Strategic insights can only be as strong as the evidence they’re built upon, and evidence about researchers and their activities can be surprisingly hard to come by. Jonathon Kram of the Evaluation Team at Wellcome explains the importance of infrastructure and the reasoning behind Wellcome’s new mandate for Open Researcher and Contributor iDs. This article was originally published on the ORCID blog.
We at Wellcome are happy to announce that we’re about to start mandating ORCID as part of our grant application process. Starting in August 2015, we will ask all applicants to provide an ORCID iD when they sign up with our grant application system – creating one takes just 30 seconds at orcid.org and, if you haven’t seen an ORCID iD before, the best introduction is to check out an example.
The simplicity of a single profile, however, belies its true power: as plumbing. By allocating and centralising the identities of researchers, systems which previously could not exchange flows of data now can. By moving from full names to unique identifiers (referring to Dr Craig Roberts as 0000-0002-9641-6101, rather than “C. Roberts”) different interested parties can start reliably talking about the same people, which is a vital first step toward any deeper understanding of researchers, artists, and their activities.
Nearly 1.5 million researchers across the globe have in some way recognised this value and created ORCID iD and an increasing number of publishers, funders, HEIs and researcher information platforms are now requesting the inclusion of an ORCID iD in their workflows. Speaking at the ORCID-CASRAI meeting in Barcelona this May, ORCID board member and Executive Editor and Head of Researcher Services at Nature Publishing Group, Veronique Kiermer summed up the state of affairs pithily:
“It was amazing to see the evolution of the concept of ORCID from the outreach meetings we held only a couple of years ago. It’s no longer about if ORCID is integrated but when.”
Getting these identifiers built into our research and researcher information platforms is one of the first steps on the road to improving the quality of information we have on our grantholders, and reducing the time taken and administrative burden required in applying for a grant. It will also help keep us in touch with what is happening during the lifetime of the grant and potentially beyond.
This latter burden is especially important for the researchers and artists we fund who receive funding from multiple sources. We in the Evaluation Team at Wellcome Trust aren’t the only ones seeking insights about the activities we fund. Everyone is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of rich and complex information on the outputs and impacts of funding, so everyone is asking similar questions of their grantholders: what have you produced?; how openly accessible is the work you’ve published?; what shape is your career trajectory taking, and how have we changed that?
We hope that by encouraging the use of an ORCID iD at many touchpoints across the research information infrastructure and by pre-populating our systems with data via the registry, researchers need only verify their information, instead of re-entering it in yet another (slightly different to the last) web form. We also recognise the potential for ORCID to help researchers get the credit they deserve for activities which don’t result in a publication output, such as peer review, which are currently difficult to quantify and acknowledge.
The capacity for widespread ORCID uptake to transform how we evaluate impacts and efficiently handle data is making the benefits of adoption clearer to system administrators and researchers alike. Currently, if we wish to gain insights about researchers, we have to commit to resource-intense efforts to even get a hold of the requisite data, encountering barriers as soon as any of our data collection systems try to talk to one another about individuals. The ability to uniquely identify contributors is a deceptively simple concept which, if realised, could enable forms of real-time understanding of scientific research that up to now have been extremely costly (if not impossible).
These potential benefits have already been recognized by over 50 UK universities who have expressed an interest in joining the newly formed UK national consortium arrangement, organized by Jisc, seeking to contribute to and take advantage of the increasingly rich narratives accessible via the ORCID registry.
You can find out more about ORCID by reading previous blog articles: Distinguishing researchers with an ORCID and Improvements to the ORCID Researcher Identification System.
Image credits: (from top to bottom) Pipes by Chris Bentley via Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND; J. Pendjiky & D. Becker, Wellcome Images; Sue Moberly, Wellcome Images
Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust Community
Expanding our DNA’s alphabet
Our DNA’s alphabet may be more extensive than previously thought according to Wellcome Trust-funded research published in Nature Chemical Biology.
Researchers have found that a rare DNA base, that was previously thought to be just a temporary modification, is stable in living mouse tissue. This rare base, called 5-formyclcytosine (5fC), has currently unknown function. However, scientists believe that due to its position in the genome, it is likely to play a role in regulating the activity of our genes.
The order of the four known DNA bases (A, T, C and G) determines our genetic makeup, but scientists have also identified small modifications to these chemical structures. These epigenetic changes can alter how the DNA is ‘read’ and therefore whether certain genes are switched ‘on’ or ‘off’.
5fC is a modified version of the cytosine (C) base.. The addition of oxygen to methylated DNA by TET enzymes was thought to be a transitional state; however, researchers found very small amounts of it in all tissues, showing that it can exist in a stable form.
“If 5fC is present in the DNA of all tissues, it is probably there for a reason,” said Professor Shankar Balasubramanian from the University of Cambridge, who led the research. “It had been thought this modification was solely a short-lived intermediate, but the fact that we’ve demonstrated it can be stable in living tissue shows that it could regulate gene expression and potentially signal other events in cells.”
Rapid diagnostic hopes for drug-resistant Tuberculosis
A new diagnostic test will enable doctors to rapidly identify which drugs can and cannot be used to effectively treat patients with drug-resistance tuberculosis (TB), according to research published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases.
Multi-drug-resistant strains of TB (MDR-TB) affect nearly half a million people globally and treatment is currently a long-term regime of second-line drugs. One of the biggest problems associated with MDR-TB is the lack of rapid diagnostic tools which would allow faster treatment with the right drugs?, decreasing infectiousness.
Although doctors have been carrying out genetic tests on small sections of TB DNA for the last 20 years, they still have to confirm their results using time-consuming laboratory tests. The new technique sequences the entire TB genome allowing doctors to identify any mutations that may cause drug resistance.
The most effective drugs can then be selected, and any drugs that the strain is resistant to will be ruled out.
The new results from the largest study of its kind involving over 3,600 samples from the UK, Germany and further afield from Sierra Leone, South Africa and Uzbekistan. Researchers now hope to develop the test into an affordable, handheld device which would be especially useful in developing countries where TB rates are highest.
