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Image of the Week: Ebola vaccine trial

19 Sep, 2014

Ebola vaccine

This week’s image of the week is shows Dr Felicity Hartnell administering the first dose of a trial Ebola vaccine to volunteer Ruth Atkins.

Ms Atkins, who has previously worked as a nurse in the NHS, said: “I volunteered because the situation in West Africa is so tragic and I thought being part of this vaccination process was something small I could do to hopefully make a huge impact”. She first heard the call for volunteers when listening to Professor Adrian Hill, who is leading the research at the University of Oxford, on the radio.

“I did not realise until today how many people behind the scenes have worked extra and unsociable hours to get this to trial so quickly. The team has been so helpful and supportive, coming in for early morning appointments to allow me to take part before I go to work” she said.

The Wellcome Trust co-funded this rapid response vaccine safety trial with the Medical Research Council and Depart for International Development. The candidate Ebola vaccine has been co-developed by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to protect against the Zaire species of Ebola, which is the one circulating in West Africa.

With current WHO figures putting the death toll from the current Ebola outbreak at almost 2500 (as of September 13th) it is vital that action is taken to contain the disease.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s fast-tracked funding for Ebola research on our website.

Image credit: Wellcome Trust

Sustaining Health: Linking environment, nutrition and health

18 Sep, 2014

The Wellcome Trust is increasingly aware of the links between environment, nutrition and health. To help examine the role of science and technology on climate and health, and discuss potential levers for change, the Wellcome Trust is co-hosting an event to coincide with the UN Climate Summit in New York. Saskia Heijnen of the Trust’s Sustaining Health team explains why this is important…

N0024246 Bangladeshi women. Harvesting crops.

Health has not traditionally been the first thing that comes to mind when the topic of climate change is raised, but connections are now being made. For example, the latest IPCC report, which provides a synthesis of the scientific and technical evidence of climate change, now places a greater focus on potential health impacts. This is important because health can be impacted in a variety of ways. Examples include extreme weather events such as heat waves and flooding, the spread of climate-sensitive vector-borne diseases, and of course climatic impact on water supply and agricultural production.

Shifting weather patterns and water scarcity are already an issue in many parts of the world as discussed at World Water Week earlier this month. And research has shown that increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere can decrease the nutritional content of our major food crops. With a growing population in a changing world, we need to investigate ways of addressing these issues if we want to safeguard human health for generations to come.

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The good news is that momentum is building – the first ever WHO Conference on Health and Climate took place at the end of August, and next week there is a UN Climate Summit that coincides with New York Climate Week and has health on its agenda – but there is still more to be done.

The buzzwords in the field are “nexus” – a series of connections, frequently used in the context of relationships between water, energy and food – and “resilience”, adapting to better prepare for the heat, weather extremes, food insecurity and spread of infectious diseases. We, and others, believe that more connections need to be made between sectors and organisations to identify levers for change, and we hope that our Sustaining Health initiative will help in this.

The Wellcome Trust’s Sustaining Health initiative will continue to fund research to develop and promote climate-smart strategies and improve surveillance and control of climate sensitive infectious diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue. We also want to help to bring disparate disciplines together to discuss potential solutions and look at the issues holistically.

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 15.05.18On Monday 22nd September, the first day of New York Climate Week, we are co-hosting an event to coincide with the UN Climate Summit. This interactive expert discussion will explore the issues that link environment, nutrition and health with colleagues at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and the think-tank Meteos. We aim to help drive discussions on the future of climate and health and explore how collaborations can make a real impact.

We will be there to listen and we’ll be using the outcome of the discussion to help shape the Wellcome Trust’s approach to Sustaining Health. It’s an area that can’t be ignored.

The Wellcome Trust’s Sustaining Health: Linking Environment, Nutrition and Health is taking place at 2:30pm-6:00pm in New York (7:30pm-11:00pm BST). We will be live tweeting from the event from the @WellcomeLive account using the hashtag #SustHealth. Please do get involved with the discussion online using the hashtag, or by sharing your thoughts below. You can find out more about our Sustaining Health initiative on our website.

Image credits:  N. Durrell McKenna, Wellcome Images, United Nations Photo CC-BY-NC-ND on Flickr, Climate Week NYC

Pick of the science pics at the London Film Festival 2014

17 Sep, 2014

Audiences with an appetite for films inspired by science will have their thirst well and truly quenched by this year’s BFI London Film Festival which opens on 8th October with the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game. We are delighted that three Wellcome Trust-supported films are part of the festival, which sees thirty films in the programme that explore the wider cultural, social and personal contexts of science. Subjects include autism, transgender bodies, ageing, disability, mental health and more. With so much to choose from, we asked Meroë Candy, Film and Drama Development Manager at the Trust, to give us some recommendations of what to watch out for…

Bjork: Biophilia Live

The culmination of Bjork’s science and art odyssey, Biophilia Live is an indescribable experience. On one level it is a film of her final performance of the Biophilia tour at London’s Alexandra Palace, on another it is a grand, experimental art piece which intertwines found and archive scientific footage with live music to re-connect its audience with our place in the natural world.

In a masterful piece of understatement, co-director, Nick Fenton says “Let’s not get too excited. It is only a concert film with some volcanoes and a few viruses; thunder and lightning; plankton and planets. Not forgetting Björk, the jellyfish, David Attenborough and the beautiful sounds of the choir Nobili.”

Bjork worked with Peter Strickland and Nick Fenton to encapsulate the soul of the Biophilia project on screen who consulted with Dr Adam Rutherford and Wellcome Images in the sourcing of imagery. Peter Strickland has another ‘science-inspired’ film in the festival The Duke of Burgundy about the sexual power dynamic between two lepidopterists.

Biophilia Live is the Sonic Gala premiere film and will screen on October 9th and 10th, 2014.

Electricity

Image credit: Paul Stephenson

Image credit: Paul Stephenson

Agyness Deyn plays Lily, a young woman who experiences regular epileptic seizures, in the film Electricity, written by Joe Fisher and directed by Bryn Higgins.

Lily embarks on a search to find her estranged brother – a journey which pushes her to her limits physically and emotionally. Festival programmer Kate Taylor says “Visualising Lily’s physical experience in ambitiously cinematic ways, Electricity speaks of the experience of living a constantly medicated life, and how far people go to gain or lose control.”

Both lead actor and director worked with Dr Gonzalo Alarcon to ensure the film portrays a unique and authentic experience of living with epilepsy.

Electricity will screen on October 14th and 18th, 2014 and will be released by Soda Pictures on 5th December.

Abandoned Goods

Abandoned goods 'a camping hospital', AaH, p40

Short essay film Abandoned Goods, directed by Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson and produced by Fly Film, documents the artworks created by people detained in Netherne psychiatric hospital between 1946 and 1981. Today around 5,500 pieces survive, assembled together as the Adamson Collection, one of the major bodies of British ‘asylum art’ – examples of which are held in the Wellcome Library. The film has already been awarded the Golden Pardino for the Best International Short Film at Locarno Film Festival.

Abandoned Goods will be screened on October 13th. 

Other films to look out for at the festival include The Falling, which is inspired by historical accounts of collective hysteria; The Tribe, a Ukrainian film about a boarding school for deaf young people which contains no spoken language, only sign language; X + Y, the story of a maths genius with autism; and The Possibilities are Endless, about pop star Edwyn Collins’s recovery from stroke.

Tickets for these films, and other London Film Festival screenings, go on sale to the public on the 18th September. You can find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s work to support film and drama here.

Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 15/09/14

15 Sep, 2014

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

Risk of Ebola emergence mapped

A new map identifies areas where animals are likely to be infected with the Ebola virus. The map is a first step towards understanding where future outbreaks of the disease may occur.

The map, based on a model created by Oxford University scientists, predicts that in animal populations, the Ebola virus is likely to be circulating across a vast swathe of forested Central and West Africa. This area covers seven countries which have already reported Ebola transmission from animals to humans, as well as 15 more countries which are likely to be at risk.

