selecting the causative action more frequently in the future.”

Research had already shown that actions are represented in the brain’s outer layer of neural tissue (the cortex) and that rewards activate neurons that release dopamine. The dopamine signals are then sent to the striatum, which plays an important role in how we select which action to take. Together, this evidence suggested that dopamine signals change the strength of connections between cortical and striatal neurons, determining which action is appropriate in a specific circumstance. Until now, though, no model had tested these strands together. Dr Humphries explains why they created the model:

“Essentially, within this area of research, we are tackling a puzzle in which we have an unknown number of pieces and no picture to guide us. Some pieces have been studied individually, so the questions were: could we put the pieces of the puzzle together and prove that they made a coherent picture? And could we guess at the missing pieces? The only way was through using a computational model, which allows us to do things impossible in experiments – provide solutions and guesses for the missing pieces. The fact that the pieces of our puzzle all fitted together to produce a single coherent picture is evidence that we (as a field) are converging on a complete theory for how the brain learns from reward.”

Funding for new ‘Manchester Single Cell Research Centre’

The University has secured funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC) for a new Manchester Single Cell Research Centre (SCRC). A Single CellThe £5 million award application was led by Faculty scientist Professor Cay Kielty in collaboration with colleagues from FLS and the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences.

Researchers in the SCRC will focus on characterising a group of rare cells called circulating tumour cells (CTCs), which give rise to drug-resistant cancers. They will also be working on specific stem cells that can enable the regeneration of damaged tissues such as muscle, joints, skin, and blood vessels. Professor Kielty says:

“This new technology will enable us to define cell heterogeneity and the biology of rare cells in health and disease.”

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.”

 

‘Unbelievable underground’ could improve sustainable land management

A new study from Faculty scientist Professor Richard Bardgett and Professor Wim van der Putten of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology may demonstrate how organisms below-ground could have far-reaching impacts on future ecosystems. This previously neglected area could help us to understand how ecosystems are responding to climate change. The paper also discusses how the world beneath us could be used for sustainable land management. Professor Bardgett explained:

“The soil beneath our feet arguably represents the most diverse place on Earth. Soil communities are extremely complex with literally millions of species and billions of individual organisms within a single grassland or forest. Despite this plethora of life, the underground world has been largely neglected by research. It certainly used to be a case of out of sight out of mind, although over the last decade we have seen a significant increase in work in this area.”

This increase has helped to explain how the organisms interact with each other and, crucially, how they influence the above-ground flora and fauna. Professor Bardgett discussed the results:

“Recent soil biodiversity research has revealed that below-ground communities not only play a major role in shaping plant Soil Biodiversitybiodiversity and the way that ecosystems function, but it can also determine how they respond to environmental change. One of the key areas for future research will be to integrate what has been learnt about soil diversity into decisions about sustainable land management. There is an urgent need for new approaches to the maintenance and enhancement of soil fertility for food, feed and biomass production, the prevention of human disease, and tackling climate change. As we highlight in this paper, a new age of research is needed to meet these scientific challenges and to integrate such understanding into future land management and climate change mitigation strategies.”

Worm Wagon at the Great British Bioscience Festival

Scientists from the Faculty took The Worm Wagon to East London for the Great British Bioscience Festival this November. Led byA proud jigsaw maker Dr Sheena Cruickshank and Professor Kathryn Else, they were part of just twenty groups selected to take part in this 20th year anniversary celebration of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

By combining eye-catching activities with real parasite samples, The Worm Wagon’s exhibition aimed to educate people about the dangers of infection. Both children and adults made the most of the chance to handle tapeworms while others posed as parasites at the ‘schistosome selfie stand’.

The exhibition also featured giant jigsaws and Top Trump cards, all of which proved very popular with the many children at the festival. The jigsaw, once completed, highlighted the key role that washing your hands plays in avoiding infections. The Top Trumps taught their users about the many different parasites and diseases around the world. They even featured topical information about the Ebola virus.

Despite the fact that The Worm Wagon’s exhibition was fun for all who attended, there is a very serious message behind the concept. The idea grew out of the work the team have been doing with recent migrants to the country, teaching them how to prevent the spread of parasite infection. These infections affect approximately 2 billion across the globe and are the biggest killer of people under 50 worldwide. In countries where infections that are caused by gut worms are still very common, it is the main reason why children don’t get an education. Dr Cruickshank discussed the event:

“It was great to see the local community get so involved and I learnt a lot from the visitors. A favourite moment was seeing one young boy (just 6) turn to another visitor and explain how worm infection was contracted and what the impact of infection was- a future scientist in the making.”