Lead investigator Professor Tim Peto, a consultant in infectious diseases at the Churchill and John Radcliffe Hospital said: “This is the beginning of the end for routine laboratory culture for TB drug resistance. We are moving from 130 years of culturing TB to a new digital era in microbiology. It is particularly exciting for low-income settings where the lack of laboratories currently leads to under diagnosis of drug resistance.”
Can cancer drug slow down time?
Trametinib, originally developed for the treatment of skin cancer in humans, was shown to increase the lifespan of adult fruit flies to 12% longer than average. Adding the equivalent of a daily adult dose for a human to the food of female fruit flies increased their life span by 8%, with the 12% increase recorded in flies given a much higher dose of the drug.
Researchers also tested the effects of giving the drug to flies much later in their life, to examine how the drug could work if given to the elderly. Older flies given the higher dose still exhibited an increased lifespan of 4%, suggesting that the earlier the drug is given, the greater effect it has on slowing the ageing process.
Trametinib works by targeting the Ras-Erk-ETS signalling pathway in cells, which is already identified as a key target for cancer therapies. Defects within this pathway can lead to the uncontrollable cell growth exhibited in cancer patients, but it has also been shown to be involved in the ageing process.
First author, Dr Nazif Alic from the UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing, said: “Our aim is to understand the mechanisms of ageing and alter the processes that lead to loss of function and to disease. We studied this molecular pathway in flies because they are reasonably complex and yet age more quickly than mammals. We were able to extend their lifespan both genetically and by using a cancer drug to target the Ras pathway, which provides us with the first evidence for the anti-ageing potential of drugs developed to dampen this pathway.”
Understanding Klebsiella pnuemoniae
The data set has also given scientists an insight into the impact of antibiotics on the bacterial population and it’s rapidly emerging resistance to certain antibiotics. K. pneumonia can cause serious health complications, such as meningitis and pneumonia. The bacterium is also one of the leading causes of bloodstream infections in children in lower income countries.
The 300 samples were taken from plants, cattle and humans from across the globe with the aim of increasing researchers’ understanding of how the bacterium may evolve and how resistance could spread between lineages.
Most samples that contained drug resistant genes were taken from people who were already being treated for a hospital-acquired infection and from people who showed no symptoms of being ill. These strains are less likely to infect a healthy person, but researchers are still concerned that drug-resistant genes may appear in more virulent strains of the bacterium.
“For too long with Klebsiella, we have focussed on single lineages,” says Professor Nick Thomson from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “We will now be able to recognise emerging lineages from a huge cloud of Klebsiella diversity, helping us to follow and tackle drug resistance in this increasingly dangerous pathogen.”
This research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Other Wellcome Trust research news
A new study using data from the Wellcome Trust-funded UK Biobank has found that the timing of puberty in both men and women is associated with 48 health conditions later in life. Of the half a million samples tested, those in the earliest or latest 20% to go through puberty were at a higher risk of diseases including psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis and depression. The study is published in Scientific Reports.
Newborn babies’ visual attention to objects and later behavioural patterns, including hyperactivity, could be linked according to a new study published in Scientific Reports. Through observations of babies’ looking patterns in their first days of life, scientists found that spending longer looking at an individual object or stimulus was associated with less behavioural problems in middle childhood.
Researchers from UCL have discovered that a sleeping rat’s brain will simulate a journey to a point in the future – perhaps a place where food can be found. By monitoring brain activity, researchers could see that the rats replayed a journey in their sleep using specialised brain cells in the hippocampus that are involved in navigation. Published in eLife, the study may help to explain why people who have damaged their hippocampus are unable to imagine the future.
Image credits: (from top to bottom) Maurizio De Angelis, Wellcome Images; Wellcome Library, London; Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK, Wellcome Images; Klebsiella pneumonia Bacterium by NIAID via Flickr CC-BY; Rat graphic © Deepmind Ltd
Tomorrow, across the road from the Wellcome Trust at the British Library, 12 schools from all corners of the UK will meet for the national final of the Institute of Ideas’ Debating Matters Competition. Now in its 13th year, and supported by the Wellcome Trust for the past 10, the competition has allowed thousands of sixth form students the opportunity to engage with a broad range of social, scientific and ethical issues that society faces today. We hear from Justine Brian, Director of Debating Matters about this very modern contest…
The idea of a ‘student debating competition’ conjures up for many an image of oak-panelled debating chambers, technical rules and a rather stuffy atmosphere. From its very beginning, Debating Matters has been different. The premise of our competition is that debating matters because ideas matter – and we emphasise substance, not just style, and the importance of taking ideas seriously.
The finalists this weekend have all battled through their regional heats to earn a place at this weekend’s final. They have spent the past month researching and preparing for a number of tough but contemporary topics, including whether in a digital age we should expect our online activities to remain private, if Western museums should repatriate cultural artefacts and if voting should be made compulsory in the UK.
It’s no coincidence that through the qualifying rounds, teams have been debating many of the ‘live’ issues affecting our society today. In February, as Parliament approved regulations to allow mitochondrial donation to be considered by the HFEA, students argued for and against the motion that “we should embrace the advent of three parent IVF.” As legislators and lobby groups tackle minimum alcohol pricing, plain packaging for cigarettes and the sugar content of food, students have discussed the motion that “unhealthy lifestyles are not the business of Government.”
The finalists this weekend will present their take on the motion that “allowing the use of enhancement drugs will not undermine the spirit of sport” at the very same time the media focus on doping accusations levelled at Mo Farah’s coach, Alberto Salazar.
The topic guides that students use to prepare contain up to date information and comment from a wide range of sources. They frame the debate in the wider social context. All of these topics, including in medicine and science, are entwined with modern-day life. By presenting them as ongoing arguments and debates – to which there is no single answer – we find them much easier to consider and question. We know that the debates carry on; in the minibus on the way back to school, on social media, in the classroom and around the family dining table.