A report of the research, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, is published in the open access journal eLife.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 13.58.12

So far there have been only 30 confirmed cases of Ebola transmission from animals to humans – the virus is difficult to catch from animals and most instances of transmission are thought to arise from close contact through hunting or butchering infected animals. However, current international efforts to control outbreaks of Ebola in humans in West Africa, and reports of a separate outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, highlight the importance of being prepared for future outbreaks of the disease so that they can be stopped early.

Whilst rare as a human disease, Ebola virus is thought to be present in many animal populations, especially bats, which can carry the virus without it being lethal to them.

The team generated the model by bringing together available data on where human and animal infections have occurred from 1976 to the present and looking for similarities in environmental factors such as vegetation, elevation, temperature, and estimated distribution of bat populations. The researchers were then able to create a map identifying similar areas where the virus is likely to be carried by animals and there is a risk of transmission to humans triggering future outbreaks.

Binge drinking in pregnancy may affect children’s mental health and school results

Binge drinking during pregnancy may increase the risk of mental health problems in 11 year old children and can have a negative effect on their school examination results, according to research published in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Increased risk of mental illness, particularly hyperactivity and inattention, was found by researchers even after a number of other lifestyle and social factors were taken into account. The findings build on earlier research on the same children that found a link between mothers binge drinking during pregnancy and the child’s mental health when aged four and seven, suggesting that problems can persist as a child gets older. Other effects, such as on academic performance, may only become apparent later in a child’s life.

C0014971 Glass of beerBinge drinking was defined as drinking four or more units of alcohol in a day on at least one occasion during the pregnancy. The women were asked about their drinking pattern at both 18 and 32 weeks of pregnancy and again when their child was aged five.

At age 11, parents and teachers completed questionnaires about the children’s mental health. Information about academic performance was based on the results of the Key Stage 2 examinations taken in the final year at primary school.

Speaking about the findings, the report’s main author, Professor Kapil Sayal from the University of Nottingham, said: “Women who are pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant should be aware of the possible risks associated with episodes of heavier drinking during pregnancy, even if this only occurs on an occasional basis.

“The consumption of four or more drinks in a day may increase the risk for hyperactivity and inattention problems and lower academic attainment even if daily average levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy are low.”

The research was conducted using data from more than 4,000 participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents at Children (ALSPAC), which is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC.

Scientists reset human stem cells to earliest developmental state 

Scientists have successfully ‘reset’ human pluripotent stem cells to the earliest developmental state – equivalent to cells found in an embryo before it implants in the womb (7-9 days old). These ‘pristine’ stem cells may mark the true starting point for human development, but have until now been impossible to replicate in the lab.

B0006251 Human embryonic stem cellsThe discovery, published in Cell, will lead to a better understanding of human development and could in future allow the production of safe and more reproducible starting materials for a wide range of applications including cell therapies.

Human pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to become any of the cells and tissues in the body, can be made in the lab either from cells extracted from a very early stage embryo or from adult cells that have been induced into a pluripotent state.

However, scientists have struggled to generate human pluripotent stem cells that are truly pristine (or naïve). Instead, researchers have only been able to derive cells which have advanced slightly further down the developmental pathway. These bear some of the early hallmarks of differentiation into distinct cell types – they’re not a truly ‘blank slate’. This may explain why existing human pluripotent stem cell lines often exhibit a bias towards producing certain tissue types in the laboratory.

Now researchers led by the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council (MRC) Cambridge Stem Cell Institute at the University of Cambridge, have managed to induce a ground state by rewiring the genetic circuitry in human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells. Their ‘reset cells’ share many of the characteristics of authentic naïve embryonic stem cells isolated from mice, suggesting that they represent the earliest stage of development.

“Capturing embryonic stem cells is like stopping the developmental clock at the precise moment before they begin to turn into distinct cells and tissues,” explains MRC Professor Austin Smith, co-author of the paper. “Scientists have perfected a reliable way of doing this with mouse cells, but human cells have proved more difficult to arrest and show subtle differences between the individual cells. It’s as if the developmental clock has not stopped at the same time and some cells are a few minutes ahead of others.”

In other news…

Dr Dan O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities at the Wellcome Trust, is speaking at the WHO in Geneva on Thursday this week on the topic of ‘Social Media and Research: Opportunities and Ethical Challenges’. The event is being broadcast over the internet via a webinar.

Congratulations to Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, Co-Director of the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science and Director of the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit, University of Cambridge, who was awarded the Zulch prize last week.

Image credits: Ebola map – Oxford University, Glass of beer – Wellcome Library, London, Stem cells – Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

Image of the Week: DNA Fingerprinting

12 Sep, 2014

B0005956 The first DNA fingerprint

This week’s image of the week is one for all the detectives out there. It’s an image of the first ever DNA fingerprint, produced almost exactly 30 years ago, by Professor Sir Alex Jeffreys at the University of Leicester.

“My life changed on Monday morning at 9.05am, 10th September 1984. What emerged was the world’s first genetic fingerprint,” he says.

The image was processed in the university’s darkroom – “I took one look, thought ‘what a complicated mess’, then suddenly realised we had patterns,” says Jeffreys. “There was a level of individual specificity that was light years beyond anything that had been seen before”.

‘Eureka’ moments are few and far between in science (despite what Hollywood might have you believe), but this really was the beginning of a whole new field of science. “We could immediately see the potential for forensic investigations and paternity,” says Jeffreys, “my wife pointed out that very evening that it could be used to resolve immigration disputes by clarifying family relationships”.

During the following year, the first immigration case and the first paternity case had been solved using DNA fingerprinting, and the first identification of identical twins using the technique had also taken place. The first criminal investigation to include DNA fingerprinting evidence took place in 1986.

The techniques used for DNA profiling have been updated and optimised since this first image was developed in the darkroom 30 years ago. From helping solve crimes; determining people’s innocence and proving family relationships, DNA fingerprinting is now firmly a part of the forensics tool-kit.

Image Credit: Alec Jeffreys, Wellcome Images

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.

 

Unknown unknowns: Is there a selection bias against null results?

11 Sep, 2014

neg image

As a large funder of biomedical research, the Wellcome Trust is keen to ensure that the findings of that research are widely and openly shared. There is a body of evidence that indicates a bias against writing up and publishing certain types of result. Jonathon Kram and Adam Dinsmore, from the Wellcome Trust evaluation team, discuss why this could create a barrier to scientific progress…

There is a lot of pressure on academic researchers. Rightly or wrongly, it is widely held that researchers must publish prodigiously and secure funding consistently to advance their careers and that their research outputs must achieve high ‘impact’ to be of value.

An unintended consequence of this ‘impact culture’ may be a publication bias against research findings whose implications are not immediately obvious, or which may be deemed less novel, interesting, or eye-catching. Some research suggests that this bias may extend to research that yields negative and/or null findings.

There are a few definitions of ‘negative finding’ currently in use, but the idea of significance is central to the concept. A negative result fails to reject the null hypothesis –the proposition that no significant effect is present – within the bounds of an experiment and to a level of statistical rigour. This can occur when a treatment is found to have no greater efficacy than placebo, or when no difference is found between two distinct groups of people (e.g. conservatives and liberals) on some variable of interest.

That said, the term is also used to refer to findings of slightly different but related kinds, including:

  • No correlation found

    No correlation found

    Incremental improvements: Minor refinements to previously reported hypotheses (e.g. where a previous result can only be replicated in certain conditions).

  • Refutations: Results that defy expectation, whether that’s the previous scientific consensus or a researcher’s original intent.

A bias against sharing statistically insignificant results (alongside incremental refinements and refutations) could have detrimental effects to the progression of science and our knowledge. Researchers could waste time pursuing hypotheses which have already been disconfirmed. Clinicians could make treatment decisions based on incomplete evidence. The time and energy of human participants could be wasted in research studies which were never subsequently reported.

Worryingly, there is some evidence that this is already happening.

Hopewell et al (2007) found that research papers which reported statistically significant results were approximately four times as likely to be published as their negative counterparts. The work of Daniele Fanelli (2012) suggests that the proportion of papers publishing negative findings may be decreasing over time; in 2007 just 14% of papers indexed by ISI which declared to have tested a hypothesis reported a negative finding, down from 30% in 1990. Recently Franco et al (2014) found that negative findings are less likely to be written up for publication than more positive results.