Mind the gap – new insight could lead to more effective drug treatments

Faculty researcher Professor Dan Davis has made a discovery that could improve drug treatments. Alongside his team at the Manchester Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research (MCCIR), Professor Davis was investigating how different types of immune cells communicate with each other and how they kill cancerous or infected cells. Professor Davis says:

“We studied the immune system and stumbled across something that may explain why some drugs don’t work as well as hoped. We found that immune cells secrete molecules to other cells across a very small gap. This happens when immune cells talk to each other, and also when they kill diseased cells. But crucially, some types of drugs aren’t able to penetrate the gap between the cells. So they can’t easily reach targets within the gap and work effectively.”

Comparing molecules of different sizes, the team used microscopic imaging to see which ones could fit into the gap between an immune cell and another cell. Only the smaller molecules could penetrate the gap. They even found that when an immune cell attaches itself to another cell, it clears out all but the smallest molecules between them. Professor Davis explains:

“Our research demonstrates that any drugs targeting immune cells need to be very small. Antibody proteins, for example, are too big. They aren’t able to get into the gap between the cells – they’re even cleared away when cells meet. To make them more effective they must be smaller – which is something that GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) are working on.”

PhD student Adam Cartwright played a key role in the research, splitting his time between Professor’s Davis’s lab and GSK. He says:

“Being able to test out our theory with medicines that GSK has designed was fantastic.  The idea that something I found out can be used to develop treatments to help patients is incredibly exciting.”

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. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0087328

Faculty researcher receives grant for pancreatic cancer project

Dr Jason BruceFaculty researcher Dr Jason Bruce has been awarded a grant of around £180,000 by The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF.)

PCRF have awarded a total of £1.2million to ambitious projects tackling the UK’s deadliest cancer. It is the second year that they have invested over £1million in a single funding round, enabling innovative research that could lead to new treatments for this aggressive and complex disease.

Dr Bruce’s work focuses on pancreatic cancer cells and the unique way that they extract energy from the nutrients which help them to survive and grow. The cancer cells use this energy source to pump calcium out of the cell. As high levels of calcium can be fatal to such cells, Dr Bruce’s project will aim to utilise new drugs and cut off the supply of energy to the calcium pumps. This would kill cancer cells whilst leaving healthy ones unharmed.  Maggie Blanks, PCRF’s founder and CEO, said:

“This is an amazing achievement, and it is thanks to the tireless fundraising of our supporters around the country who know that funding research is the only way to accelerate the development of new treatments and diagnostic tools that will improve patients’ chances of survival.”

Research could improve breeding of endangered sea creature

Undulate ray - undersideFaculty scientists are attempting to map the genes of the endangered undulate ray, a protected British species which has declined sharply in the last few decades. Their data will be used to check the heritage of around 120 undulate rays in European aquariums, helping to pair up breeding adults and produce healthy offspring.

The team is investigating the diversity of the rays’ DNA to infer how inbred individuals are. Inbreeding causes frequent still-births and shortens the lifespans of offspring. Dr John Fitzpatrick, lead researcher on the project, says:

“This approach has never been used to aid captive breeding in rays before. It’s exciting to be working on a project with such a worthwhile practical application and strong scientific value.”

Marine biologist Jean-Denis Hibbitt has been managing the UK population since 2010 and is now monitoring the breeding programme across Europe. There have been 29 successful births in the UK since the programme was launched. Jean-Denis says:

“The first objective of the breeding programme is to provide undulate rays for public display to help raise awareness Ray Markingsof their plight. This added awareness, and the ability for people to identify the species, will subsequently allow them to question whether illegally landed rays are on sale in their local fishmongers. If numbers in the wild fall to a critical level, it is feasible that we could help with a reintroduction programme.”

Faculty student Iulia Darolti has taken DNA swabs from all 45 of the rays in British aquariums. She also accompanied Jean-Denis to swab two wild rays for comparison. Iulia says:

“It has been a challenging assignment. To expose the rays to as little stress as possible we developed non-invasive sampling techniques that allowed us to collect DNA from the skin. Travelling the country working with rays is something I never imagined myself doing, but it has been a very rewarding experience.”

PhD student Graeme Fox has been doing much of the laboratory work. He says:

“We developed a set of genetic markers to help discover whether the rays are related or not. After screening the DNA, we were able to identify regions that were likely to be highly variable. Our hope is that this data will enable Sea Life to plan the optimum management strategy to secure the genetic health of this beautiful and increasingly scarce species.”