Another unique feature of Debating Matters is the grilling the debaters face from a panel of expert judges from all walks of life, who in the past have included Jeremy Farrar and many other Wellcome people. The judges question them on their arguments and challenge them to defend their thinking. It’s a real test of ability to research a topic and respond to questioning when your ideas are put under intellectual pressure. It allows students to make an important contribution to public debates on contemporary and relevant topics. The judges’ feedback – both positive and negative – is something the debaters consistently say is a highlight.
When we launched the competition in 2003, we wanted to present schools with an innovative and engaging approach to debating. We’ve been able to offer topical debates and a challenging format that appeal to students from a wide range of backgrounds, including schools with a long tradition of debating and those with no experience at all. By Sunday evening, after two intense days of free, earnest and ultimately smart discussion, it will all be over for another year – and another group of students will be crowned Debating Matters Champions.
Image credits: Photos by Gary Doak
This week, our image of the week comes from work experience student Tallulah Tacchi and features a video from the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Centre and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, on the impact of the Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV-10) in Kilifi, Kenya.
Around the world, Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under five, accounting for approximately 15% of deaths. In 2000, it was estimated that more than 16,000 Kenyans, mostly children, died from Pneumococcal infections.
In January 2011, following recommendations by the World Health Organisation and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, Kenya’s health ministry added PCV-10 to the country’s infant vaccine regime. Described as a ‘10-valent’ vaccine, it targets the 10 strains of pneumococcal bacteria that cause the serious, and often fatal, invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD). Newborns now receive PCV-10 in three doses, at six, 10 and 14 weeks.
As pneumococcal bacteria are carried in the nose of both healthy and sick people, the team looked at how prevalent the bacteria are in the population as an indicator of its carriage. Within six months of the vaccine being introduced, they saw a two-thirds reduction in the prevalence of strains targeted by the vaccine across the whole population.
The best indicator of the vaccine’s impact in the population comes from looking at invasive pneumococcal disease, a serious disease where the bacteria spread from the lungs to the blood. Before the introduction of PCV-10, the hospital in Kilifi saw roughly 40-50 cases of IPD a year. Since the vaccine, doctors have seen only one case in two years, and are pleased to say they believe they are at a point where the disease is under control.
Policy makers, experts and other stakeholders in Kenya and the East African Region gathered in Nairobi this week to hear the latest results from the on-going Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine Impact Study (PCVIS) and to discuss the policy issues arising.
For more information on the PCV-10 vaccine impact study please visit the KEMRI website.
Video credit: Couresy of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance via YouTube
This week the spotlight shines on Dr Rosemary Green from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A lecturer in Nutrition and Sustainability, her work is focused around the health and environmental impacts of a world with 9 billion people and how we will manage to feed everyone. Despite spending her days looking at one of the biggest questions facing humanity, she talks to us about how she still manages to find time to play music and appear in Downtown Abbey…..
What are you working on?
My specialism is in the area of healthy and sustainable diets, so I try and look for ways in which the foods people eat can be beneficial to their health and ideally not damage the planet at the same time. Much of this involves looking at consumption of meat and dairy, which is not an easy problem to solve: these foods are a good source of protein which is needed for many people in developing countries, but at the same time they can have detrimental health effects and are also responsible for a huge share of our carbon footprint. At the moment I’m looking at the health and environmental impacts of diets in India and Thailand for two Wellcome Trust projects, which will hopefully help us to understand how people are currently eating in these countries and what could be changed in future.
What does your average day involve?
It depends what stage of a project I’m working on, but at the moment I’m at the stage I consider the most fun! This involves putting together a dataset for analysis (this could be based on data collected at my university or it could be a larger publicly available data source) and then constructing models to answer my research questions. At the moment I’m trying to model the different dietary patterns people in India fall into, so I’m busy cleaning the data and checking for inaccuracies. I also teach MSc Epidemiology students and supervise a couple of PhD students, so I’ll usually spend time talking to them about their research projects.
Why is your work important?
With the world’s population likely to reach at least 9 billion by 2050, there’s an urgent need not only to make sure that we can feed all those people, but also do so without destroying the planet. Most work on food and nutrition until now has treated the health and environmental issues as if they were separate, so I’m happy to be part of some work that’s trying to find combined solutions.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
The nice thing about researching impacts on health and the environment is that sometimes there are win-win solutions that work for both. For example, my previous research found that just switching to a healthy diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food in the UK by 17%. I’d like to identify tasty and healthy diets that people all around the world could eat knowing that they weren’t harming the environment, and then I’d like to work on convincing people that changing their diet is a good idea!
How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?
I originally trained as a musician, so I’m not using many of those skills at the moment (although the ability to count definitely helps in my current job). However, I then did a Masters in research methods and realized that I had a passion for data and problem solving, which led me to a PhD in Epidemiology. My PhD focused on the diets of people in the Channel Islands during World War II, and I became fascinated with the health impacts of diets. The environmental aspect to my work is more recent as it’s a newly emerging area, but I can’t wait to develop my ideas further.
How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?
The Wellcome Trust have taken a leap that many funders weren’t prepared to and funded combined projects looking at both the environment and health. This has helped me immeasurably, and has also led me to collaborations with people working in other disciplines like environmental science and economics. I’m now at the point where I’m looking to build my own research team, and this would have been much more difficult without the support of the Trust.
What’s the most frequently asked question about your work? Apart from “epidemiology – is that something to do with skin?”, it’s usually along the lines of a new superfood that people have heard about. I usually respond that if it’s fresh and plant-based it’s going to do you some good, but no food is a miracle-worker.
Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?
“Are we all going to have to be vegan?” People don’t like the idea of being told what to eat, and we have to be very aware of this in our research. It’s a challenge to try and find ways to engage people so that they can make positive changes but also still feel in control of what they’re eating.
I actually like people just as much as data! I think people imagine that scientists and researchers are locked away in a lab all the time, but I like my work because it has relevance to people’s lives. I hate to sit behind a computer all the time, and in my spare time I still play music and have even appeared in Downton Abbey!