Several attempts have been made to encourage the publication of negative findings. BioMed Central’s Journal for Negative Results in BioMedicine has published articles which either report negative findings or discuss their place in science since 2002, while Open Access publishers PLOS One and PeerJ encourage the submission of any scientific results including negative findings.

Away from conventional publication the online datahub FigShare actively encourages the upload of datasets containing null and negative findings, without requiring that the researchers responsible for them prepare a full manuscript for submission.

Credit: Wellcome Library

Credit: Wellcome Library

As a research funder, we are keen that all research findings be accessible and presented to the world; including those that describe a breakthrough, disprove a theory or demonstrate a null result. Everyone in research has an opinion of what makes “good science”, from the researchers through to the readers of a paper. Researchers, journal editors and peer-reviewers all make value judgments about what’s worth telling the rest of the world about. However, if there are processes in play that inadvertently (or advertently) discriminate against the availability of a certain type of result and its data, we risk needless repetition of research and, potentially worse, proliferation of apparent knowledge that may be wrong.

Through the open access movement and the potential of digital technologies, we have the opportunity to enable accessibility to all the findings of research and reduce research waste. If the studies cited above accurately reflect a bias against negative findings in the biomedical literature, then it is the duty of all stakeholders in the delivery of science and knowledge to engage with the issue and explore ways of correcting it.

There is no benchmark to measure the progress of science against but there are hints that there may be a lot of wasted effort caused by our attitude towards negative findings and their unloved siblings. It is only by building a stronger evidence base around negative findings, and exploring the factors that influence publication bias, that we can explore the severity of the problem and make steps towards improving the health of science.

The Wellcome Trust policy position on research involving human participants states that negative results and full disclosure are expected. We are committed to maximising the availability of and value of research data.

How to return to a research career after a break from the lab

10 Sep, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 12.03.31

The Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-Entry Fellowships (RCREF) support people who want to return to science following a substantial break (2 years or more). Getting back to a career in research is not just a matter of funding, and it may be hard to know where to start. With this in mind, the Trust has created a guide for people thinking of taking a break from research, or planning to return to a research career in biomedical/public health. Shewly Choudhury, from our Science Division helped put the guide together with a group of the current and former RCRE Fellows, and speaks to two members of the this group who contributed their experiences to this high-level guide…

“I took a 10-year break from research for family reasons, during which time I combined childcare with science-writing work” explains Jessica Buxton, a former RCRE Fellow now at UCL. She returned to full-time research in 2009, but not without some trepidation.

Christiaan van OoijFor Christiaan van Ooij, leaving bench science behind originally felt like a permanent step. “As time went by, I missed it more and more” he says, “but thought that I was not eligible (or hopelessly uncompetitive without an active research programme) for any Fellowship that would support a continuation in science”. Christiaan returned to full-time research in 2011.

These are common concerns, but taking a career break needn’t be the end of your research career. There are a number of funding schemes out there, including the Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-entry Fellowship, which can support a return to science and we hope that our new guide will be help to answer some of the questions you might have. The guide also describes some of the different Fellowships that support a return to research after a break of several years as well tips that may help you to produce a more competitive proposal.

Here are some of Christiaan and Jessica’s tips for getting back into scientific research:

Be prepared

“It’s hard work, but if you were passionate about science before your break, then the chances are that the effort required to get back into a career you love will be well worth the effort” says Jessica. There is a lot of competition for Fellowships, so ensure that you thoroughly prepare for your application and interview.

Get up to date

Find out what’s happening in your field and what’s changed since you left the lab. There is a wealth of resources online, including open access articles, podcasts, and science news services. “Contacting former colleagues or following scientists on Twitter is another good way to hear about important new advances in your field” says Jessica. For Christiaan his non-lab work also helped him keep up his connections: “I was working as an editor at a microbiology, which allowed me to stay on top of the developments in my field and maintain contacts with former colleagues”. “This made it a lot easier to incorporate the latest technologies in my research plan and update it with the latest findings” he says.

Be realistic

Returning to a career in research will take time and energy. “If possible, try and time your return to fit around your other commitments and the support available” advises Jessica. “In my case, returning to full-time research coincided with my husband launching his own business and working from home, so he was able to take over the ‘parent-taxi’ duties”.

Find a good mentor

Having someone to support you and help you navigate your return to research science can be a real help. They can help you plan the steps on your journey and introduce you to people and inspire you to try new things.

Ask for help

It is inevitable that things will have changed in the time that you’ve been away. When you return to the lab, don’t be afraid to ask how a new technique works, or for advice on the best way to tackle your research question. “Most people are very happy to share their expertise” says Jessica.

Plan for the future

Jessica BuxtonOnce you’ve returned to research, the challenge is to stay – for that you’ll need publications, ideas, funding and supportive collaborators. Early on in your post-break career, you should try to identify your long-term research goals, and stay focused on what you need to do to achieve them. Have open conversations about paper authorship at the start of projects.

So was the hardwork worth it? “Once I had overcome the initial terror of donning a lab coat and picking up a pipette for the first time in a decade, the experience of working with enthusiastic students at the start of their careers made me realise how much I missed being a researcher” says Jessica.

“Returning to science has been a wonderful experience” says Christiaan, “Being back in the lab on a daily basis has been a wonderful experience; the time away from it has certainly allowed me to see what a great job it is”.

You can access the “Returners’ guide to research: Getting back into research after a career break” and find out more about the Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-entry Fellowship scheme on the Wellcome Trust website.

 

Researcher Spotlight: Professor Mike Barrett

8 Sep, 2014

Professor Michael BarrettMike Barrett is Professor of Biochemical Parasitology and Director of Glasgow Polyomics and a member of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology at the University of Glasgow. His work involves interpretation of enormous datasets, with a core focus on drug action and resistance in protozoa. We asked Michael to explain his work and share some of the highlights of his career…

What are you working on?

My core research revolves around identifying how protozoa become resistant to drugs and how drugs work.

This work lead to me founding “Glasgow Polyomics”, where we use state of the art technology to collect data on genomes, proteomes and metabolomes. We do this in an informatics-rich environment, enabling us to optimise interpretation of these huge datasets.

Genomics is the best known of these technologies – most people are familiar with the fact we can now systematically generate sequence information on whole genomes relatively easily. Proteomics looks at all of the proteins in a given system and metabolomics quantifies the small chemical building blocks from which everything is built. We really can dissect life down to its constituent pieces. The great strides in reductionist biology are more or less complete.

The challenge, however, has been to understand how these component pieces fit together to create “life”, which is very much more than the interaction of numerous inanimate chemicals. We now apply polyomics at every level of biological research. I am fortunate in having two fantastic teams in parasitology and in polyomics, teams of people with absolute dedication and amazing skills sets.

What does your average day involve?

As I’m split across two campuses, one where my parasitolgy research team works, the other where Glasgow Polyomics resides, I carry my time between sites. Mornings are usually spent strategically planning research at either site, talking to team members about experiments and prioritising timetables. Afternoons then give me the opportunity to write papers, grant proposals or deal with the myriad of queries stemming from our research.

Why is your work important?

Learning how drugs work against protozoa and how parasites become resistant to drugs is necessary given the importance of drugs in our efforts to control the devastating diseases caused by parasitic protozoa.

Trypanosomes in blood

Scanning electron micrograph of trypanosomes in blood, courtesy of Dr Laurence Tetley

Human African trypanosomiasis, sleeping sickness, reached staggering levels by the end of the 20th Century, an with estimated 300,000 people infected.

I was privileged to be involved in bringing a new compound forward through the early part of the 21st Century, and was amazed to see that the implementation of serious clinical trials alone was enough to have a major impact on the disease.

Since then other new compounds have come forward, money has been raised, and a concerted international effort has bought reported cases of sleeping sickness down to fewer than a total of 7,000 reported cases.

As part of our efforts to understand how drugs worked we introduced the new technology of metabolomics to trypanosome research about ten years ago, and have steadily introduced ever more sophisticated techniques to gain information on the inner workings of parasites.

The technology, though, is generic and we quickly began to use metabolimics to look at biological changes associated with drug action in a multitude of systems, as well as to see how biochemistry is perturbed in different disease states. Since genes and proteins are also part of the information cascade that leads to these changes in biochemistry we also incorporated genomics, proteomics and metabolomics into a single site, called “Glasgow Polyomics”.