Worm Wagon at The Great British Bioscience Festival

Worms as part of the exhibitFaculty scientists will take a topical look at how to avoid the spread of infection during The Great British Bioscience Festival (GBBF.) The Worm Wagon will be highlighting the impact of world diseases and parasite infections through their exhibit, which includes the vital statistics on Ebola.

Dr Sheena Cruickshank, a founder of the Worm Wagon, is one of just 20 exhibitors chosen to take part in the festival by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Researchers from the Manchester Institute for Biotechnology will also take part, presenting an exhibit called The Complex Life of Sugars.

GBBF is the culmination of a yearlong tour, enabling visitors to explore the fascinating world of biology through interactive exhibits from actual scientists. It runs from the 14th to the 16th of November in Museum Gardens, London. Dr Cruickshank says:

“We’re really excited to be part of GBBF. We’re hoping our interactive displays, jigsaws, videos, and Top Trump cards on parasites and world diseases will really capture people’s imaginations. We have an important part to play in preventing the spread of infection. The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa shows how easily disease can spread when the correct procedures aren’t in place. As scientists, I believe we have a duty to spend time outside of the laboratory telling people what we do and why we do it. Working on infectious diseases isn’t just about staring down microscopes; it’s also about helping people to tackle the spread of these illnesses.”

Dr Cruickshank’s exhibit includes Top Trumps, jigsaws, videos, and living worms, and also offers the opportunity to be photographed as a schistosome parasite. The concept grew out of the work she has been doing with recent migrants to the country, teaching them how to prevent the spread of parasite infection.

GBBF is free and suitable for all the family. Find out more at the festival website.

Faculty Impact Fellow wins prestigious award

Malcolm RhodesDr Malcolm Rhodes will receive the Peter Dunnill Award for Outstanding Contribution to UK Bioprocessing at the bioProcessUK Conference in November. Dr Rhodes is currently working as a BBSRC Industrial Impact Fellow in the Faculty, helping to build collaborations between industry and academia. During the last four years, funding of approximately £8 million has been awarded for collaborative research with biopharmaceuticals companies, through the Centre of Excellence in Biopharmaceuticals. Dr Rhodes said:

“I am extremely honoured to have been awarded the Peter Dunnill Award. Prof Dunnill and the previous recipients of this award have contributed so much to our field, and it is a real privilege to be associated with them. I would also like to thank my colleagues from industry and academia for awarding this great honour to me.”

Steve Bates, the Chief Executive Office of the UK BioIndustry Association, said:

“Malcolm’s commitment, skill and passion for bioprocessing are widely recognised across the industry and we are delighted that this is being acknowledged with this prestigious award. Malcolm has been a significant catalyst in the industry over the past decades as well as mentoring and assisting numerous emerging companies and professionals. It is thanks to the exceptional work and talent of individuals like Malcolm that the UK is fast becoming a leading global location for bioprocessing and medicines manufacturing.”

New test could identify infants with rare insulin disease

Faculty research has led to a new test which could help to identify congenital hyperinsulinism at an earlier stage. This rare but

Needlesdevastating disease causes low blood sugar levels in babies and infants and can lead to lifelong brain damage and permanent disability. The condition occurs when cells in the pancreas release too much insulin and cause frequent low blood sugar episodes. In the most serious cases, the pancreas may need to be removed.

In more than two thirds of infants who suffer from congenital hyperinsulinism, the genetic causes are unknown. After analysing the genes and hormones of thirteen infants with the disease at Manchester Children’s Hospital, Dr Karen Cosgrove and her team discovered the new way of testing.

Their test measures a pair of hormones called incretins, which tell the cells in the pancreas to release more insulin to regulate sugar levels in our blood. When a child’s body releases more incretin hormones than is normal, the pancreas will release too much insulin. This will cause dangerously low blood sugar levels. Dr Cosgrove explained:

“This is the first step to understanding what causes the disease in these particular patients (with unknown genetic causes.)  In future, the test may influence how these children are treated medically, perhaps even avoiding the need to have their pancreas removed. Although we are the first researchers to report high incretin hormone levels in patients with congenital hyperinsulinism, further studies are needed to see if our test works on a larger group of patients.”

You can watch Dr Cosgrove discussing the research below:

Faculty student wins prestigious award

Siddarth Krishnan Faculty student Siddharth Krishnan has won the Life Sciences category of The Undergraduate Awards, a prestigious international programme that identifies leading creative thinkers through their undergraduate coursework. There were 4,792 entries from 206 Universities across 27 countries. Another Faculty student, Eliot Haworth, was highly commended.