What keeps you awake at night?
Suddenly thinking of a new way to analyse my data that I couldn’t manage to come up with all day at work, or (more frustratingly) suddenly realising that I need to start again doing something slightly differently…
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Everyone needs to know when to ask for help, no matter how competent they seem.
The chain-reaction question, posted by previous spotlightee Dr Teela Sanders is this: What advice would you give to a student starting out on their PhD?
Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t know anything yet, by the end of 3 years you will know more about your particular subject than anyone in the world. And for that reason, pick something you’re REALLY interested in…
If you’d like to read more about Dr Rosemary Green’s research, the following paper may be of interest: Health effects of adopting low greenhouse gas emission diets
in the UK
To find out more about what the Wellcome Trust is doing on Sustaining Health visit our website.
Image credits: (from top to bottom) Provided by author; Dairy Cows by CAFNR via Flickr CC-BY-NC; Terrace paddy field by James J8246 via Flickr CC-BY; Provided by author; Highclere Castle (Downtown Abbey) by Richard Munckton via Flickr CC-BY
Our Image of the Week is a coloured engraving depicting the Earth’s orbit around the Sun in a solar year.
This Sunday marks the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year and the traditional beginning of the summer season. For hundreds of years, this key astronomical event has been a time of celebration and was also used as a marking point, a date around which calendars were organized.
The summer solstice occurs when the earth is tilted on its axis at an angle that is most inclined towards the Sun. In the far north, this is a time of continuous daylight that ranges from a few days to six months depending on how close to the north pole you are.
Drawn and engraved by John Emslie in 1851, this image shows the summer and winter solstices as well as the spring and autumn equinoxes. Equinoxes are the days where the sun crosses the earth’s equator, making day and night time approximately equal in length.
Around the edges are the twelve signs of the zodiac, which represent twelve 30 degree sectors of the sun’s celestial path. Originating in Babylonian astrology, these signs are today mostly associated with horoscopes which represent the specific position of the sun at the time of a person’s birth. Western astronomy measures and divides the sky from the solstice and equinox points, meaning that the zodiac signs don’t in fact line up with their similarly-named constellations.
Image credit: Astronomy: a diagram of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun in a solar year. Coloured engraving by J. Emslie, 1851, Wellcome Library, London
The spread of Middle Eastern Respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) highlights the urgent need to improve how we prepare for and tackle emerging infectious diseases. The current outbreak in Korea is the largest outside of the Middle East, with 166 cases confirmed and 24 deaths. Helen Jamison, Head of Media Relations at the Trust travelled to Seoul for the World Conference of Science Journalists at just the time the city became the focus of a global public health alert. She shares her thoughts from the conference…
It was particularly prescient that South Korean president Park Geun-Hye opened the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists by remarking how important the media are to informing the public during times of challenge, given that the country is currently experiencing the biggest outbreak of MERS outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Her comments came as the Korean Ministry of Health continued to confirm new cases and fatalities in what has been a rapidly developing situation.
Hot on the heels of the Ebola epidemic that has devastated and continues to impact West Africa, this latest infectious disease outbreak underlines yet again how crucial it is that the world is prepared for the emerging health threats it faces.
For Seoul, which is only a matter of weeks into the outbreak, there have already been lessons that could have been learned sooner. The initial opportunity to contain the outbreak efficiently was missed, with reports from science journalists and Korean health experts in Seoul suggesting the first case was not identified or isolated anywhere near quickly enough.
Simple but effective infection control measures – from history taking of potentially affected patients, to ensuring that healthcare workers consistently employ simple procedures like hand-washing – were not enforced. More efficient diagnostics and data sharing at the outset may also have helped prevent the outbreak get as far as it has. But the reality is that even in highly developed healthcare settings in rich countries, infectious disease outbreaks like this are incredibly difficult to prevent or contain once they get established.
“Defending against infectious diseases is a wicked problem. It is in the nature of germs that spill over from animals, or evolve greater virulence, or drug resistance, that they pose great uncertainty. But while we cannot know which disease will threaten next, we know a lot about which ones pose the greatest danger and how to prepare.”
Jeremy Farrar on tackling infectious disease
Fear and misinformation amongst the public also led to panic, resulting in the widespread use of facemasks and temporary shutting of many schools, despite the risk of spread in the community actually being very low. The importance of timely and accurate communication in times of crisis, including in the media, was indeed a recurrent theme of the journalism conference in Seoul.
So far, evidence suggests this particular coronavirus may not be as virulent or transmissible as its distant cousin SARS, which caused over 8000 cases and almost 800 deaths twelve years ago, and the WHO has said that MERS is not a global public health emergency.
The virus does not yet appear to have changed in a way that would enable sustained human to human transmission. Infections are largely restricted to over-crowded emergency rooms in hospitals and close contact, mostly in older patients and those who already have underlying health problems. Fatality rates in otherwise healthy younger people, such as most healthcare workers, may be as low as 5%.
Beyond the initial spread, South Korea has made significant strides towards bringing the outbreak under control, through detailed contact tracing, quarantine and improved data sharing. The number of cases looks like it may be peaking if it has not already done so. Trials have also now launched in hospitals for an experimental treatment using blood plasma from recovered patients.
This does not mean there is not concern. There are still many unknowns about this virus and whether it may develop to become more easily transmissible. New cases in other countries suggest that similar outbreaks may easily spring up elsewhere (there are just today reports of a patient in Thailand) and the events in South Korea are a stark warning for what might happen if this were to occur in countries with much more fragile and over-stretched health systems. With major gaps in our understanding of this infection and no vaccines or proven treatments three years on from the emergence of this novel respiratory infection, there remain huge amounts of work to be done.
Global collaboration, including partnerships across governments, industry, NGOs, academia and funders like the Trust, is essential to tackling these challenges. Proposals at the recent G7 meeting in Germany, to establish a global task force of infectious disease experts and reform the WHO to give it the resources and flexibility it needs to coordinate emergency responses, are also critical. The world must act now, and do so together, so we are better prepared to face such threats in future.