Michael Barrett with metabolomics data emerging on an Orbitrap Q-Exactive

Over the last three years we have carried out several hundred projects ranging from the discovery of new biomarkers for stroke, and how drugs act in a multitude of diseases (including rheumatoid arthritis, malaria and bacterial sepsis) to investigating the fluctuating state of health of wildebeest by analysis of metabolites found in their tail hairs.

The metabolomics team are using mass spectrometry to study the authenticity of Burns’s poetry and have even been asked to study Martian rocks for isotopes that might indicate life on Mars!

As a Scottish-based facility, showing the public how whisky can be described in terms of its chemical composition – determined using the same machinery we use to look at the chemical composition of people’s body fluids – has been fun too.

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

My immediate hope is that our work on sleeping sickness will make a positive contribution to the international effort underway with a hope of eliminating that disease by 2030. Longer term I hope that in having set up Glasgow Polyomics we can contribute to the amelioration of numerous other diseases.

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

As an undergraduate in Zoology at UCL I went on an expedition to the Usumbara mountains in Tanzania in 1985. The inequalities in health I witnessed there were eye-opening. This was at the beginning of the molecular revolution, and it seemed we should be readily able to understand the causes of disease and also to defeat them. I decided then to carry out a PhD in Parasitology and have continued in this area until now.

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

Wellcome Trust funding has been critical throughout my career. From my first post-doc, my first project grant as an independent investigator, through to today the Trust has been a key funder in my research.

Of course this goes back to Sir Henry Wellcome’s own interest in tropical diseases which has meant the Trust continued to back research in this area even when it had become unfashionable elsewhere. Today, the funding the Trust provides through its Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) award is the cornerstone of our developments at Glasgow Polyomics. The core funding of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology has also been vital on enabling us to apply new technologies such as those in Polyomics to diseases associated with the world’s poorest people.

Whats the most frequently asked question about your work?

“Can you really do that?”

The mass spectrometry based approach to untargeted metabolomics reveals the relative quantities of hundreds or even thousands of individual metabolites in a given system in just a single experiment.

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

“Is 2030 a realistic target for the elimination of sleeping sickness?”

The gains made against trypanosomiasis have been incredible in the twenty first Century. However, the end games for other infectious diseases, like polio and Guinea worm, show how difficult elimination can be. Yet we are already witnessing funding agencies turning their backs on the disease when confronted with choices on where to put their resource.

Trypanosoma brucei metabolic network present at the trypanocyc database

Trypanosoma brucei metabolic network , present at the trypanocyc database

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I climbed Mont Ventoux as the last of a series of high mountains in France by bicycle this summer. (I’ve always loved sport although my contemporary physique offers few clues to this!).

What keeps you awake at night?

Excitement about a new discovery and its meaning can keep me awake with an energised buzz. Worries about deadlines, sustainability targets and the like can keep me awake in a less energised state too.

Whats the best piece of advice youve been given? 

Decide what it is you want to do and pursue that irrespective of what others tell you about its worth.

The chain-reaction question, set by our previous spotlighted researcher Dr Faith Osier, is: What makes you really happy about your work and research?

Finding something new and of obvious impact and then validating the finding. Such discoveries are happening at an accelerated rate in Glasgow Polyomics, and telling our partners that they appear to have a really significant observation in their data is hugely gratifying.

You can find out more about Professor Mike Barrett’s work on his University of Glasgow researcher page and by visiting the Glasgow Polyomics website.

 

Image of the Week: Dissection

5 Sep, 2014

L0057749 Part of a human stomach dissected by Edward Jenner, England,

This week’s image of the week is interesting for a number of reasons. At first glance, it looks like a delicate antique fan that might keep you cool in the heat of summer, but in reality it is something entirely different.

What you’re actually seeing here is a thin section of a human stomach, which has been flattened and injected with wax. This technique was used to show the veins, arteries and delicate membrane of the stomach wall, which wouldn’t be so easily identifiable without wax.

This specimen dates back to between 1790 and 1823, and the other interesting fact is that it was prepared by Edward Jenner, more commonly known for his pioneering work on vaccination.

Thought of by many as ‘the father of immunology’, Jenner’s work helped lead to the eradication of smallpox. He was also known for his delicate dissections, which were an important part of medical education, due to a lack of bodies that could be used to show students the workings of the human body.

The specimen above may have been used as a teaching aid to show the structure of the stomach.

Image credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

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.

Getting passionate about primary science

4 Sep, 2014

One of the key priorities for the Wellcome Trust Education and Learning team is reinvigorating primary school science. We know that early encounters with science and discovery help to shape children’s understanding of the world and develop important skills. A recent Wellcome Trust study showed that some schools were missing out on access to specialist science expertise. Irchester Community Primary School, which was involved in the study, has taken an innovative approach providing a dedicated science space in the school and their very own scientist-in-residence, following the Lab-13 model. Wellcome Trust Primary Science Lead, Louise Stubberfield spoke to staff at Irchester, to find out how about their approach to science…

Scientist in residence

Jennifer Hogan, scientist-in-residence at Irchester Community Primary School

“It is so important that primary science is not a collection of facts to be learned, nor a set of limited predetermined fair-tests that are followed recipe-like to a known result. Real science is not like that!” says Tracy Tyrrell, science lead at Irchester Primary.

“I am passionate about science and it’s my job to make everyone else – the senior leadership team, teachers, children, parents and beyond – as enthused and excited about science as I am.

“Luckily, I have the help of our fabulous scientist-in-residence, Jennifer Hogan, and between us we manage to keep up-to-date with key developments in science and science pedagogy via Association for Science Education events, Twitter, STEMnet, etc. We trawl the internet and continuing professional development (CPD) sessions for innovative and inspiring activities and run staff training, whole-school events, community events and more in order to show everyone that science is remarkable, attention-grabbing, thought-provoking, motivating and fun.”

Primary science one“We are all familiar with little ones asking “Why?”, “What’s that for?” and “What happens if…?” says scientist-in-residence Jennifer Hogan. “Our approach actively encourages and promotes this questioning and innate interest, to drive further investigation and encourage them to think like real scientists.”

“We passionately believe that science is curiosity driven, and children in our lab lead their own learning” she says. Jennifer has been the scientist-in-residence at Irchester for the past three years – after facing her future students on an interview panel.

“One of the unique elements of the Lab_13 model is that it is managed by a committee of eight 9-11 year olds”, she explains. “These children have responsibility for the day-to-day running of the lab and have control over all the decisions associated with that space.

“This allows them to build up their confidence and develop a wide range of skills and one of their first jobs as a committee was writing the job description, and conducting the interviews for the Scientist-in-residence post. Scary!”

The aim is to incorporate as much practical experimentation as possible, allowing the children to really “do” science and use real scientific equipment, giving them ownership of their investigations and allowing them to find out answers to questions for themselves.

Petri girl“Our children lead from what they know and what they want to know, and the science lessons are tailored to their needs, abilities and interests” says Tracy. “They are able ask questions, plan their own investigations and ponder over results – drawing sensible conclusions or raising further questions.

“Spurred on by the success of the lab, curiosity is actively encouraged and celebrated in every class, and children’s questions form the basis of science planning across the school.

“We are not teaching children science, but teaching them how to be scientists” she explains. “It is an approach to learning that questions rather than accepts. It promotes critical and logical thinking with an open mind.

“How else will we create adults capable of furthering our understanding of our world and improving our lives?”

Jennifer says that being a scientist-in-residence is a hugely exciting and rewarding role. “All our investigations begin with a child’s question.

“My role is to guide them towards posing scientific questions and advise on the planning and conducting of investigations in the lab. This leads to wide range of subjects being covered on a day-to-day basis.”

microscope kidBut what do the children make of it? One boy who had been part of the Lab_13 Management Committee sums it up nicely: “The best thing about Lab_13 is now I know that, in science, sometimes “I don’t know” IS the right answer”.

Irchester primary school clearly makes the best use of its science expertise. But since there are few teachers who have specialised science knowledge, not all schools are so lucky.

