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Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 22.12.14

22 Dec, 2014

Our fortnightly round- up of research news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Nationwide project paves way for clinical genetics diagnosis

B0000271 Duchenne muscular dystrophy - normal femaleA major nationwide project to genetically diagnose rare diseases will pave the way for translating advances in genomics into patient care in the NHS.

Deciphering Developmental Disorders (DDD), a collaboration between the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the UK Department of Health and regional genetics services, is working with 12,000 families to diagnose their children’s developmental disorder, demonstrating the feasibility and value of introducing large-scale sequencing diagnostics into health care.

The project, which will continue into next year, has so far found a diagnosis for nearly a third of the first 1000 families analysed, where previous genetic tests had failed before. The diagnoses have focused on the 1100 genes that have previously been recognised as a cause of developmental disorders. This success rate will continue to improve as more disease-causing genes are discovered.

“Each of these patient families has been through a long diagnostic odyssey before taking part in the DDD project,” says Dr Helen Firth, a researcher from the Department of Clinical Genetics at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. “For many, we are able to offer the diagnosis they have waited so long for. Sometimes this improves clinical management, but simply knowing the source of the problem can provide families with peace of mind.”

Dr Caroline Wright, lead author and Programme Manager for the Deciphering Developmental Disorders project said, “the project has shown that large-scale genetic testing, which brings such enormous benefits to patients and families, is both effective and affordable.”

The DDD study will continue to recruit families until April 2015, and will continue to try to find a genetic diagnosis for all the remaining undiagnosed families. It is hoped that the approach developed in this study will be rapidly incorporated in standard clinical practice to maximise the diagnosis of rare genetic disorders.

New understanding of venom could open door to more effective anti-venoms

5827654068_85333e54b3_zNew research published in Toxicon, disproves the theory that venom evolved just once in reptiles, and could lead to new medical treatments to counteract snakebites.

The ‘toxicofera hypothesis’ proposed the majority of reptile species alive today, descended from a common venomous ancestor. This theory was put forward nearly a decade ago and has been widely believed, but not actually tested, until now.

Researchers in the School of Biological Sciences at Bangor University, tested the robustness of the ‘toxicofera hypothesis’ using cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology to study gene expression in the venom and salivary glands, as well as several other body tissues from a range of venomous and non-venomous reptiles.

PhD student Adam Hargreaves and his supervisor Dr John Mulley, together with colleagues at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences as Aberystwyth University, found that the toxicofera hypothesis is not supported by this study’s evidence, which suggest that venom evolved at least twice in reptiles.

This has profound implications for how the evolution of venom is understood, and also for the design of new medical treatments to counteract snakebites.

Dr John Mulley explains: “Snake venom is far simpler than was previously suggested, with the majority of venom complexity limited to just a few gene families. It seems likely therefore that we can develop more effective anti-venom treatments which focus on combatting the effects of just these families.”

New targeted drugs could treat drug-resistance skin cancer

B0003294 Human melanoma cell dividingA major new study published in Cancer Cell, reports that a brand new family of chemical compounds designed to block several key cancer-causing proteins could potentially treat incurable skin cancers. Clinical trials to test the new compounds in patients to see if they could be viable drugs, may begin as early as 2015.

Existing drugs for skin cancer- also known as melanoma- target faulty versions of a protein called BRAF, which causes about half of all melanomas, but while initially very effective, the cancers almost always become resistant to treatment within a year.

The two new chemical compounds – called panRAF inhibitors – could be effective in patients with melanoma who have developed resistance to BRAF inhibitors.

The study, published in Cancer Cell, was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, and jointly led by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute.

The study established that for both drugs, a dose of 20mg per kg per day – which when translated to humans would be achievable by taking in pill form – caused tumours to regress without significant side-effects.

Study co-leader Professor Richard Marais, Director of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, based at The University of Manchester, said “Our laboratory study showed that these new drugs deliver multiple blows to cancer by hitting several cell survival routes at once. It’s a step on from the drugs that are currently available which can’t multitask in this way.”

In other news…

Researchers at the Babraham Institute have provided the most comprehensive analysis so far of how sperm DNA is reprogrammed after fertilisation to contribute to the start of a new life.

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute spin-out company 14M Genomics (14MG) has received £12.5 million equity financing from Syncona Partners LLP (Syncona) to develop European clinical diagnostic and treatment decision services in cancer.

Manchester University Press has published ‘The making of British bioethics’, the first open access monograph in the field of bioethics, written by Dr Duncan Wilson, Research Associate in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) and funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Dr Martyn Pickersgill, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics, released a paper discussing neuroscience, epigenetics and social life.

A study, published in Nature Immunology, discovered a new class of highly potent antibodies from dengue-virus infected patients, which could lead to a new subunit vaccine.

Image credits: Duchenne muscular dystrophy – normal female, Wessex Reg. Genetics Centre, Wellcome Images; Painted saw-scaled viper, Echis coloratus by Todd Pierson on Flickr, BY-NC-SA-2.0; Human melanoma cell dividing, Paul J.Smith &Rachel Errington, Wellcome Images

Image of the Week: Glycerine and Cucumber

19 Dec, 2014

L0029207 Beetham's Glycerine and Cucumber

In our image of the week this week, Carly Dakin looks at how to achieve soft, smooth complexion free from redness – the 19th century way. Just reach for “the queen of toilet preparations for all seasons” and save yourself from chapped skin with Beetham’s glycerine and cucumber!

This image above is a 19th century advert from Beetham’s chemists for their glycerine and cucumber cream – a beauty essential for many Victorian ladies keen to prevent the harsh winter weather affecting their skin.

Centuries earlier in 1653 just before his death, the botanist Nicholas Culpeper listed the cucumber in Complete Herbal, his comprehensive A to Z guide to herbs, their medicinal properties and the methods by which those properties could be extracted for use in preparations such as skin creams and tonics.

Of cucumber juice Culpeper said, “The face being washed with the same water, be it never so red, will be benefited by it, and the complexion very much improved“. It is still used in many skin soaps and creams on the market today, as is the alcohol-based vegetable extract glycerine.

This advertisement relates specifically to glycerine and cucumber cream from M Beetham and Son, a chemist based in Cheltenham, England. Beetham’s products were stocked and sold world-wide throughout the 19th and 20th centuries they produced many advertisements for this particular product aimed at a female audience, targeting the desire for eternal youth, beauty and the pale complexion which was fashionable at that time.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London – CC-BY-4.0

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. Over 100,000 high resolution images from our historical collections are now free to use under the Creative Commons-Attribution only (CC-BY) licence.

Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014: The Complete Shortlist

18 Dec, 2014

Free book of science writing prize articlesAre you travelling over Christmas? Looking for something to read while you digest your Christmas dinner? Or perhaps just wanting to expand your knowledge to impress your friends… Well we’ve got the answer – twenty brilliant articles about science, nicely packaged into a downloadable pdf for you to savour.. it’s the Science Writing Prize 2014 shortlist!

We love a bit of good science writing here at the Wellcome Trust, and while we wait to see what we get in our Christmas stockings, we’d like to present you with a fantastic crop of stories from the shortlist in this year’s Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer.

You’ll find advice on how to make your smile look even more genuine, and a trillion reasons to look after your gums. There are stories about surgery, genetics, dementia and ‘Barbie drugs’, not to mention music, comets, butterflies and Breaking Bad.

The 20 stories in the shortlist were chosen from more than 600 entries to the competition, before our esteemed judges picked their two winners, who each won £1000. Kate Széll, who won in the general category, had her piece about prosopagnosia, or face blindness, published in the Observer last month, and Dr Richard Stephens who won the professional scientist category. His piece, which reveals the secrets of smiling, will soon be published in the Guardian.

The judges had a tough time choosing the winners and so we wanted to share all of the shortlisted entries with you, because it is a great achievement to make it through to the final stage of judging.

The aim of the competition is to encourage new voices in the communication of science, to find writers who can explain science in the most engaging way, and to increase the number of people reading, thinking and talking about science. Every piece in the Science Writing Prize 2014: The shortlist has something interesting to say about a fascinating area of science, and the writers use their skills to inform, entertain and encourage debate.

Shortlisted writers from previous years have gone on to write about science in a variety of publications, including several book deals, some even becoming fully fledged science journalists and editors. So here’s a chance to discover the science writers who are going to help shape our understanding of the world in the years to come!

If you’re interested in science writing you might also enjoy our set of “How to” blogs that cover topics ranging from how to write a story from a scientific paper, to how to set up your own blog – and of course – how to pitch to an editor. You can find the full set of them here.

A positive step forward on the road to mitochondrial donation

17 Dec, 2014

B0006053 Mitochondrion

Today the Department of Health has laid the regulations that set out how mitochondrial donation could potentially be allowed in the UK. The regulations will be debated and voted on by parliament in the New Year, and we hope that the outcome will bring hope to the families affected by mitochondrial disease, and allow important research to continue. The Wellcome Trust’s Clare Ryan explains why this announcement is a step in the right direction…

In the UK around 1 in 200 children are affected by faulty genes in the DNA of their mitochondria – small structures present in all our cells that provide us with energy and are commonly known as the ‘batteries’ of the cell. Many of those children will be asymptomatic or have mild, late-onset or undiagnosed problems, but around 1 in 6500 children will develop more serious diseases which can leave them with debilitating brain and muscle disorders. Many of the most seriously affected babies do not survive past childhood.

A new IVF technique, developed by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at the University of Newcastle, could prevent mitochondrial disease being passed from mother to child, enabling families to have healthy genetically related children. The technique involves moving the nuclear DNA that carries all of the parents’ characteristics (height, intelligence, eye colour etc) from an egg or early embryo with faulty mitochondria, into an egg or early embryo with healthy mitochondria.


However, in order for this technique to be allowed government needs to pass secondary legislation to allow the HFEA to issue licences. Today, the Department of Health has published the regulations it is proposing to enable this to happen. The next step is for parliament to set a date for MPs to debate and vote on the regulations.

It is not an understatement to say that the regulations have been the subject of unparalleled scrutiny: this parliamentary debate will be the culmination of more than seven years work. There have been independent ethical reviews, three separate independent expert reviews of all the scientific evidence on the technique’s safety, and most importantly a widespread public consultation which has revealed broad support.

Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, summarised the long road patients, charities and scientists have travelled to get to this point: “Over the past seven years, Britain has been engaged in an exemplary process for evaluating scientific, ethical and public opinion about mitochondrial donation, which has revealed broad support on all three fronts.

“A parliamentary vote is the next logical step, and we urge MPs to support regulations that will allow the law to catch up with public and scientific opinion. Parents who know what it means to care for a sick and suffering child with mitochondrial disease are the people best placed to decide, with proper medical advice and safeguards, whether mitochondrial donation is right for them. They should not have to wait any longer to be able to make this choice.”

At the centre of this process are the families whose children are affected by mitochondrial disease. Many families, such as this one, have spoken eloquently about their hopes of conceiving a healthy child, or the possibility of their daughters being able to have unaffected children. In the end, this is about providing families reproductive choice – they are the ones who are in the best position to look at all the reproductive possibilities and make up their own decision.

In the UK we are very lucky to have an internationally respected regulator of IVF techniques, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which would oversee all aspects of this proposed treatment. Even if parliament votes through the legislation clinics will not be able to use the techniques immediately. Specialist clinics will still need to submit applications to the HFEA to use the technique for each patient that requests it. The HFEA will consider the safety and efficacy of the techniques and the appropriateness for each individual patient before deciding whether to grant a licence. We very much hope they are given the chance to take this next step.

For more information about mitochondrial disease please visit the Wellcome Trust’s dedicated mitochondrial donation policy pages or the website of the Lily Foundation, a charity that represents families with mitochondrial disease.

Researcher Spotlight: Professor Sir Philip Cohen

15 Dec, 2014

philip cohen 2Sir Philip Cohen is a professor of enzymology at the University of Dundee. He holds a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award and has worked in the field of protein phosphorylation and cell regulation for over four decades. His work on the subject has seen him consistently ranked as one of the world’s most cited scientists in the field of biology and biochemistry. Prof Cohen was recently presented with the Albert Einstein World Award of Science from the World Cultural Council. We asked him to share some of the highlights of his career, and what got him interested in this area of research…

What are you working on?

I am trying to understand in molecular detail how the innate immune system is regulated. This system is vital for defence against microbial pathogens but its deregulation causes many chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases that include arthritis, asthma, colitis, fibrosis, lupus, psoriasis and sepsis.

What does your average day involve?