Q&A – MERS CoV
What is MERS?
Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a viral disease that causes acute respiratory illness in infected patients. Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath, with gastrointestinal symptoms also being reported.
When was it first discovered?
MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, with health officials determining that the first case was in Jordan in April 2012. Since then all cases have in some way been linked back to the Arabian Peninsula. 25 countries have reported cases.
The exact source of the virus is not entirely clear, although it is thought that it is transmitted to humans through contact with infected dromedary camels (it is zoonotic). Other animals have been tested to try to locate other reservoirs of the virus (which may, for example, be in bats), but currently only camels have been found to be infected with a strain of the virus similar to that found in humans.
How does it spread between humans?
The virus can pass between humans – but researchers have found that it doesn’t appear to do this unless there is close contact with an infected person. Human to human transmission has occurred between patients and healthcare workers and within families, but currently it is not easily spread without this close contact.
For more information and FAQs about MERS-CoV please visit the World Health Organisation website.
Image credits: Provided by author; MERS-CoV Investigation by CDC Global via Flickr CC-BY
Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust Community
Green light for quit-smoking drug?
Researchers have found that there is no strong evidence that a drug commonly used to treat nicotine addiction can lead to an increase in suicidal behaviour, criminal offending or traffic incidents.
In a study published in the BMJ, Wellcome Trust-funded researchers analysed data from over 69,000 people in Sweden who were prescribed the drug varenicline. Despite being widely offered for people who are quitting smoking, there had previously been reports that the drug may be linked with psychoses, violence and depression.
Those working in transport jobs, including pilots and train drivers, are restricted from taking the drug as it was thought to be associated with an increase in traffic accidents.
The researchers performed detailed analysis of individuals taking the drug, adjusting for various risk factors already present in their lives. This was then compared with national registers, where they found no significant increase in the dangerous behaviours mentioned above.
In patients who had a pre-existing history of psychiatric disorders a small increase in the risk of anxiety conditions was seen, but this must be confirmed with further studies.
Parenting styles may cross generations
A new Wellcome Trust-funded study has found that mothers and fathers are more likely to copy their own mothers’ parenting style than that of their father.
Nearly 300 parents were recruited from maternity wards in Oxford and Milton Keynes and were directly observed interacting with their two year old children at home. Researchers then asked the parents about their own experiences as a child and their perceptions of the quality of parenting given to them.
The study suggests that the parents who reported having affectionate mothers exhibited more positive styles of parenting with their own children, with parents reporting controlling mothers showing more negative behaviours. In contrast, no association was found between the parent-child interactions observed and their experience of their fathers’ behaviour.
Only a few studies have ever used direct observation of parent’s behaviour to investigate to the extent to which styles and quality of parenting is transmitted through generations.
Study author Dr Paul Ramchandani, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, said: “Parenting plays a fundamental role in children’s development, affecting health, social and educational outcomes in later life, so it’s of utmost importance to society that we have a greater understanding of the complex issue of parenting behaviour.”
This research is published in the European Journal of Public Health.
Unemployment being targeted with ‘psychological coercion’
The team of interdisciplinary researchers investigated written accounts of those who had experienced the Government’s workfare scheme and found that many highlighted coercive interventions that promoted a positive psychological outlook. Emails encouraging ‘change of attitude’ exercises and ‘positive thinking’ were described as relentless, humiliating and meaningless.
These interventions are being used to try to get unemployed people back into work and failure to undertake these can cause claimants to lose their benefits. Many interventions now include coaching, motivational workshops and psychological approaches to encourage characteristics such as optimism and confidence.
The research, published in a special edition of BMJ Medical Humanities – Critical Medical Humanities, also claims that over-simplified terms such as ‘lack of motivation’ and ‘psychological resistance to work’ are being used to decide what type of workfare regime benefit claimants should have to undertake.
Lynne Friedli, co-author of the paper and researcher with Hubbub said: “Claimants’ ‘attitude to work’ is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security – it is no longer what you must do to get a job, but how you have to think and feel…By repackaging unemployment as a psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.”
Other Wellcome Trust research news
The youngest children in the academic year are educationally disadvantaged and have poorer academic progress, find a new Wellcome Trust-funded study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The research suggests that the youngest children may not be ready to meet the demands of the classroom and often exhibit immature language and poor behaviour skills.
In other news…
Recipients of the first round of funding for the new Seed Awards funding scheme have just been announced. The scheme offers small, one-off grants to researchers in Science, Medical Humanities and Society & Ethics and is aimed especially at those at the start of their research careers. With the awards focusing on encouraging original and innovative ideas, the funded projects cover a huge range of subjects from drug targets in sepsis to healthcare in a digital world.
National humanities research festival ‘Being Human’ has announced 41 winners of their funding competition. Each winner will receive a small grant of up to £5,000 to engage the public with humanities research at a festival that will run across the UK in November. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, funded projects include bus shop poetry, a zombie walk and a video game that will rebuild the architecture of Hull.
Image credits: (from top to bottom) Wellcome Library, London; Libby Welch, Wellcome Images; Unemployment by Tax Credits via Flickr CC-BY
This week, Sophie Tunstall-Behrens from our Engaging Science team gives us an insight into the world of the operating theatre…
Our image of the week shows Professor Roger Kneebone, a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow, and Dr Laura Coates in action at a live surgery simulation in Brixton.
They set up the inflatable surgery ‘igloo’ in the concrete basement of Block 336, an artist-run project space and studio provider. Inside, the two surgeons worked either side of an operating table, meticulously stitching together the walls of a small intestine that had been ruptured following a stab wound. They muttered instructions to each other, maintaining an intense focus, whilst twenty audience members apprehensively gathered round to watch.
Roger, a Professor of Surgical Education at Imperial, leads an unorthodox and creative research group. His interdisciplinary team brings together clinicians, educationalists, computer scientists, psychologists, social scientists, design engineers as well as experts from the visual and performing arts.