In a recent Wellcome Trust survey, headteachers told us that the single action that would make a difference is ensuring that teachers can access high quality science CPD, but that action was, sadly, rarely prioritised. It’s vital then that the UK champions primary science as we recommend in our report.

 

You can access the full Wellcome Trust report, The Deployment of Science and Maths Leaders in Primary Schools on our website, where you can also read a summary of our recommendations based upon the findings.

How to Succeed at Open Innovation

3 Sep, 2014

Open innovation

Today we launchShaping the Future of Open Innovation: A practical guide for life sciences organisations”, a new resource created by a collaboration led by the Wellcome Trust, the Centre for the Advancement of Sustainable Medical Innovation (CASMI) and Kinapse. Rosie Pigott from CASMI, a Wellcome Trust seed funded initiative to accelerate the process of medical translation from bench to bedside, shares her top tips on open innovation.

“No single group can solve all the problems in this space. We need to work together in partnership.” Dr Gustavo Stolovitzky, Director, DREAM Project

In this increasingly open, collaborative, problem-solving world, open innovation has rapidly become accepted as standard practice in many areas of life sciences. In creating this report, we explored a selection of open innovation models that have emerged over recent decades and collated the different experiences and lessons-learned from partners, to feed into a practical tool kit that we could share.

Our definition of what ‘open’ means in this context was fairly broad and we examined a wide range of open innovation ‘experiments’ – from academic–industry collaborations to crowdsourcing.

For this project, we defined open innovation as the process of innovating with others for shared risk and reward in order to create new products, processes or ideas that could not otherwise have been achieved alone, or enabling them to be achieved more quickly, cheaply or efficiently.

We interviewed a number of experts from diverse organisations, and it soon became clear that there is no one-size-fits-all model for succeeding at open innovation. Project partners need to be open-minded about one another’s cultures, capabilities and constraints, and must allow sufficient room to tailor a partnership model that takes these factors into account.

A number themes that came out of the discussions and we’ve created a list of the top 15 strategies for establishing a successful open innovation initiative.

Ensure clear definitions
Clearly define the opportunities and potential benefits and risks for partners from the start. It is also important to consider conflicts of interest for each partner. Establish what everyone understands ‘open’ to mean in the context of the project. Partners should ensure that a mutually agreed and clear understanding exists and that this is expressed in writing before proceeding.

Working_Together_Teamwork_Puzzle_ConceptAlign objectives
Ensure that you align all partners’ goals at the outset. Each party must unambiguously agree the objectives of the collaboration in writing, including any specific milestone targets to be achieved during the lifespan of the collaboration and what the ultimate outcomes should be. It may be that the objectives don’t align completely – at this point partners should consider whether a collaboration is really the most appropriate way to achieve their goals.

Be strategic
Don’t be opportunistic about engaging in open innovation. Only commit if it fits with strategic priorities and if the objectives are truly harmonised.

Clearly divide outputs
Think through what the outputs will be and how value will be distributed among partners throughout the project.

Appreciate partner expertise
Make the most of the diversity of experience and expertise within the partnership. Be sure to appreciate areas of knowledge and skill and commit quality resources.

Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Communication is key to maintaining openness and transparency, both internally and externally.

Don’t overlook issues of intellectual property (IP)
Set clear IP ownership policies and strategies establishing who will own any resulting IP rights and agree on what can be made public. Even in the most straightforward model where no IP will be claimed and all results are released to the public domain, the IP policy should be expressly and clearly agreed between the parties at the outset. 

Define commercial benefit
Be clear about what the commercial benefit of the project could be, and how it will be captured and who by.

Create end-of-project guidelines
Be clear about what will happen at the end of the project. How will it wind-down? Who owns what?

Impartial environments
Have a neutral convener if this will facilitate decision-making.

Open minded

Find ‘open’-minded people
Invest in building the right team to manage projects and relationships effectively.

Define responsibilities
Clearly define the roles of each partner and understand that there are expectations for every side to contribute.

Evaluate
A robust review process will help to keep the project on track and define the points where go/no-go decisions need to be made.

Be flexible
Maintain a level of flexibility in budgeting and ways of working and have the ability to evolve.

Work together
Open innovation involves collaboration. Listening to one another and sharing ideas is important. Don’t just try to tell partners what to do!

The boundaries of open innovation are continually progressing. The demand for open access research outputs is also intensifying, and crowdfunding is a growing phenomenon in the life sciences sector. We are moving towards a more open world, which organisations must engage in to survive. As social and economic pressures make the healthcare landscape more demanding for all, open innovation represents a major tool for the creation of a more productive and sustainable ecosystem.

Author Rosie Pigott works at CASMI, you can find out more about their work on their website, and read the full report Shaping the Future of Open Innovation: A practical guide for life sciences organisations.

Image credits: Working together – Lumaxart – CC-BY-SA, Open minded – Thinkpublic on Flickr –  CC-BY-ND

Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 1/9/14

1 Sep, 2014

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

Genes linked to development of glaucoma

N0022146 Testing for GlaucomaA new study funded by the Wellcome Trust and Fight for Sight has identified four new gene locations associated with glaucoma, an eye condition that can lead to blindness and visual impairment. It is hoped the finding could lead to earlier diagnosis and new therapies for treating the condition.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the world. It is caused by damage to the optic nerve, usually due to the eye pressure inside the eye (intraocular pressure) being too high because eye fluid does not drain properly.

In the study published in Nature Genetics, researchers carried out a meta-analysis of more than 35,000 people from seven countries, including subjects of Asian and European descent, with data drawn from the International Glaucoma Genetics Consortium (IGGC).

A site on the ABO gene, which determines blood group, is one of the locations identified, and higher eye pressure appears to be linked to blood group B.

The study also found that a genetic change in the ABCA1 gene is associated with an increased risk of developing both high inner eye pressure and glaucoma. ABCA1 is a major regulator of cellular cholesterol and lipid levels, although further research is required to understand how this mechanism works in the eye.

Early diagnosis of glaucoma is crucial because if it is treated early enough, damage to vision can be prevented. In future it may be possible to provide intensive screening to those identified as being at higher genetic risk.

Professor Chris Hammond from the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, who directed the study, said: “Although eye drops are already available to treat glaucoma, these are not always effective. These findings help us to understand why some people get glaucoma and explain why the condition tends to run in families.”

Male fruit flies’ chemical demand for monogamy

fly sexA new study in The Journal of Cell Biology provides an insight into how male fruit flies

improve their reproductive success by stopping females from mating with other flies.

In addition to sperm, semen carries products that foster sperm survival, promote egg fertilization, and serve other functions that optimise a male’s chances of passing along his genes.

In male fruit flies’, reproductive accessory glands (thought to be equivalent to the prostate gland in humans) secrete signalling chemicals into the seminal fluid that make the recipient females less inclined to mate again with other flies.

But it’s unclear how some of these signalling chemicals are produced and delivered in order to reprogram a female’s behaviour against her own self-interest. Researchers funded by the Wellcome Trust have identified tiny membrane-bound vesicles called exosomes that are secreted into the seminal fluid by the so-called “secondary cells” of male accessory glands.

The authors showed that, after mating, the exosomes fuse with sperm and interact with cells along the female reproductive tract.

When the researchers reduced the number of exosomes produced by secondary cells, the female flies were more inclined to re-mate. This indicates that the exosomes are responsible for the behavioural changes, by interacting with the targeted female cells to overpower normal signalling pathways.

Puberty in girls influenced by one parent more than the other

AS0000131F03 Teenage girlsThe age at which girls reach sexual maturity is influenced by ‘imprinted’ genes, a small sub-set of genes whose activity differs depending on which parent passes on that gene, according to new research published today in the journal Nature.

The findings come from an international study of more than 180,000 women involving scientists from 166 institutions worldwide. The researchers identified 123 genetic variations that were associated with the timing of when girls experienced their first menstrual cycle, by analysing the DNA of 182,416 women of European descent from 57 studies. Six of these variants were found to be clustered within imprinted regions of the genome.

Lead author Dr John Perry, a Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge said, “Normally, our inherited physical characteristics reflect a roughly average combination of our parents’ genomes, but imprinted genes place unequal weight on the influence of either the mother’s or the father’s genes. Our findings imply that in a family, one parent may more profoundly affect puberty timing in their daughters than the other parent.”