I was the Director of Research in the College of Life Sciences at Dundee from 1984-2006 and Director of the Medical Research Council Protein Phosphorylation Unit from 1990-2012, so for nearly 30 years I had huge administrative responsibilities in addition to running my own research team. However, having shed all my administrative responsibilities over the past few years, I am now in the wonderful position of being able to devote virtually all of my day to my own research interests. I therefore spend much of my day planning and discussing the work of my research team, reading the scientific literature to help formulate new ideas for my research, writing research papers and occasionally reviews.

Why is your work important?

Understanding how the innate immune system works is critical to identify which protein components of this signalling network may be the most attractive drug targets for the treatment of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. For the past 18 years I have been running the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, which is Europe’s largest collaboration between an academic research centre and the pharmaceutical industry. Through this collaboration, I am able to pass on the important information I come up with rapidly to six of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, which has helped to launch and accelerate many new drug discovery programmes.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

For the past 45 years I have been studying the function of reversible protein phosphorylation (i.e. the attachment and removal of phosphate from proteins) in cell regulation and human disease. When I started working on this topic it was thought to be a specialised control mechanism confined to the regulation of glycogen metabolism, but as a result of work in my lab and many others, it gradually became clear that it regulates almost all aspects of cell life and that abnormalities in this process cause many diseases.

In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s I was involved in working out how insulin stimulates the conversion of glucose to its storage form glycogen, in identifying and characterising the enzymes that remove phosphate from proteins (called protein phosphatases) and in identifying many of the enzymes that attach phosphate to proteins (called protein kinases) and how they were activated in response to growth factors and cell damaging agents. However, eventually the outlines of these systems became clear and I started to look for other important systems to which the expertise and technologies that I had developed could be applied to and eventually stumbled across the innate immune system and became fascinated by it.

Immunologists had made seminal advances in identifying some of the key components of these systems, but it was obvious to me that our knowledge of the wiring diagram that controls this complex process was still in its infancy and that there was a chance to make a significant impact and rewrite the textbook accounts of what was going on. So about seven years ago I took the plunge and switched all of my research effort to try and crack this problem. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Changing my research to innate immunity introduced me to another general biological control mechanism called “reversible ubiquitylation” and I have become increasingly fascinated by how the two control mechanisms of protein phosphorylation and protein ubiquitylation “talk” to each other. I managed to persuade the Scottish National Party to give me £10 million six years ago to set up a new Protein Ubiquitylation Unit at Dundee, which was absorbed into the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit last year and was renamed the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

You may be amused to know that from 1975-1978 I was the recipient of a “Wellcome Trust Special Fellowship”, which I believe was the first ever Career Development Fellowship awarded by the Wellcome Trust. This Fellowship freed me from all undergraduate teaching commitments and was hugely beneficial for my research career.

Subsequently, my salary was paid by the MRC for five years and then for 16 years by the Royal Society (I was a Royal Society Research Professor from 1984-2010). So when I was awarded a Senior Investigator Award in 2013 it was the first research grant I had been given by the Wellcome Trust for 35 years! However, the Wellcome Trust had been a huge help to me in developing the Life Sciences at the University of Dundee. The £10 million that the Trust awarded me in 1994 to set up the Wellcome Trust Biocentre at Dundee, which opened in 1997, was a transformational event in bringing research in the life sciences to a new level in Dundee.

Philip CohenWhat’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

To describe my research in laymen’s terms and say why it is worth doing.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

I am always happy to field any question about my research. However, I only started work in the field of immunology seven years ago and still regard myself as a beginner in the field. I am still learning something new about this topic every day, which is one of the joys of changing one’s research field.

I am always expecting to be caught out by a really difficult immunological question, but I don’t dread it, I just consider it to be part of my new learning experience. 

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I was a well-known boy soprano in the 1950s appearing on the British and German radio on many occasions. I ran the London University Chess team at University and played in many East European Countries and Russia in the mid 1960s and continued to play chess competitively for the City of Dundee into the 1980s.

I studied Biochemistry at University because I was (and still am) passionate about Natural History and quite good at Chemistry, so Biochemistry seemed the natural combination of these interests. Much of my spare time is spent bird watching and (in the season) picking wild mushrooms. My house is on the Estuary of the River Tay and I have seen nearly 120 bird species through the telescope trained from my bedroom window. I have played golf in Pro-Am tournaments with many of the world’s most famous golfers including Gary Player, Sir Bob Charles, Fred Couples and Craig Stadler.

What keeps you awake at night?

Nothing – I sleep like a log, but get up very early

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

After two year’s postdoctoral research at the University of Washington, Seattle, I made a visit to the UK in 1971 to decide which job to accept. On arrival I thought that I would probably accept a Fellowship at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) at Cambridge. It was Brian Hartley at LMB who advised me not to do this and told me that if I had an interesting research problem that I wanted to tackle I should take a permanent lectureship at a University right away and get on with it.

When I mentioned the three lectureship offers that I had received, Brian said that he thought that Dundee might become interesting since Peter Garland had just moved there from Bristol to become its first Professor of Biochemistry. I hit it off with Peter and the rest is history. So without Brian’s great advice my career might have been very different.

To find out more about Prof Cohen’s work, you might like to read his article for the Reflections series in the Journal of Biological Chemistry from 2009, called Keep nibbling at the edges. He has published over 530 scientific papers, but two of his more recent ones are Activation of the canonical IKK complex by K63/M1-linked hybrid ubiquitin chains and Phosphorylation of CRTC3 by the salt-inducible kinases controls the interconversion of classically activated and regulatory macrophages.

Image credits: University of Dundee

Image of the Week: Prof John O’Keefe receives his Nobel Prize

12 Dec, 2014

John O'Keefe

The image of the week is Professor John O’Keefe, being awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which he shares with Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser. The Wellcome Trust has supported O’Keefe’s work for over ten years and he is Director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour.

The Nobel Laureates discovered a positioning system, the ‘inner GPS’ in the brain, which makes it possible for us to orient ourselves in space. In 1971, John O’Keefe discovered the first component of the positioning system, called ‘place cells’.

He found that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was at other places. O´Keefe concluded that these place cells formed a map of the room, laying the foundation of our understanding of how our brains form a picture of space and how we navigate.

During the Award ceremony in Stockholm on Wednesday, Professor Ole Keihn, Member of the Nobel committee for Physiology or Medicine, presented the award and said “Through brilliant experiments, you have given us new insight into one of the greatest mysteries of life: how the brain creates behaviour and provides is with fascinating mental proficiencies”. In his Nobel speech, O’Keefe had an important message: “In this era of growing xenophobia it’s important to remember that science is the quintessential international endeavour… As scientists we believe that the future great contributions to our understanding of the physical and the biological world can come from citizens of any country from any part of the world.”