Originally conceived as a training method for doctors, Roger now hosts his pop-up surgery demonstrations in a variety of different settings, including Green Man Festival and the Big Bang Fair. Each demonstration allows the audience to come close to experiencing a world that is usually closed off to the public.
Block 336’s current exhibition, IT IS AS IF, investigates the connections between art practice, language, gesture and the techniques and discourses of medical surgery. It is funded by a Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award and also features a film of Roger re-enacting a trauma surgery by memory.
The Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellows aim to support and develop upcoming stars in public engagement with science. To find out more go to our website.
Big Picture is the Wellcome Trust’s free educational magazine exploring cutting edge science. It aims to place science in its cultural and historical context, as well as connecting research with social and ethical challenges. Calum Wiggins, a writer for Big Picture, gives us an insight into some of the exciting topics featured in the latest edition which is published today…
The Wellcome Trust’s work spans a broad range of areas, but rarely has the Trust’s reach stretched beyond planet Earth. But with the new Big Picture issue on Space Biology, maybe the Trust should expand its ambition beyond being a global charitable foundation… and go interplanetary!
On second thought – that may not be needed. As Issue 22 of the Trust’s free educational magazine highlights, you’d be surprised how much space science impacts health on Earth. For example:
Technology designed for the Viking lander to sniff out life on the surface of Mars in the 1970s was later adapted and used in an insulin pump for people with diabetes.
- The huntingtin protein is the cause of Huntington’s disease, a hereditary condition for which there is currently no cure. Scientists aiming to use X-ray crystallography to map out the protein’s structure have so far been unable to synthesise its crystalline form because it is so fragile. In 2014, an experiment was sent to the International Space Station with the aim of synthesizing the huntingtin crystal in the microgravity of space.
- Astronomers from the University of Cambridge applied their technique for spotting galaxies in pictures taken by telescopes to detecting changes in a stained tumour sample. The technique detected the changes more quickly than doctors and matched them for accuracy.
Other highlights from the issue include:
- In-depth explanatory articles on topics such as carbon and radiation.
- Short histories of medicine in the stars, human space travel and space biology.
- One for sci-fi fans: “brick-excreting aliens” – considering the possibility of silicon-based life.
Big Picture isn’t just for teachers and students, you can read all of the articles and access resources from the Space Biology issue on the Big Picture website.
You can also order a copy for yourself or multiple copies for your organisation, all adorned with the wonderful water bear (which in 2007 became the first living organism to survive to vacuum of outer space without protection).
You can also sign up to receive Big Picure updates here.
Earlier this year, Wellcome Trust Chairman Sir William Castell received the BioIndustry Association’s (BIA’s) Lifetime Achievement Award, recognising his outstanding contribution to the life sciences sector. To further commemorate and celebrate this, Bill delivered the BIA’s Annual Lecture last week. Louise Wren, a Policy Adviser at the Wellcome Trust, reflects on the lecture and a growing push to transform the UK’s innovation ecosystem.
Last week, a crowd spanning industry and academia gathered at the Wellcome Trust to hear William (Bill) Castell’s 2015 BIA Annual Lecture. Bill was perfectly placed to deliver this. He’s done much to support the UK bioscience, as have the BIA, a trade association representing Britain’s biotech sector with a membership ranging from university spin outs to multinational pharma companies.
Bill spoke about the UK’s research excellence. He said he felt lucky to work in healthcare because, if you’re successful, you can “improve the lot of humankind”. He reflected on his career spent pursuing technology platforms, noting the importance of learning from mistakes and having fun along the way. And while there is much to take pride in — including Britain’s world-class science, skills development in institutes and clusters, better commissioning across the NHS, and a growing respect for the UK’s capabilities — there are a number of barriers we must address. These include access to long-term capital, developing infrastructure to support our leading science clusters, and ensuring that university Technology Transfer Offices don’t put too much focus on generating royalties.
Some of these issues are also reflected in a Trust-commissioned analysis of the UK’s innovation ecosystem, carried out last year as part of an internal review of our intellectual property policy. In late 2014, we published a briefing which gave an overview of the findings and outlined four blocks to the effective commercialisation of life sciences research. In line with Bill’s views, these range from an academic culture that doesn’t facilitate translation, Technology Transfer Offices that fail to meet the needs of both industry and academia, a lack of funding and support for concept testing, and insufficient long-term investment to underpin commercialisation.
Over the last few months, we’ve discussed and debated our review with a wide-range of stakeholders from different sectors. While the issues it describes are not new, it’s clear that there is a real desire to address them once and for all, and make the UK one of the best places in the world to deliver ‘bench to bedside’ biomedical research. We were particularly interested in the BIA’s vision for the UK life sciences sector in 2025, published in April 2015. Although it focuses on unlocking the potential of the biotech industry, its 10 recommendations have strong synergies with our own and it charts a course that could cement this country as a world-leading biomedical cluster.
Over the coming months, we’ll be working with partners, including the BIA, to identify how we might work together to unlock barriers to translation. Yesterday, Professor Stephen Caddick joined the Trust as our new Director of Innovations and will further galvanize this. We’re also very pleased to be supporting the Office for Life Sciences’ Accelerated Access Review which aims to tackle a complex piece of the puzzle: opening up the NHS to innovative medicines and technologies.
With a collaborative push, we’re hopeful that we can challenge the widely-held belief that the UK only excels at basic science and not commercialisation, and ultimately make sure that people benefit from research discoveries as quickly as possible.
For more information about the Wellcome Trust-commissioned report on the UK’s innovation ecosystem visit our policy pages.
This week we speak to Small Grant holder Dr Teela Sanders. A sociologist based at the University of Leeds, Teela is especially interested in the sex industry and the people who work in it, buy into it and what drives this controversial industry. Here she talks to us about how she works to give a voice to people who are often misunderstood…
What are you working on?