The activity of imprinted genes differs depending on which parent the gene is inherited from – some genes are only active when inherited from the mother, others are only active when inherited from the father. Both types of imprinted genes were identified as determining puberty timing in girls, indicating a possible biological conflict between the parents over their child’s rate of development.

Further evidence for the parental imbalance in inheritance patterns was obtained by analysing the association between these imprinted genes and timing of puberty in a study of over 35,000 women in Iceland, for whom detailed information on their family trees were available.

In other news…

Congratulations to Professor Rob Klose who has been awarded the Royal Society Francis Crick Lecture for his research into how chromatin-based, and epigenetic processes, contribute to gene regulation. Professor Klose has been supported throughout his career by the Wellcome Trust, beginning with his PhD studentship.

Another Wellcome Trust-funded PhD student, Dr Jenny Bangham, has won the Marc-Auguste Pictet Prize for her dissertation “Blood groups and the rise of human genetics in mid-twentieth century Britain”. The prize is given out every other year by the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève on a different theme pertaining to the history of science.

Image credits: Testing for Glaucoma – Libby Welch, Wellcome Images, Drosophila melanogaster mating – ImageEditor on Flickr, CC-BY 2.0, Teenage girls – Anthea Sieveking , Wellcome Images

Image of the week: Ebola

29 Aug, 2014

L0076142 Ebola. Sculpture by Luke Jerram, c. 2004

This week’s image is of a sculpture of the Ebola virus, created by artist Luke Jerram.

It is an unusual, and artistic, take on Ebola. With the virus continuing to spread in West Africa and the responses from the global health community regularly in the news, we’ve found that journalists and health writers have been requesting images of the virus, but they are not easy to come by.

Made entirely of glass, Luke’s sculpture is approximately one million times larger than the virus itself, and is part of a series of similar glass-works called Glass Microbiology.

All the pieces in this series are transparent and colourless, in deliberate contrast to artificially coloured scientific images. Being smaller than the wavelength of light, viruses in fact have no colour. To create the series, Luke worked in consultation with virologists from the University of Bristol, and photographs of his work have been used in medical journals, media stories, and one has even appeared on the front cover of Nature.

Not only is this a precise visual representation of Ebola, its jewel-like finish carries great beauty. This complex tension between the beauty of an object and what it represents lies at the heart of Luke’s sculptures, which have been created as a means of contemplating the global impact of disease.

This particular artwork was commissioned by a museum in Holland last year, but will be on display in the redeveloped Reading Room at Wellcome Collection in 2015.

Image Credit: Luke Jerram

A summer of science journalism with the Wellcome Trust-New Statesman scholarship

28 Aug, 2014

 Earlier this year the Wellcome Trust and New Statesman announced a joint programme offering paid internships to aspiring science writers from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. The recipients of the first two scholarships spent eight weeks working at New Statesman. Ajit Niranjan, tells us about the experience…

collage

This summer I worked as a science writer for the New Statesman, a weekly British magazine that is famous for its progressive take on politics, arts and current affairs. I had a Wellcome Trust scholarship that enabled me to complete an internship programme for aspiring science writers at the magazine.

In an attempt to combat the lack of diversity in science journalism, the placement is only open to students and graduates from ethnic minorities. I know this doesn’t sit well with many people – I certainly wrestled with the idea of accepting any form of positive discrimination – but if you’re an eligible candidate I’d strongly urge you to apply. Schemes like this are essential to levelling the playing field.

I joined the online team at the start of June and was thrown straight into the deep end, writing four articles in my first week and conducting phone interviews with researchers in the UK and abroad. Essentially, I was given the same level of independence as the rest of the staff. My day-to-day role was finding interesting developments from press releases or the news, find a ‘science-y’ angle (there usually is one) and write a blog post that a school child would be able to understand.

It’s a simple formula that works pretty well. Every article was edited before going up online and so I got feedback on my writing on a daily basis.

During the two-month placement I learned a great deal – not just about writing and journalism, but also about areas of science I’d never studied before. The scope is huge. Topics that fell under my remit as a science writer ranged from opinion pieces on drugs policy to reporting on the latest gadgets in the tech world – which even saw me trying Google Glass when it first launched in the UK.

googleglass AjitAlongside the regular short blog posts, I did a couple of longer pieces including a 3000-word essay on China’s growing environmental issues. Having the New Statesman’s name behind me meant I could confidently approach important figures for interviews, including CEOs of tech companies and even my local MP (and scientist) Julian Huppert.

Outside of the regular writing, New Statesman kept me busy. I attended all the editorial meetings, spoke on the weekly podcast about science and technology, and joined the political editor on a trip to Westminster for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Best of all, I was allowed to pitch ideas for publication in the printed magazine’s Observations section. The work was always varied and the perks – including free tickets to New Statesman events including a Laurie Penny/Mary Beard debate and the incredible Latitude festival – just added to the excitement of working in London.

The staff at New Statesman invested time in training the interns up. Helen Lewis, the deputy editor, set us a challenge popular in journalism schools, to give us some reporting practice – to take the Tube out to a nearby station and cover a local story on the ground in a single afternoon. A daunting task, but well worth it for the feedback we received.

Mainstream media, more so than any other profession, really suffers from its artificially homogeneous make-up and ethnicity is just one area that is disproportionately represented in what is overwhelmingly an old boys’ club. The Wellcome Trust Scholarship provides an imperfect solution to a very serious problem of a lack of diversity in journalism. It’s a tricky issue for a number of reasons but I strongly recommend checking out this piece by ex-New Statesman writer Rafael Behr for a bit of background.

There’s a lot you can get out of the placement if you choose to apply, and the application process itself is pretty straightforward – simply write an 800-word blog post on a recent scientific development. My advice is to choose a topic you’re genuinely interested in.

Working at the New Statesman this summer was hugely educational and I’m now very set on pursuing a career in journalism. If you’re thinking of applying in future I’d be happy to answer your questions on Twitter.

You can read Ajit’s articles on the New Statesman website and follow him on Twitter as @NiranjanAjit. The Wellcome Trust is committed to supporting a new generation of science journalists – find our more in this blog post.

Researcher Spotlight: Dr Faith Osier

26 Aug, 2014

Faith OsierDr Faith Hope Among’in Osier is a Clinical Research Fellow and Group leader at the KEMRI-Wellcome Research Institute in Kenya. She holds a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Fellowship in Public Health and Tropical Medicine and was recently awarded the Royal Society Pfizer Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for African science. Here, Dr Osier shares her passion for research on the mechanisms of developing immunity to malaria, especially in children…

What are you working on?

I try to understand how adults in Africa learn to live in harmony with the parasite responsible for malaria, such that infections do not make them ill. This knowledge could help us design vaccines that would protect children, who can die as a result of a malaria infection.

What does your average day involve?

My average day has evolved over the years as I have graduated from being a junior to a more senior researcher. Earlier on, I’d spend a lot of time in the laboratory generating data and less time in the office – reading scientific literature, analysing data and writing up my work.

More recently, I spend most of my time in the office, still reading, analysing data and writing research grants and papers. Importantly I meet with my students and research assistants to discuss their work. I also spend at least one to two hours each day on administrative issues and/or academic meetings within my department.

Why is your work important?

Malaria still claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of children each year and has a major economic impact on the lives of many in sub-Saharan Africa. Children that survive severe malaria can be left with permanent physical disability that takes many forms. It’s really important that we find ways to control and eventually eliminate malaria for the health and economic empowerment of Africa.

Osier_photo5 blog

Children in Kilifi county, Kenya present to a local dispensary for testing (Photo credit: Juliana Wambua)

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

My dream is that I can contribute to “making malaria history” through effective vaccination.

Imagine a world where young babies and infants are vaccinated for malaria in rural clinics, alongside other vaccines in the Expanded Programme for Immunisation. I’d love to see this happen, children getting vaccinated and having the opportunity to live, improve their lives and those of their communities.

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

I joined the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in 1998 as a junior doctor and was interested in training in paediatrics. It was here that I was introduced to research on malaria in general, and begun to understand that we know so little about this disease that has been with humans for such a long time.