On learning about the award, Director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, said “I am absolutely thrilled that John O’Keefe, our close colleague at the Wellcome Trust, has won the Nobel Prize. John’s work, which the Trust is proud to have supported for over ten years, has transformed our understanding of how the brain represents space. He is also a truly exceptional scientist and it is an honour for me to have worked closely with him over the last year.

“On behalf of myself and the Wellcome Trust I am delighted to offer our very warmest congratulations to John.”

You can find out more about John O’Keefe’s discovery in this press release, read or watch his speech from the Banquet ceremony or watch the full ceremony on the Nobel Prize YouTube channel.

Image Credit: © Nobel Media AB – Alexander Mahmoud

Hype in science news: five reflections on an important BMJ paper

10 Dec, 2014
mark-henderson from blog

Mark Henderson

Today Chris Chambers and colleagues at the University of Cardiff published their research into the association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases from 20 Russell Group universities in the UK. Here, Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and former Science Editor of The Times newspaper, sets out his personal reflections on this research. We will also be revisiting this issue on the Wellcome Trust blog as the debate continues…

Today’s BMJ paper by Chris Chambers, Petroc Sumner and colleagues, revealing that exaggeration in medical research reporting can often be traced back to inflated claims in press releases, is not exactly news. The suggestion that hyped journalism often reflects hyped media relations confirms an effect that has long been recognised by journalists and press officers alike.

The study is nonetheless important and timely, providing the first firm data on the extent of hype in biomedical science press releases. I have some minor quibbles over the design of the study – I would question, for example, whether all instances in which advice is offered on the back of certain findings, or in which the human disease context of animal research is explained, should really count as exaggeration, though many of them undoubtedly do.

But overall, this is an excellent contribution to our understanding of how science is communicated to the wider world, which has been executed about as sensitively as can reasonably be expected. It should be welcomed as a prompt for reflection by all those who contribute to the communication of science through the media, including not only press officers, but journalists, editors and scientists as well.

I’ve worked on both sides of this issue – I was Science Editor of The Times for many years, and for the past three I’ve been Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, where my responsibilities include media relations. Here are five reflections on the issue that draw on both experiences.

1. It’s important to filter

In my career as a science journalist, I saw one of my most important roles as that of bullshit filter. It was my job not only to ensure that The Times reported on the most interesting and important scientific stories, but also that we avoided the bad ones. I judged myself as much by what I kept out of the paper as by what I got into it. This included, almost every day, checking press releases that made inflated claims against the original research (and/or interviews with scientists), and either correcting these claims in my own copy or rejecting the story altogether as a result.

I see the function of the good press officer as essentially similar. Yes, the job is about ensuring that important and newsworthy activities that your institution is engaged in get the media coverage you think they deserve. But it is also about ensuring that these stories are explained fairly and reasonably – and that includes resisting any temptation to exaggerate or hype, and overruling colleagues who want to do so. A press release that prompts blanket coverage is NOT a success if that coverage is misleading, over-inflated or wrong.

2. Make it as simple as possible, not simpler

As Einstein is purported to have said (it is actually a paraphrase), everything should always be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. So it is with press releases. A good press release translates science that is often communicated in opaque, technical language that is difficult for the generalist reporter (and even science reporters are generalists compared to researchers) to understand, into clear terms that communicate its essence and key points. It’s important to make press releases relevant and understandable, but not at the expense of accuracy. It’s not acceptable to hype or exaggerate – and the sharper reporters will quite properly pick you up on it if you do.

So the press officer who writes a hyped release is certainly at fault. But it’s important to recognise that some press officers – who are often junior figures within an institution – are not always fully responsible for the content they produce. Just as journalists are increasingly under pressure to deliver clicks and eyeballs, so press officers are sometimes under pressure to deliver coverage – often any coverage. Evaluation metrics that count media mentions as the principal measure of success, and comms managers who see any coverage as good coverage, may well be part of the problem here. If we care about avoiding hype, we should be careful not to incentivise it.

3. Scientists must take responsibility too

Press releases that exaggerate aren’t always the fault of press officers. Scientists often deserve their share of responsibility as well. Some – though by no means all – are often only too keen to make inflated or extrapolated claims in pursuit of a little credit or media limelight. The good press officer should always push back against claims that appear to go beyond the evidence, and many do – I certainly encourage my team to do so. But we do have to recognise that it is not always easy or possible for the press officer, who will more often than not be junior to the researcher they are helping, to challenge successfully, if at all. If institutions want to take on PR hype, they need to empower their press offices to say no.

Equally culpable are scientists who abet hype through sins of omission, not commission. These are the ones who fail to engage with their press officers (or indeed journalists), and either pay lip service to checking press releases or ignore them altogether. Good press officers do their best to reflect research accurately, but they are never as specialist as study authors and they sometimes make mistakes. There is also a fine line between setting context that makes a press release relevant and reportable, and extrapolating beyond findings to create hype. The press officer needs active collaboration from the scientist to make this work.

4. Good judgement is essential

Then there’s the role of the journalist. Reporters rightly complain that scientists and press officers sometimes hype and exaggerate research, or suggest inferences that are thinly supported by the available data – that this happens is borne out by this study. But this is NEVER an acceptable excuse for simply repeating a poorly founded claim.

The job of a journalist is not blindly to report every piece of information put to them. It is important to check facts out, to sieve and filter information, to add any context that might be necessary to aid the reader’s understanding, and, in the end, to make choices about what to cover and what to leave well alone. Yes, there are time pressures. Yes, the industry increasingly demands volume over thoroughness. Yes, some hyped stories look incredibly appetising. But none of this excuses a failure to exercise good judgement.

Journalists who blame poor or misleading press releases for their own poor or misleading reports are rather like athletes who blame positive drug tests on contaminated supplements. They should take better care.

5. We’re all under pressure

Journalists should take a kind of strict liability for what they write. But just as some press officers sometimes deserve sympathy because of their institutional context, so do some reporters. The media often behaves as a pack animal, and it can be incredibly difficult for a reporter, seeing their peers and colleagues blindly swallowing the contents of a sensational but hyped press release, to plough a lone furrow in rejecting it.

Many times have I told a news editor that a certain story isn’t worth following up, or that the sensational line taken by another paper isn’t true, to be told in return: “but it was in the press release.” This illustrates one of the really pernicious things about hyped media relations – it undermines and disempowers responsible journalists, especially those who struggle to stand up to their editors. It gives cover to journalists, and there are plenty of them, who are looking for an excuse to go with the sensational but misleading line. And it makes the job of the responsible reporter immeasurably harder. That’s one of the main reasons this paper matters.