I am a sociologist who works across the borders of social policy and criminology on the dynamics relationship between gender, regulation and informal economies. I am particularly interested in the sex industry and have completed several research projects exploring the indoor sex markets, men who buy sex, and the stripping industry. As a sociologist I want to know how these organisations are shaped, what influences them, how they operate outside and under mainstream institutions, what the lived experiences are for individuals, and how policy and practice can assist to make their lives safer and less stigmatized. For instance, in a project on the stripping industry we used visual methods to bring the dancers voices about working conditions inside licensed premises to the policy table.
I am currently starting a large three year project looking at how the Internet has shaped the sex industry in the 21st Century. The project, ‘Beyond the Gaze’ is a follow on project from the Wellcome Trust grant, in an effort to learn more about the how sex workers use the Internet, and how we can focus on safety in policy and practice.
In October 2014 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to carry out a pilot project exploring the working conditions and job satisfaction of Internet based sex workers. Working with our partners, the National Ugly Mugs, the aims of the project was to build on the little knowledge that exists about who internet-based sex workers are, how they work and their daily working lives, as well as their intersections with crime, the police and stigma. Alongside research assistants Laura Connelly and Laura Jarvis-King, data was collected from a survey with 240 respondents, which is a significantly large number in comparison to previous surveys of this kind on sex work. From this we have a whole range of data that we did not have a year ago, from which we can start to make sense of this hidden and stigmatized population.
What does your average day involve?
My job is very varied which is the beauty and complexity of it – whilst research is at the forefront of my mind and hopefully my diary, the days are also filled with teaching related activities, responding to students, supervising Masters and PhD students, carrying out student related administration and management. At the same time there is networking with partners, meeting with practitioners and professionals, attending and hosting workshops and conferences, and working with the media. I receive many requests from the national and international media to comment on sex industry stories so advising and working with journalists has become an occupational hazard. I am also asked to comment on policy and regularly asked to respond to government consultations and activities. So keeping research activities moving is a constant juggling act, but when there are silent days to be filled with writing and thinking, those are often the most productive.
Why is your work important?
Research in this field is important in order to encourage more pragmatic, feasible sex work policies in the UK and beyond, which moves away from a criminalized model. Research is needed to investigate what we don’t really know about the sex industry, how it operates, who works in it, how and why. This research is important because ultimately it creates evidence to inform policy and practice. The aim of this evidence is to reduce violence against sex workers, alongside a human rights approach to sex work.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
A more open and honest discussion about sexual commerce in the UK, Europe and beyond, which will aid in the construction of policies which do not put women (and men and transgendered people) at harm. The research I am involved with is about ‘giving voice’ to a group of people who are misunderstood, are not given platforms to express their diverse lived experiences and therefore often ignored in policy debates. If some of the research and collaborations I am involved with helps to further this cause then I feel my endeavors have been worthwhile.
How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?
I worked for a HIV/AIDS charity in New York City the summer after my undergraduate degree in Sociology. Here I met many sex workers who dispelled the age old image of the down-trodden drug using ‘prostitute’. These women and men were entrepreneurs, empowered, and treated their sex work as work. This opened up my eyes to a new perspective on prostitution and ultimately a commitment to new knowledge. I applied for a Masters in Social Sciences at the University of Oxford where I pursued these ideas, which lead to an ESRC scholarship to complete a D.Phil in Sociology.
What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?
Questions vary depending on the audience – the media can often be very personal – but often questions centre around whether individuals are always exploited or trafficked, or alarmist queries questioning claims that sex workers can enjoy their work.
I don’t dread any questions about sex work – there is much to discuss, a lot of research evidence to argue with and even with those opinions that fall into the trap of repeating media stereotypes there is always detail to unpick and challenge. What I dread is a closed mind, or a dogmatic attitude that assumes sex and commerce as always bad, irrespective of the many different experiences in this regard.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
I used to do field athletics competitively, mainly javelin and shot putt.
What keeps you awake at night?
Working out when I can next go to the gym and whether I have locked the chicken coop!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t sweat the small stuff
The chain-reaction question, posted by previous spotlightee Dr Caswell Barry is this: Whatt advice would you give your younger self?
It is important to say no sometimes
To find out more about Teela and her research visit her profile on the University of Leeds website.
Image credits: (from top to bottom) Provided by author; Liz Lock; Liz Lock; Stripper 7b by Capn Monky via Flickr CC-BY-NC
The G7 summit begins today in Germany with global health, antimicrobial resistance and Ebola high up the agenda. This statement from Wellcome Trust Director Dr Jeremy Farrar outlines what he thinks needs to be done if we are to effectively tackle future infectious disease outbreaks. This article was originally published in The Times.
When the World Health Organisation began in 1948, antibiotics were a recent advance and HIV had yet to be identified. It played a pivotal role in the eradication of smallpox, the near-eradication of polio, and huge improvements in child survival.
Today, the WHO continues to set standards that improve healthcare around the world. But it is not fulfilling another vital function: leading rapid and robust responses to epidemic infectious diseases. In the last 15 years, outbreaks of Sars, swine flu, avian flu and the Mers coronavirus (Mers-CoV) have exposed how our increasingly urbanised and globalised societies struggle to contain threats from infection. Ebola is the most recent, and perhaps starkest, example.
Defending against infectious diseases is a wicked problem. It is in the nature of germs that spill over from animals, or evolve greater virulence, or drug resistance, that they pose great uncertainty. But while we cannot know which disease will threaten next, we know a lot about which ones pose the greatest danger and how to prepare. We know what needs to happen to bolster the WHO’s capacity to lead a swift and effective response when outbreaks arise. It was encouraging that Angela Merkel wrote in The Times this week that reform of the WHO would be on the agenda of the G7 summit which opens tomorrow.
The first step to better preparedness is better surveillance. When an outbreak begins, local and international health authorities need to know about it quickly, so that it can be contained. Ebola took root in west Africa because it was already spreading intensely before the alarm was raised. Defences that would have worked early in the epidemic arrived too late. An effective surveillance system for endemic and epidemic infections in a low-income country could cost as relatively little as $12 million. Every nation needs one.