I met a vibrant team of enthusiastic researchers, and this really drew me in. Before I joined the immunology research team, I would joke that the immunologists asked the same question about malaria over and over again, and did not seem to get any wiser. Now that joke is on me, and I appreciate better why it is that we still do not understand how humans become immune to malaria.

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

The Wellcome Trust has been instrumental to getting me established as a credible African research scientist. I competed and won a training fellowship that supported my PhD studies. My current work is supported by an intermediate fellowship, and this has enabled me to compete successfully for an MRC/DFID African Research Leader award.

Osier_photo1 blog

Research mentorship Kilifi style!

The Wellcome Trust also supported (and continues to support) other brilliant researchers, who have mentored me in different ways and contributed significantly to my development.

Funding from the Trust has also allowed me to mentor and train younger researchers and I have a research team that I am really proud of! I commend the Trust for their international portfolio, for opening up funding opportunities for researchers for tropical and developing countries. Without this, I doubt that I would have taken up a career in research.

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

When will we have a malaria vaccine?

faith_gathoni blog

Faith Osier and Gathoni Kamuyu doing malaria antibody testing in the lab. (Photo credit: Brett Lowe)

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

Why is it that after so many years we still do not have a malaria vaccine? What are you researchers doing?

This question often comes from laymen – and it is challenging to explain in lay language why basic science research takes time, and why we must remain nevertheless optimistic!

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I love international rugby matches and am a strong supporter of our Kenya Sevens Team

What keeps you awake at night?

The fact that people are developing immunity to malaria all around me – I feel that this process is staring me in the face- if you like, and I must be able to see and understand how it is happening.

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

It’s a funny statement but I think its true… “Life is not a rehearsal, LIVE IT!”

The ‘chain reaction’ question, set by Prof Scott Waddell is this: “If you were able to start again, what would you rather work on? Or do?”

If I could start again, I’d still work on malaria…it is a fascinating disease.

You can find out more about Dr Osier and her research on the KEMRI-Wellcome website.

Top 10 things about doing a summer internship at the Wellcome Trust

22 Aug, 2014

Wellcome Trust Summer Internship

Each year, the Wellcome Trust offers a number of paid summer internships at Trust HQ. These are aimed at giving current undergraduates the chance to experience working an area of the Trust that interests them, and we hope to inspire, support and develop the next generation of people who can make a difference.

As the eight-week placements of the 2014 cohort of interns come to an end, we caught up with some of them to find out what they most enjoyed about being at the Trust, and what advice they have for future applicants…

The top 10 things about working at the Wellcome Trust

  • The diversity of people – their careers, backgrounds, and skills – and the diversity of the work done that is done here
  • The friendliness and atmosphere – “Everyone is super friendly & helpful– from the staff in the kitchen to Jeremy Farrar”
  • The food! Cheap, tasty, healthy food
  • The glass lifts – and the chats you have in them
  • The sense of improving the world and being able to see real outcomes of your work
  • The opportunity to learn outside your field
  • Working alongside the greatest minds (someone’s been reading our vision statement!)
  • The free gym
  • The free tea and coffee (and hot-chocolate)
  • The great views from the upper floors of the building

Even though they’ve only been with us for eight weeks, it seems like this bright bunch of interns have already found many of the things that make working at the Wellcome Trust so enjoyable. But what will they take away from the experience?

The Internship Experience

Eloisa Tovee, Legal Intern
“Eight weeks interning at the Wellcome Trust is a substantial amount of time and has been the origin of an amazing learning curve. Over the summer internship I have developed communication skills, gained experience in legal writing and negotiation and more importantly, learnt to think outside the box.”

Kate Taylor - 2014 SPPU Evaluation Intern

Kate Taylor – 2014 SPPU Evaluation Intern

Kate Taylor
 Strategic Planning and Policy Unit – Evaluation Intern
“I’ve learned that most people change careers and move about quite a lot – it’s okay not to know exactly what you want to do as that will probably change anyway throughout your life! I’ve also learnt how to handle many different projects at the same time, and to always provide updates and feedback to your supervisors.”

Jamie Gore, Marketing Communications Intern
“I’ve learned all about the different tasks that come under the umbrella term ‘Marketing’, I’ve improved a number of my skills Excel for example) and learned that the Trust gets involved with much more than just medical research.”

Bethany Summers, Science Intern
“I’ve learnt more about what the Wellcome Trust does and from that been able to complete a whole project complete with presentation to the division in only 8 weeks! My newfound Excel skills are certainly a bonus and I’m geekily excited about being able to use them in my final year of university. I must credit the Neuroscience and Mental Health team in Science for all their support and including me as one of the ‘family’.”

Sophie Ward, Education and Learning Intern
“I’ve learnt a lot of transferrable skills to take back to university with me next year, including research/report writing skills. I’ve also had the chance to listen to a funding committee, which gave me lots of things to think about when completing application forms in the future.”

Meesha Patel – Broadcast, Games and Film Intern
“One of the main and most important things I have learnt from my experience here is that you shouldn’t plan too far ahead. As long as you have a general idea of where you are going and you have ambition, you are helping yourself along the way by getting involved with projects that interest you. Your plan isn’t set in stone. It has got to be fluid – as most things are in life.”

Advice for future applicants

Ben Stockton

Ben Stockton – 2014 Intern in the Editorial team

We asked what advice they would give people who are considering applying for the Wellcome Trust internship scheme in future. Lots of good advice came back – including these top tips:

Go for it!
“You would need a very good reason not to apply!” says Eloisa Tovee. “The opportunities to network, gain experience in what interests you, develop personal skills and transferrable career skills are boundless. It is the perfect place to spend eight weeks learning!”

It’s not just for science students
“As a non-science student I nearly let this put me off applying” says Sophie Ward. “I thought that I wouldn’t have much of a chance, however it turns out that this isn’t true! Just make sure you can show a real interest in the role you are applying for and can articulate why you want to work here.”

Be Passionate
Meesha Patel shares her advice on producing a good application “Show how passionate you are” she says. “Interest and dedication really shines through in an application or in an interview and being able to convey that will help you a great deal.”

Be yourself
“Don’t try to fit the model of a ‘perfect applicant’” says Ben Stockton, “there’s no set career path needed to work here.” Jamie Gore agrees, “being a little bit different helps you stand out, I did my interview on Skype from a hostel in Morocco in harem pants and I think that made me stand out somewhat” he says.

Learn about the Trust
“I would highly recommend developing an understanding of the uniqueness of the Trust and an appreciation for how influential and important its role is in the scientific community” says Gore.

Ask questions
If you’re successful, then Kate Taylor has this advice for getting the most out of the experience: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions or speak up when you don’t know something. People are really friendly here and willing to help.”

We’d like to thank all of our 21 summer interns for their hard work this summer. They’ve worked on projects and initiatives too numerous to count within every department in the Trust, and contributed greatly to our work. A final word from the Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar “From all of us: thank you, goodbye and remember to stay in touch!”

If you’re interested in applying for a summer internship next year, be sure to keep an eye on the internship section of the Wellcome Trust website. We also run a graduate development scheme and offer a range of funding options, including Biomedical Vacation Scholarships.

Image of the Week: Xenopus

22 Aug, 2014

C0011036 Xenopus

Move over Paul the Octopus, this friendly looking creature can tell if you’re pregnant or not…

.. well, sort of. This week’s image is of a Xenopus, a type of aquatic frog native to southern Africa, which was used in pregnancy testing.

In the 1930s it was discovered that injecting a woman’s urine into a live female Xenopus could test if the woman was pregnant. If the urine contained the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, it prompted the female frog to ovulate, so if the frog laid eggs, it was confirmation of pregnancy.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, it was common practice in the UK to send urine samples to pregnancy-testing laboratories where this test was performed.

Xenopus, more commonly known as the African clawed frog, has slippery smooth skin, the result of a mucus antibiotic coating, which results in incredible healing properties for the frog. The back legs are webbed making them powerful swimmers, a handy attribute when you spend pretty much all of your time in the water.

No longer used as a living pregnancy test, these frogs can still be found in life science laboratories around the world. Xenopus leavis is used as a model organism and has played an important role in helping scientists better understand developmental biology.