The research paper and all associated data are free to download.

Developing global expertise in medical mycology and fungal immunology

10 Dec, 2014
Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar meets MRes students in Aberdeen

Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar meets MRes students in Aberdeen

As part of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award for Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology (WTSA MMFI), ten international students are awarded scholarships to complete a Masters of Research (MRes) at the University of Aberdeen, followed by a three-year PhD at any UK institution with expertise in this field. These scholarships are awarded to exceptional students from low- and middle-income countries and form part of a wider research and training programme funded by the WTSA MMFI, a £5.1 million award granted to the University of Aberdeen. The objective of this scholarship scheme is to increase capacity and expertise in medical mycology in areas of the world with high endemic burdens of disease. Dr Karen McCardle from the University of Aberdeen caught up with some of the students who recently graduated with an MRes in Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology…

mmfi logoThe Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG) leads the WTSA MMFI and is supported by a pan-UK consortium of scientists from 13 major medical mycology centres. It is the biggest fungal research group in Britain and one of the largest in the world. The group now boasts ten principal investigators (research group leaders) supported by around seventy researchers, with expertise in fungal biology, immunology and clinical mycology.

The WTSA MMFI consortium has four major goals: (i) to train a new generation of medical mycologists in areas of the world with high endemic burdens of fungal diseases; (ii) to build clinical academic capacity in the UK; (iii) to foster and promote cross-disciplinary research across the UK; and (iv) to increase public understanding of the clinical importance of fungal infections.

Last year, we were joined by Maria Alonso, Lucian Duvenage, Joy Icheoku and Alfred Kamuyango, who are each the lucky recipients of a scholarships for the international programme. I asked the students to share their reflections on the 12 months spent at the University of Aberdeen studying for the MRes, starting their PhD studies and their hopes for the future.

Map showing diversity of the Aberdeen Fungal Group

Map showing diversity of the Aberdeen Fungal Group

Maria Fernanda Alonso

Maria Alonso_grad 2014Having finished my undergraduate studies in Clinical Biochemistry in 2012, I was interested in doing my postgraduate studies abroad to gain some experience of working in an international research centre. The MRes + PhD scholarship offered by the WTSA MMFI presented the opportunity for me to fulfil this aim. The subject was particularly attractive to me since fungal research is a field of high public health relevance but underdeveloped in my country.

That’s how I ended up leaving warm Uruguay to travel to cold Aberdeen to start this adventure! The MRes has been a truly rewarding experience. I have met many new colleagues including my fellow MRes students, Beatrice, Lucian, Joy and Alfred, who have been very supportive and with whom I hope to establish long term collaborations in the future.

During this first year at the University of Aberdeen, I had several lectures in both immunology and microbiology and I carried out two research projects. Without doubt, working in the laboratory has been my favourite part of it all. My two MRes projects were quite different, providing me with experience in a variety of research tools, from live cell imaging to sequencing. My project supervisors, Dr Judith Bain, Professor Lars Erwig and
Dr Donna MacCallum were invaluable mentors and equipped me for the next phase of this journey, the PhD.

For my PhD, I have chosen to stay at the University of Aberdeen doing a project focused on studying the interactions of the innate immune system with the fungal pathogen Candida albicans, under the supervision of Professor Lars Erwig. I am particularly attracted to the research questions posed in this project and the experimental tools that will be used to address them. I believe the training and knowledge gained will help me achieve my ultimate goal of pursuing an academic career in my home country. In this respect I have two long-term aims: (1) introducing more substantial training on clinical mycology into undergraduate courses; and (2) initiating fundamental research in fungal immunology.

While working in a clinical laboratory in Uruguay, I became aware of the limitations we have for diagnosing and treating fungal infections, which I believe could be at least partially be overcome by generating awareness of their importance. Primary fungal pathogens, such as Histoplasma capsulatum, Paracoccidioides brasiliensis or Sporothrix schenckii, are aetiological agents of invasive endemic infections in my country, yet few clinical laboratories have the expertise or the equipment to adequately diagnose them.

I believe that expanding the curriculum for clinical biochemists to include specialised courses on clinical mycology is essential to tackle this problem. Furthermore, given that my passion is to do fundamental immunological research, I am very excited about the idea of starting fungal research in Uruguay where I expect to focus on more regional pathogens, such as Paracoccidioides brasiliensis. I am eager to take back the novel tools I will learn as part of my PhD to contribute to other research areas in my country.

I am now two months into my PhD and so far the training received during my Master’s has proved very important. I am happy to be able to stay in Aberdeen since I have enjoyed being part of the Aberdeen Fungal Group. I am sure I will come across very rewarding as well as rough times, and it is great to know I can count on a great network of people to get me through it. I am very grateful for this opportunity and I am excited about everything that remains to come!


Joy Icheoku

Joy Icheoku_grad 2014I originally trained as a pharmacist, at Nnamdi Azikwe University (NAU), Awka, Nigeria. Completing the MRes programme at the University of Aberdeen, in the UK’s biggest research team for medical mycology, the Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG), gave me a wonderful life-time research experience. It was a complete package of high quality research training with intensive and broad taught classes cutting across fungal biology, molecular mycology and immunology, statistics, with skills and employability training and audit. The professional and academic working relationship I had within the AFG was enriching and forms the basis of my professional network and links for my future career. The support I received from my fellow MRes colleagues, the AFG staff and students and the wider WTSA MMFI community made the journey smoother despite the temperature in Aberdeen!

The assessment standard for the MRes was tough and definitely not without its challenges, but it was worth it in the end. I feel I’m more than ready and confident to take on the PhD phase. Being one of only a few beneficiaries of this scholarship came with lots of great privileges and including access to some of the best researchers in the field. I am really proud to be an alumna of the University of Aberdeen!

I started my PhD in October, working under the supervision of Dr Elaine Bignell, University of Manchester and Dr Julian Naglik, King’s College London, on pathogen induced epithelial damage. Building my career foundation in one of the UK’s oldest, highly ranked and multicultural institution has always been my dream, and now it is a reality, thanks to this international scholarship funded by the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award.

My PhD training is focused on the molecular basis of invasive fungal infection, which will give me the required technical and intellectual expertise I need to achieve my long-term goals. On completing my PhD, I hope to return to Nigeria to tackle one of the major problems – the lack of awareness and information about the menace of fungal infections and their economic impact.