Once an outbreak is detected, the world then needs to respond. Yet the WHO lacks the ability to mount a co-ordinated and rapid global response. It needs access to a trained, standing reserve of doctors and public health, epidemiology and logistics experts, who can be deployed quickly to help national health services to cope. Such a corps of “white coats” could be assembled for around $200 million a year.
We also need better research into how to tackle diseases that pose the greatest threat. We cannot predict which infection will strike when but we do have a list of prime suspects: a group of mainly viral diseases that have the potential to spread between people, even if they don’t yet do so. Ebola, once restricted to small localised outbreaks, is one. Others include Mers-CoV, which has now worryingly spread from the Middle East to South Korea, Lassa fever in Africa, Nipah in Bangladesh, Chikungunya in the Caribbean and Latin America and new strains of avian flu in Asia.
We can do much to understand the social and cultural contexts, such as burial practices, which might trigger epidemics. What’s more, we often know enough about their biology to develop drugs and vaccines. This was true of ebola, yet we lacked insight into the cultural sensitivities and potential drugs and vaccines were not ready to begin trials when the outbreak began. Though research moved admirably quickly in the circumstances, a critical year was lost — along perhaps with many lives.
We must not make the same mistakes again. That means making sure that candidate drugs and vaccines against the threats we know about are tested in animal models and in safety trials with human volunteers between epidemics. Protocols for final patient trials must also be agreed in advance and co-ordinated by the WHO so they can begin immediately as soon as there is an outbreak.
Central to all of these efforts is effective global co-ordination. The body that can do that with greatest legitimacy and international buy-in is still the WHO, but its present structure and funding is not fit for that purpose. Most urgently, it needs a semi-independent epidemic response unit. This should have ring-fenced funding, authority, responsibility and accountability under its own director reporting to the WHO’s director-general. It must not be bound by the organisation’s convoluted regional and national bureaucracies.
Combined with better surveillance and response capabilities, understanding of the social context and a stronger scientific pipeline for drugs and vaccines, this reform would transform resilience against threatening diseases. It would give the WHO the renewed mandate and resources it needs to meet the challenges the world faces, and help save countless lives.
This comment piece was originally posted in The Times on 6th June 2015.
On the day that the NHS have announced that the number of new blood donors has dropped 40% in the last decade, our image of the week is red blood cells.
Seen through a scanning electron microscope, you can clearly visualise the distinct biconcave disc shape of these unique cells. This disc shape increases the surface area to volume ratio of the cell, maximising their ability to diffuse oxygen and carbon dioxide and allows them to be flexible to squeeze through the smallest vessels.
The NHS requires new stocks of these red cells (as well as other blood components such as plasma and platelets) every day to treat emergency cases and those requiring longer term treatments such as patients with haemophilia or leukemia. Blood products have a very short shelf life, red blood cells can only be stored for 35 days, and it is very difficult to predict the demand.
New donors from all blood groups are urgently needed. The NHS are particularly urging people with O-negative blood to sign up to donate as their blood can be given universally to all patients.
As the pressures of our busy lives increase and people have less time to donate, the Wellcome Trust has been supporting Professor Marc Turner and his team to look at alternative methods of boosting blood supplies.
They are working on generating new red blood cells from stem cells and have established a clinical grade protocol. Not only does cultured blood provide a new source, it is also expected to overcome many of the problems associated with donated blood transfusions.
The team are now working to perfect this protocol, expand its capabilities and gain approval for initial human studies.
To find out more or to sign up as a donor visit the Give blood website.
Related: What happens to your blood after you’ve donated it? Mosaic takes us behind the scenes at the blood factory.
Image credit: Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images
Accelerated Access Review: speeding up access to innovative drugs and medical technologies for NHS patients
Last year, the Government’s Office for Life Sciences announced the Accelerated Access Review looking at how to get innovative medicines and technologies to patients as quickly as possible. The Wellcome Trust is pleased to be supporting this important review which is being led by Sir Hugh Taylor, Chair of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. In this blog, he tells us more about what he hopes it will achieve.
It is a great privilege to chair the Accelerated Access Review. The central promise of the NHS is that it will be there for us when we need it. So finding new ways to get drugs, devices and diagnostics to patients faster is a very worthwhile task. Many benefits will flow from progress in this area: better treatment and health outcomes for patients; more cost-effective and affordable ways for the NHS to treat patients; and a more central role for research organisations and charities. This will also provide opportunities for business by getting their produces to patients quicker, and a major boost for our economy and the country if we can become a world-leader in designing, developing and using innovative products.
I am being given a huge amount of support. The Wellcome Trust is kindly backing the review. Professor Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, is also leading an External Advisory Group to support the development of our recommendations. His team includes experts from the pharma and medtech industries, small business founders, world-leading clinicians and researchers, patient champions, investors and others with huge international experience.
Harnessing the insights, ideas, expertise and potential solutions from the many organisations and individuals across the NHS, patient groups, academia, pharma and elsewhere will be central to the success of this review.
Already many organisations and individuals have contributed to early thinking. I held an event in March which brought together stakeholders with wide interests and expertise to help me to shape the big issues the review needs to tackle. It also made clear to me the ambition for change we all share. There will be further opportunities to get involved over the coming months, both virtually and at national events.
As Chairman of the Trust at Guy’s and St Thomas’, I see every day the impact that cutting edge medicines and technologies have on patients, on the wards and at our academic health science centre. But 21st century healthcare can only be delivered by a 21st century system.
Our challenge is eminently achievable, but it is not easy. We need to find a way of delivering modern, first-class healthcare in a practical, affordable and sustainable way. We have identified three main areas in which we believe there is significant potential for reform: regulation, reimbursement and uptake.
No-one will lose out if we get this right. Patients are not alone in wanting access to the best healthcare – providers want access to that too. My team and I are determined to produce a series of recommendations for ministers that can make innovative healthcare swifter, better and more widely available.
For more information please visit the Accelerated Access Review website.