As well as being used in research around the globe, Xenopus has made it into space. Embryos were first taken to the Russian space station Salyut, and further research involved successful fertilisation of eggs in space, and experiments on the International Space Station, where the affect of microgravity on development could be studied.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

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.

 

Estimating how many people need treatment during an Ebola outbreak

21 Aug, 2014

Ebola virus virionToday the Wellcome Trust has announced a multi-million pound funding package to support research during the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa. There’s no sign of an end to the outbreak and many people believe things will get worse before they get better, so it’s important to understand the scale of the challenge we face. Oliver Brady is an epidemiologist from the University of Oxford, who has been working in this area with colleagues Professor Simon Hay and Dr Peter Horby. Here, he explains why this outbreak requires special attention…

Last week a World Health Organisation (WHO) Expert Committee reached the conclusion that it would be ethical to consider unproven drugs during this exceptional Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

This ground-breaking decision raises some immediate questions: what investigational drugs and vaccines are available, and what volume of each would be required in the current epidemic?

Rapid answers to these questions are necessary in order to plan the development of any of the candidate drugs or vaccines, for this, and future outbreaks.

Prof Simon Hay, Dr Peter Horby and I have spent some time looking at how we might come up with some figures to provide a useful starting point for discussions. It is important to note that it is not our intention to provide exact figures, but rather to enable us to judge the potential need in an epidemic of this scale, compared to previous outbreaks.

To reach these estimates we extracted a range of published data from 22 previous outbreaks of Ebola spanning back to 1976. This data includes contact-tracing studies and staffing needs during the outbreaks, which allowed us to approximate the number of people that may have been exposed to the Ebola virus per infected person or per bed.

We created four different categories to reflect the different groups potentially exposed to Ebola virus. These categories are: Ebola patients and their close contacts, healthcare providers and those who dispose of the bodies and infectious material, other essential service providers including logistics personnel and a contingency stockpile for controlling infections that spread outside West Africa.

By estimating the numbers of people in each of these categories who might be exposed to infectious individuals, we were able to work out how many people could have been eligible for treatment or vaccination over the course of the outbreak so far.

While the people in these different categories may be at very different levels of risk for developing the disease, until we have a better understanding exactly what constitutes a significant contact we have to assume that all of these individuals may require treatment or prophylaxis.

Our results show that, under a conservative scenario, up to 30,000 people may have been eligible for treatment or vaccination between the start of the current epidemic in December 2013 and 19th August 2014.

This scenario is considered conservative as it is based on data from past Ebola epidemics in isolated rural communities. The difference in scale of the current urban outbreak means that many of these historical parameters may be underestimates.

It is clear that the magnitude of need for the current on-going epidemic is already significantly higher than any previous Ebola outbreaks. Furthermore we are seeing no signs of the epidemic easing and action is urgently required given the considerable gap between need and the tools we currently have available.

The next step is for those involved in manufacturing or commissioning potential therapies to refine our initial estimates, taking into account the specific therapeutic or preventive characteristics of each drug or vaccine. The financing and roll-out of investigational drugs will also have an effect on the number of treatments required, but we hope that the groundwork that we have put in will assist in this process.

Mathematical models of the epidemic will also be important in refining the numbers and helping to determine the optimum intervention scenarios when the effectiveness and modes of action of the candidates are known.

The scale of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa means that we have no time to waste. Now is the time for decisions to be made on financing, scaling up production and evaluating investigational and novel Ebola therapeutics.

Our preliminary estimates of the number of people that might have been eligible for treatment or vaccination since the start of this outbreak, if the products were available, gives us an a better idea of the scale of the challenge we face.

We hope that our tool will facilitate prompt, evidence-based decisions on the scale of financing and manufacturing required for these potential therapeutics and vaccines.

Made now, these decisions may have the capacity to mitigate the mortality and improve the control of the current Ebola outbreak, as well as those that may occur in the future.

You can read Oliver Brady’s article on Nature.com in their ‘World View’ section and find the spreadsheet they used for calculating the number here. Oliver Brady (BBSRC funded) and Prof Simon Hay (Wellcome Trust funded) are in the Spatial Ecology and Epidemiology Group, University of Oxford, and Dr Peter Horby is from the Epidemic Diseases Research Group, Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, also at the University of Oxford.

The Wellcome Trust has announced new funding to support research that could take place during the current Ebola outbreak and in future epidemics. More information can be found in the news section of the Wellcome Trust website.

Image credits: Ebola virus – CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith/Public Health Image Library, Vaccination – Barbara Bellingham, Wellcome Images

The Discoverability Challenge – How Can We Make Research Data Easier to Find and Use?

20 Aug, 2014

800px-Lederle_laboratory

Enhancing the discoverability of public health and epidemiology research data is a key to ensuring that it gets more widely used. This was the topic of a recent workshop hosted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where researchers and data experts explored the findings of a recent Wellcome Trust report on data discoverability. Dave Carr, Policy Adviser at the Wellcome Trust, highlights some of the key themes that emerged from a lively and productive debate.

The Wellcome Trust is committed to ensuring that the data outputs generated by the research we fund can be accessed and used in a way that maximises the health and societal benefit. We are a member of the Public Health Research Data Forum, which brings together a consortium of like-minded funding global funders with a shared vision of increasing the availability of health research data, in ways that are equitable, ethical and efficient.

While some research disciplines have well-established community-level resources that store and curate datasets and make these available to potential users, this type of infrastructure has been much slower to develop in other fields.

For public health and epidemiology research, the vast and rich datasets collected from human populations in the course of research are often held locally by the groups that have gathered the data. In many cases, there is no easy way for potential users to find out whether a particular dataset exists, let alone to gain access to the data in a useable form. This severely limits the potential value that may be derived.

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 14.00.24The need to make data more readily discoverable to users is widely recognised as one of the fundamental barriers to more effective data sharing. On behalf of the Public Health Research Data Forum, the Wellcome Trust commissioned an expert team to explore how the public health and epidemiology field could best take on this challenge. Their report was published in July 2014.

The workshop gave participants the opportunity to discuss the team’s findings with a panel of invited experts – including Arofan Gregory of the Open Data Foundation, Steve Kern of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, David Leon of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Brian Hole of Ubiquity Press, and Matthew Wollard of the UK Data Service. The panel discussion was chaired by Jimmy Whitworth, Head of Population Sciences at the Wellcome Trust.

One of the important messages was that making data discoverable is certainly not an impossible challenge. The required technology already exists and successful approaches have been applied in related fields (such as the social sciences). These could be built upon and adapted to provide workable solutions for public health and epidemiology research data.

Panellists and delegates highlighted several pioneering initiatives that are already widening access to research datasets. But the picture that currently exists is a fragmented one, with a lack of overarching community standards and agreed best practice across the piece. A key challenge for any initiative to enhance data discoverability would therefore be linking up existing initiatives and effectively building on what is already in place.

Two other messages emerged very strongly from the discussion. Firstly, that data usability is at least as big a challenge as discoverability, and as it is inextricably linked, cannot be ignored.

The adoption of robust approaches for collecting adequate metadata is critical for both discoverability and usability. Metadata must be gathered as the research is conducted (and not added in as an afterthought).

7995656412_18df90cfc2_nSecondly, in order to encourage researchers to put in the effort required to make their data discoverable and useable, appropriate incentive structures must exist. This point resonates strongly with the findings of a report of Expert Advisory Group on Data Access on incentives and culture change for data sharing that was published earlier this year.

In building support in the research community, it was emphasised that the principal argument must always be that enhancing the discoverability and usability of data enables better science.

Over the weeks ahead the Trust and our partners in the Forum will crystallise plans for taking forward the report’s recommendations. We are committed to ensuring we progress in a way that best meets the community’s needs, and want the issues to be discussed and debated as widely as possible. This workshop provided an excellent first step in this progress, and we would welcome your further feedback and comments.

The workshop was filmed and is available to view on the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Vimeo Channel. The report, “Enhancing Discoverability of Public Health and Epidemiology Research Data” is available from the Public Health Research Data Forum site.

Image credit: Lederle Laboratory - G. Terry Sharrer, Ph.d. National Museum Of American History/NIH, Carrot on a string – by nist6dh on Flickr CC-BY-SA

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