Siddharth entered his work from a placement at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, USA, in which he helped to characterise a novel gene linked to Alzheimer’s disease. This was part of his degree in Pharmacology with Industrial Experience. He said:

“I gained a lot of great experience during my placement. The Mayo Clinic has a hospital, education wing, and research centre all on the same site, so I was able to work with researchers and patients for my genetic studies. This gave me a lot of confidence, as it meant I had good research experience already. It also helped me get onto my PhD in Neuroscience and I had a strong submission to the awards. Still, I was surprised and delighted to win!”

Science Spectacular

Discover the secrets of 3D printing, build the world’s largest fractal, see a dress of glass and flame, and enjoy an exciting programme of evening entertainment. Art and science collide to engage and inspire curious minds of all ages in 11 days of innovative exhibitions and activities across Greater Manchester, proudly produced by the Museum of Science & Industry.

The University hosts an exciting programme of activities during the Manchester Science Festival. This year’s highlights include Chemistry Flash-Bang Show, Weather & Climate DIY, Ice Age Science: Mammoths, Mega Boulders & Microscopes, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Solar System, and – Science Spectacular – our amazing family fun day! The Science Spectacular will be held on Saturday 25 October 2014 and, with over 40 interactive science stalls, there will be something for everyone at this fun-filled family science day.

Last year's eventYou’ll be able to take part in a range of challenging science quests, find out how to make square bubbles, help us build an erupting volcano, and see if you can put a fly in a headlock. You’ll also meet our newest dinosaur, Gorgosaurus, and discover why he has x-appeal.  Many of our researchers will be there to answer your questions; they are behind some of the world’s most amazing discoveries. They’ll tell you what’s lurking in our rivers and just how flies help with their research. There will be fun activities for adults and children alike. Make sure you don’t miss out!

Mining big data yields Alzheimer’s discovery

Faculty scientists have utilised a new way of working to identify a gene linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The discovery may help to identify which people are most likely to develop the condition.

The team compared genes in mice and humans. Using brain scans from ENIGMA Consortium and genetic information from The Brain scansMouse Brain Library, they were able to identify MGST3, a novel gene which regulates the size of the hippocampus in both mouse and human. This gene was shown to be linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Dr Reinmar Hager, senior author of the study, said:

“What is critical about this research is that we have not only been able to identify this specific gene, but also the networks it uses to influence a disease like Alzheimer’s. We believe this information will be incredibly useful for future studies looking at treatments and preventative measures.”

The team used two of the world’s largest collections of scientific data, The ENIGMA Consortium and The Mouse Brain Library. The ENIGMA Consortium is led by Paul Thompson, based at the University of California. It contains brain images and gene information from almost 25,000 subjects. The Mouse Brain Library, established by Robert Williams from the University of Tennessee Health Science Centre, contains data on over 10,000 brains and numerical data from more than 20,000 mice. David Ashbrook, a researcher in Dr Hager’s team, explained why combining the databases was so useful:

“It is much easier to identify a genetic variant in mice as they live in such controlled environments. By taking the information from mice and comparing it to human gene information, we can identify the same variant much more quickly. We are living in a big data world thanks to the likes of the Human Genome Project and post-genome technologies. A lot of that information is now widely shared. By mining what we already know we can learn so much more, advancing our knowledge of diseases and ultimately improving detection and treatment.”

For more information, please read the full paper which was published in BMC Genomics.

For further enquiries, please contact david.ashbrook@manchester.ac.uk

Discovery could lead to better melanoma treatment

A Faculty led research team has discovered that immune cells may be responsible for drug resistance in melanoma patients.

Melanoma cellsAlong with colleagues at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, Dr Claudia Wellbrock found that chemical signals produced by immune cells known as macrophages also act as a ‘survival signal’ for melanoma cells. When the researchers blocked this signal – called TNF alpha – melanoma tumours were smaller and easier to treat. The research suggests that targeting this ‘survival signal’ could lead to new treatments. Dr Wellbrock says:

“This discovery shows that immune cells can actually help melanoma to survive. Particularly when patients are receiving treatment, the immune cells produce more of the ‘survival signal,’ which makes treatment less effective. So combining standard treatment with immunotherapy could provide more long-lasting and effective treatments to increase survival.”

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer with around 13,300 people diagnosed in the UK each year. Rates of the disease have increased more than fivefold since the 1970s. Professor Richard Marais, Director of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, said:

“Melanoma is particularly difficult to treat as many patients develop resistance to standard treatment within a few years. This research provides a key insight into why this is the case. Drugs which block this ‘survival signal’ have already been developed; using these along with standard treatment may be a promising new approach for melanoma patients.”