Importantly, I hope to establish a world-class mycological reference laboratory to aid prevention, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of fungal infections. Long-term, I hope to establish a centre of excellence for medical mycology research, through collaboration with colleagues in the WTSA MMFI Consortium and beyond. This centre, potentially based at NAU, will foster high quality research relevant to Nigeria and the West African sub-region and will enable the training of home grown experts, starting from masters to PhD level. The research focus of the centre will include fungal vaccine development, improvements in anti-fungal drug delivery, and new anti-fungal drug development from natural products which will benefit from the abundant natural resources in Nigeria.

Lucian Duvenage

Lucian Duvenage_grad 2014I’m originally from South Africa and moving to Aberdeen to study for the MRes was a big change for me. I was very excited to come to Scotland as it was my first time in the UK and I wanted to see new places and discover the culture for myself. I made friends with the other MRes students right away. We were all in a new environment and we formed a close group to support each other.

The MRes course was quite different from my previous MSc because it was more structured and intensive. The lectures at the start of the course were very good at reinforcing what I had learned in my previous studies but there were also topics that were new to me. My favourite series was the Current Topics in Immunology, which gave me an appreciation for the pace of scientific discoveries. The most challenging parts of the MRes were the two research projects, which were both three-months of intensive effort. Fortunately, I was able to benefit from the support of my project supervisors and the experience of the many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in the Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG), and so I was able to overcome any setbacks I encountered.

I gained invaluable knowledge and research skills in fungal biology and immunology, but most valuable for me were the transferable skills of time management and planning that I developed. I am grateful that we were able to attend the British Society for Medical Mycology conference in Manchester as well as the course offered by the Public Health England Mycology Reference Laboratory in Bristol. These were the highlights of the year for me and helped to broaden my research interests.

I started my PhD in October at the University of Kent under the supervision of Dr Campbell Gourlay. The project will involve a trip back to the Aberdeen Fungal Group to work with Drs Carol Munro and Donna MacCallum. The project focuses on the study of the mitochondria of the human fungal pathogen Candida albicans. Candida albicans, like other fungi such as C. neoformans, can cause problems for immunocompromised patients. Due to the HIV burden in South Africa, these pathogens are becoming an increasing concern in my home country.

There is evidence to suggest that the mitochondria of several fungal species may share similarities, so the findings from this PhD could be expanded to other fungal pathogens. Throughout my PhD I will acquire new skills in molecular and cell biology, which was part of the reason for choosing my project. I hope that I can use my PhD research not only to better understand these infections but also to convince my colleagues in South Africa of the importance of on-going medical mycology research. In this regard, I will also draw upon the enthusiasm of my mentors in Aberdeen and Kent.

Alfred Alinafed Kamuyango

Alfred Kamuyango_grad 2014My curiosity for medical mycology originates from my time as a junior medical laboratory technologist at a hospital in Malawi. Here I encountered high incidences of fungal infections in HIV patients and since then, I have been determined to pursue a postgraduate course in medical mycology to help tackle this mostly unrecognised problem. I was particularly thrilled to be offered the WTSA MMFI scholarship to come to the UK to study for an MRes and PhD.

At Aberdeen University, the MRes course content and the teaching methods were of a high quality and the learning experience was fascinating. A broad range of important subjects were covered in the first semester. Despite the diversity of the topics covered, the tutorials and support provided by the lecturers was exceptional and way beyond expectation. The lecturers expressed passion and enthusiasm in their areas of expertise and were always willing to clarify complex areas. The two research projects conducted in the subsequent two semesters of the course, equipped me with a broad range of cellular and molecular mycology and immunology techniques. The projects’ supervisors were very supportive and stimulated critical thinking and a high level rational approach

Being a member of the Aberdeen Fungal Group gave me the opportunity to attend the 50th Annual Scientific Meeting of the British Society for Medical Mycology. Here, enormously gifted intellectuals of vast experience in the medical mycology field made awakening presentations and shared rich ideas, on pertinent issues.

The University of Aberdeen as well as the city offers a friendly atmosphere to all students for academic study, additionally, it is welcoming and nurturing to international students, qualifying it to be the superb place to study. I really enjoyed the course and it is an excellent foundation to the development of my career in academia and research.

I recently started my PhD at the University of Sheffield in Dr Simon Johnston’s research team studying how fungal pathogens initiate and modulate localised immune signalling during an infection.

Following this PhD training, I hope to gain skills that will enable me to identify scientific problems, ask relevant questions and design methodologies to address those problems. My strong desire is to lead my own project in Malawi, with a focus on developing a profound understanding of host immunity against fungi using multidisciplinary approaches with a goal of improving care and management of HIV/AIDS patients with fungal infections.

You can find out more about the Aberdeen Fungal Group on their website and about the Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology Consortium where the students carried out their MRes studies.

Image credit: Aspergilluse SEM –  David Gregory&Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Images

Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 08.12.14

8 Dec, 2014

Our fortnightly round-up of research news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Competition and climate change may help exotic parasites spread to UK honeybees

Scientists have found that an exotic parasite out-competes its native relative when introduced into UK honeybees, which may lead to disease spreading in bees as our climate changes.

B0007642 Honey Bee Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Wellcome Images

B0007642 Honey Bee
Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Wellcome Images

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B compared parasite growth in honeybees that were infected with both an exotic parasite, Nosema ceranae and its relative, Nosema apis, which is native to Northern Europe.

Experiments showed that, while both parasites slow down or even stop each other’s growth, the exotic Nosema ceranae has a much greater negative impact on the native Nosema apis than vice versa.

Researchers incorporated this competitive effect into a simple model which also considered the climatic conditions under which the parasites could survive. They found that by considering these two factors together, researchers are better able to predict where both parasite species are found in nature: Nosema ceranae is common in Southern Europe but rare in Northern Europe.

Co-author of the study, Prof Robert Paxton of Queen’s University Belfast, explained the role of climate, “This emerging parasite is more susceptible to cold than its original close relative, possibly reflecting its presumed origin in East Asia. In the face of rising global temperatures, our findings suggest that it will increase in prevalence and potentially lead to increased honey bee colony losses in Britain.”

The study was funded by the Insect Pollinators Initiative, a joint venture of the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust, managed under the auspices of the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership.

Study finds boys significantly more likely to be stillborn than girls

A large-scale study led by the University of Exeter has found a significantly increased risk of stillbirth in males. Published in the journal BMC Medicine, the study reviewed more than 30 million births globally, and found that the risk of stillbirth is about 10% higher in boys. This increased risk adds up to the loss of around 100,000 additional male babies per year.

The research, supported by a Wellcome Trust grant to study gender inequalities in the health of babies and young children, found that the percentage of increased risk of mortality in males was consistent across both high- and low-income countries. The only exceptions to this global pattern were found in reports from China and India, where sex-biased induced abortion is a known issue. In the UK the data showed equal ratios of stillbirth in males and females and higher overall stillbirth risks than other countries.

Dr Fiona Mathews from the University of Exeter said, “The numbers speak for themselves – the disparity between male and female stillbirth rates is startling. Stillbirth is a common occurrence, even in rich countries with good healthcare systems: every day, eleven babies are stillborn in the UK. Uncovering why male babies are at higher risk could be a first step towards developing new approaches to prevention, including sex-specific management of high-risk pregnancies.”

Although the reasons for increased risk to male babies are not known, they could include developmental differences in the growth and function of the placenta, or increased sensitivity of male foetuses to environmental factors experienced by the mother, including obesity, smoking, advanced maternal age, and social deprivation.

Failure to distinguish between dangerous and safe stimuli could lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

 Neurons in the brain - illustration Credit: Benedict Campbell. Wellcome Images

Neurons in the brain – illustration
Credit: Benedict Campbell. Wellcome Images

New research from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, indicates that misfiring of neurons in the brain are responsible for the inability to tell dangerous and safe stimuli apart, a possible cause of the generalised feeling of fear experienced in those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In this experiment, scientists played rats two different sounds, one which was paired with mild electric shock, and one which was not. The rats quickly learned to discriminate between the two by showing a bigger fear response only to the dangerous but not the safe tone. As the animals learned, the researchers recorded electrical signals from individual neurons in the amygdala.

Dr Chattarji, lead scientist and International Senior Research Fellow, said: “Remarkably, this study finds that the same neuron that was initially capable of discriminating safe from dangerous lost its ability to do so when the animal exhibits generalised fear.”

In other news…

11 major projects focussing on science learning outside of the classroom launched internationally this week, supported by a venture between the Wellcome Trust and international collaborators called Science Learning+ .

The University of Sussex has announced it will be using its grant of £600,000 from the Wellcome Trust’s Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) to aid the discovery and development of new drugs that treat cancer and neurological diseases.

A project between the University of Oxford and the Indian Institute for Science has been launched to work on affordable prosthetics in India. The project is funded by a grant from the Wellcome Trust’s Affordable Healthcare in India scheme.

There has been lots of research published by members of the Wellcome Trust community in the past fortnight – here are just a few papers you might be interested in:

Our colleagues at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute published a paper on the genetic diversity of Sub-Saharan Africa

Jason Signolet and Brian Hendric from the Wellcome Trust – Medical Research Council Cambridge Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, published a paper on the role chromatin-modifying proteins play in animal development

The Wellcome Trust Seeding Drug Discovery Initiative provided funding for reasearchers working on treating allergic asthma by targeting the cause

1 in 10 British men have paid for sex was one of the findings from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Research on the prevalence of paying for sex by men living in Britain was published in BMJ Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Parasites use ‘Trojan Horse’ tactics to invade the body according to research from the University of Edinburgh, published in Nature Communications.

 

 

 

 

Image of the week: King Richard III

5 Dec, 2014

Richard IIIThis week’s image is of one of the oldest surviving portraits of King Richard III. It’s also the most accurate. How do we know? Because, after almost two years of cloak-and-dagger secrecy, a research team from the University of Leicester have published their work on the identification of the skeleton discovered in a car park in 2012. It’s definitely him, by the way. Based on all the available evidence – DNA, carbon dating, evidence of scoliosis – the team are able to identify him with 99.999 – 99.99999% certainty.

Back in February, we announced that we would be supporting the team, via a Research Resources grant, as they embarked on sequencing Richard’s entire genome. Part of this has involved isolating the markers used to identify hair and eye colour, finding that he almost certainly had blue eyes, and would probably have been blond haired as a child. Though his hair would have darkened with age, this is a far cry from the many paintings and actors that have portrayed him with pitch black locks: a Shakespearian villain.

This raises interesting questions about the versions of history painted by the victorious, and the use of darkness and light. It’s probably worth mentioning that Shakespeare was writing over 100 years after Richard’s death, under a Tudor monarch, and so would have been well-versed in anti-Richard sentiment.

There are no existing portraits of Richard from the time he was alive. This one, hanging in the Society of Antiquaries in London, is probably the earliest version of a lost prototype made during his lifetime. With its blue eyes and mid-brown hair, we can now say that it’s the closest likeness.

The work on sequencing Richard’s genome continues, and once complete will be made accessible to all, creating a resource for scientists, historians and the public alike. Adding this to all the existing material about him, we’ll be learning more about this former king of England for many years to come.

Image: Richard III (arched-topped portrait), artist or workshop unknown, probably English, c. 1510-1540, oil on oak panel (h. 400 x w. 280mm). Bequeathed by Rev. Thomas Kerrich, FSA (1748-1828). [LDSAL321] © Society of Antiquaries of London

Global Health Histories Explores Antimicrobial Resistance and 20th Century Medicine

3 Dec, 2014

B0006626 MRSA

Earlier this year a report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that resistance to common antimicrobial drugs has reached alarming levels, with fewer and fewer effective treatment options for fighting infections. In light of this, a special Global Health Histories seminar is taking place in Geneva this morning, to trace the history of antimicrobial resistance and 20th century medicine. Dr Alexander Medcalf, Outreach Historian at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories, explains why looking back can help us move forward… 

Antimicrobial resistance is a complex challenge and a major global problem. It brings a science fiction-style question ‘what happens when our super medicines cease to be effective?’ into sharp reality. Several factors are driving drug resistance, including the use of poor quality antimicrobials, or patients not completing the full course of antibiotics as prescribed. Antimicrobial resistance has the potential to plunge large parts of the world into a ‘pre-antibiotic’ era, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases and turning standard medical treatments into perilous procedures.

Although sometimes perceived as a recent and imminent threat, antimicrobial resistance has a 70-year history to be told. This Global Health Histories seminar will explore a number of historical situations in which the current challenges relating to antibiotic resistance were shaped, as well bringing perspectives on the ongoing work to counter resistance.

Part of the seminar will look to discuss the historical context of overuse of antibiotics, with Professor Christoph Gradmann from the University of Oslo, exploring the marketing of antibiotics in the 1950s. This will help shed light on the way medicines that were initially intended to cure life-threatening conditions became a popular prescription in general practice.

He will also look at the how hospital hygiene affected the potential for hospitals to be at the vanguard of therapeutic progress but instead became centres of disease spread and evolution. Drug development will also feature in the discussion, with special emphasis on the way the pharmaceutical industry faced the challenge of early resistance to antibiotics such as penicillin. Prof Gradmann will also look at the historical approach to antibiotic dystopias – the notion of the ‘end of antibiotics’.

Wellcome Trust director, Dr Jeremy Farrar joins the panel to share his expertise in infectious diseases and his experiences of seeing the effect of drug resistance during his time working in Vietnam. He has warned that antimicrobial resistance is reaching a tipping point and the how the serious effects of it will creep into UK almost without notice.

The expert panel will also include Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, who has spearheaded the drive bring attention to the issue of antimicrobial resistance – making the sobering warning that ‘the world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures’ back in 2011. She is joined by her colleague Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of Health Systems and Innovation at the WHO.

The seminar is part of the wider Global Health Histories project, supported by the Wellcome Trust, which is in its tenth year. Its mission is based on the principle that understanding the history of health, especially from the last 60 years, helps the global public health community to respond to the challenges of today. It is hoped that this context and understanding will help shape a healthier future for everyone, especially those most in need. Unravelling the often-complex history of antimicrobial resistance could provide useful insights to help us combat drug resistance.

You can register to listen to the online broadcast, which begins at 11am today (12pm CET) and  follow the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #GHHistories. Find out more about the Wellcome Trust-funded Global Health Histories project in this post on our blog. The Global Health Histories project is a collaboration between the Centre for Global Health Histories at the University of York and the WHO Knowledge, Ethics and Research Department.

Image credit: MRSA – Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

Researcher Spotlight: Prof Nigel Allinson

1 Dec, 2014

P1020299Professor Nigel Allinson is an expert in image engineering at the University of Lincoln. His work, funded by a Wellcome Trust translational grant, aims to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of proton therapy, to help target hard to treat tumours. We asked him about the potential of proton therapy to improve the outcomes for cancer patients…

What are you working on?

I’m working on developing a new imaging instrument that will make the treatment of cancer using high-energy beams of protons more accurate. This will allow us to target more difficult-to-treat tumours than before.

Proton therapy can deliver very high doses of radiation into very small volumes, this means less exposure to healthy tissue in front of the tumour and no exposure after the tumour.

If you are diagnosed with cancer then you will have an x-ray CT scan to see your internal anatomy and enable treatment planning. X-ray CT uses low-energy x-rays, but there is no easy way to relate distances for these x-rays, to the distances very high-energy protons need to travel in the body to destroy the tumour’s DNA and kill the cancer cells. In a way, it’s like we have been using two different rulers.

There can be a significant error, with the possibility of damaging healthy tissue rather than cancerous cells, so some tumours cannot be treated. If we use protons to produce the CT image then we are using the same ruler and can reduce the margin of error to down to about 2mm. That is what we’re aiming for, and if we manage this, it will be a world-first.

proton therapyI’ve built quite a few complex imaging systems, but this is the most challenging. It is more complicated than the cameras on the Rosetta spacecraft that flew to the comet, and uses enough silicon to make over 22,000 iPhone cameras. I love the challenge and enjoy working with a great team of physicists and engineers.

What does your average day involve?

P1010800I’m very closely involved with the project – having over 30 years experience in electronic engineering. I talk with other people working on the project most days. As we are spread out across the UK and in Germany as well, Skype is wonderful for keeping in touch. In Lincoln we are designing all the mechanics of the machine. That might seem like the easy bit, but the accuracy needed is very high, and the various parts create a lot of heat. We need to find a way to get rid of the excess heat, which is about the equivalent of having a one bar electric fire in a small box – not ideal!

Why is your work important?

There have been a lot of claims about the potential benefits of proton therapy and we hope that our work will permit proton therapy to reach its full potential. If we get this right it will open up other ways to treat cancer. Once we have completed this project, then the instrument will be used to examine high-energy beams of alpha particles, which could even more revolutionary.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

More people will have “difficult” cancers successively treated, with shorter treatment sessions and reduced side-effects.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

P1010790I have always worked in producing complicated imaging systems, mostly for scientific applications. About nine years ago, I got to lead a UK consortium on using Active Pixel Sensors for science, healthcare and security. APS are the type of imager used in all smartphones and most digital cameras. After that, I obtained a follow-on grant that focused on making very large imagers for medical applications. We made the biggest radiation-hardened silicon imager ever. Through a spin-out company, these devices and their offspring are being used commercially. Looking for another application in the same general area led us to our current work. We applied to EPSRC but they turned down our proposal – I think because they thought that they had funded me quite enough. Hence, as I never give up easily, we came to Wellcome. The rest as they say is history.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

Simply, we are doing the project we wanted to do. The team we pulled together – not just the academics, but the two companies we work with, are fantastic. In terms of career advancement, it’s the young post-docs who are the ones who will hopefully benefit the most.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“When will it used in a hospital?”

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“My mother/father has cancer, will your invention help…?”

Why I dread this type of question – first, I’m an engineer, so I really unable to comment on the clinical side. Secondly, our immediate project is really research and we will only demonstrate feasibility, take lots of measurements on accurate models made from Perspex (maybe a lump of dead meat). Then it needs heavy investment from industry, followed by the time-consuming and expensive process of getting it accepted by all the regulatory bodies.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I helped to start five companies based on research in my group – some companies sold, some collapsed and some still growing. Oh, and there’s my interest in medieval church architecture.

What keeps you awake at night?

In reality, I sleep very well, if for less than the recommended number of hours. Currently, what keeps me awake are Tawny Owls – the young birds have the spookiest of calls.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The “official” answer is that as a Yorkshireman, I don’t take advice! Seriously, “Always work with best people who will work with you”.

Our chain reaction question, set by the previous spotlit researcher Dr Lucy Blake, is this “If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?”

The pain of filling in all those endless forms to claim expenses.

You can find out more about Professor Allinson’s work on his company website or by reading his papers on Robust Wireless Transmission of Compressed Latent Fingerprint Images and New TCP-friendly, rate-based transport protocol for media streaming applications. For more information about the Wellcome Trust’s work in translational research see our website.

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