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Image of the Week: Science Makes You Happy

24 Oct, 2014

science makes you happy (Pharrell Williams) from KEMRI WELLCOME TRUST RES. PRO on Vimeo.

This week we’re taking a departure from our usual static image of the week to bring you a moving image of happiness!

As part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of the KEMRI-Wellcome Research Programme in Kenya, the team wanted to express their happiness. What better way to do that than by joining in the craze of creating videos to accompany Pharrell’s upbeat track “Happy”?

“It was quite a task getting guys to loosen up” says KEMRI-Wellcome’s Cynthia Mauncho, “but because it included all the programme staff we approached it in a fun easy-going way and the results are fantastic”. (We agree!)

The 25th anniversary celebrations are in full flow today and Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, will be joining in the festivities and touring the labs at the centre. There is an exhibition telling the story KEMRI-Wellcome’s history and the new Mbuyuni Training Complex will be officially opened.

We’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on 25 years of excellent research that has led to 75 PhDs, changed policy and helped improve health in Africa. Here’s to a very happy future!

Celebrating 25 Years of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme

23 Oct, 2014

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The KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP) in Kenya began life in a single building beside the county hospital in Kilifi. 25 years on, this thriving research centre has a string of research breakthroughs under its belt, and is home to an international team of researchers working to improve health in Africa. Professor Kevin Marsh directed the programme from its inception in 1989, until August of this year. He shares some of KWTRP’s success stories and his memories of the past 25 years…

It’s an exciting time for science in Kenya – not only is it the 25th anniversary of the creation of the KWTRP, but this year is also the 50th anniversary of the partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Government of Kenya to support health research in the country.

There is a real sense of pride in the programme’s achievements, so we’ve been marking this anniversary year with a whole series of events. Many of our celebrations have been based in the communities around Kilifi on the Kenyan coast, where the programme is headquartered.

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The programme is a partnership between the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), which is the national body with a responsibility for heath research, Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust.

When we began there were around a dozen of us working on a single project trying to understand what led to some children developing life-threatening malaria. Now KWTRP is an internationally recognised multidisciplinary programme employing around 800 people tackling the biggest issues in health that are facing Kenya and many other African countries.

KEMRIPICAlthough headquartered in Kilifi, several of the programme’s major groups are located in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. They have made major contributions in areas such as health systems research, including a programme of work with the Ministry of health to improve the management of children in hospital across Kenya, and large-scale mapping of the malaria burden across Africa, which is used by governments and international bodies in planning and monitoring the battle against malaria.

I am often asked what’s the most important work we have done? It’s an impossible question to answer given the sheer breadth of disciplines involved. But we are all proud that much of the work – from landmark studies on impregnated bed nets and work on new vaccines, through large scale studies on the management of sick children – has had direct impacts on national and international policy and guidelines, and contributed to improving the lives of millions of children.

Perhaps the thing that has given me most personal satisfaction has been our role in supporting the development of Kenyan science and scientific leadership, with many of the programme’s alumni going on to important leadership positions in other centres in Kenya and elsewhere.

On a personal level I am excited to be returning to the programme for the celebrations – even though it’s only been two months since I left! That time has already allowed me a bit of distance to look back over the last 25 years.

Kemri before and afterLooking at the purpose-built KEMRI centre now with its state-of-the-art laboratories and support facilities, it’s amazing to think that in 1989, programme researchers were housed in a single dilapidated building in the grounds of Kilifi County hospital. Importantly, the close relationship with the hospital still remains with many programme researchers actively involved in patient care.

People often ask me what the key to our success has been. The question makes me nervous as I suspect many of the things that look planned in life have had a large element of plain good luck, but the one thing that is absolutely clear is the importance of people.

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We have been incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful group of colleagues – some of whom were there from the start, others joined later – but all of whom have made the programme what it is.

It’s because of the great team at KWTRP that I am sure the programme will continue to go from strength to strength – I’m already looking forward to my invite to the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2039!

KEMRI-Wellcome’s celebrations come to a climax this week with a two day scientific meeting, followed by a day of celebration including the opening of a new training building. There will also be exhibitions of the programme’s work that will be attended by many guests from within Kenya and around the world. For more information see

Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014: The winners are…

22 Oct, 2014



The winners of the fourth Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize were announced this evening at a ceremony held at Wellcome Trust HQ in London. With over 600 entries to choose from, picking a single winner in each category was no simple task…

IMG_0959“Communicating with the public in getting their insight into the work you do can help inform your research questions,” says Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar. That’s one of the reasons it is so important for us to nurture the next generation of science writers and encourage scientists to think about ways of communicating their work.

The Wellcome Trust science writing prize, run in conjunction with the Guardian and the Observer, is an opportunity for aspiring science communicators to write about research that inspires them, and we’re always delighted with the high quality and number of entries that we receive.

Split into two categories – professional scientists (postgraduate and above) and non-professionals (including undergraduates) – the entries are read by over 40 representatives from the Wellcome Trust, the Guardian and the Observer before a final shortlist is selected by a judging panel, this year headed up by materials scientist and broadcaster Mark Miodownik.

Competition is stiff, so we congratulate all of those who earned a place on the shortlist. Pushed to make a decision, after a passionate, four hour long meeting, the judges picked Richard Stephens and Kate Széll as this year’s winners.
SWP2014 winners

Richard’s piece on smiling – ‘Don’t say cheese, say cheeks’ – earned him the crown (okay, trophy!) in the professional scientists category, while Kate’s article on facial blindness ‘Prosopagnosia – a common problem, commonly overlooked’ the winner of the non-professional and undergraduate category. Commenting on Kate’s piece, Presenter Mark Miodownik said that the judges were amazed it could be true. “We were quite bamboozled by it, but we fact checked it all and it checked out” he said.

Both winners were presented with prize money of £1,000 and their articles will appear in full in the Guardian/the Observer and on the Wellcome Trust blog in the coming weeks.


Science and health stories are on the front pages on a daily basis with the continuing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and there is a continuing need for people who are able to accurately and engagingly explain scientific issues. We hope that the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, schemes such as the Wellcome/New Statesman Scholarship and the science journalism funding we offer will help to develop the next generation of science journalists and communicators. For tips on how to start a science blog, how to avoid common mistakes in science writing, and even how to pitch to an editor, check out our science writing ‘How to’ guides on the blog.

Researcher Spotlight: Dr Kenneth Baillie

20 Oct, 2014


Dr Kenneth Baillie is a consultant in critical care medicine at the Intensive Care Unit of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He holds Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellowship and works at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh where he is looking into the genetics of why some people are more likely than others to get flu. We asked him to tell us more about his research and the motivation behind it..

What are you working on?

My main interest is trying to find human genes that make people susceptible to flu.

The flu virus mutates so quickly that it evolves resistance to antiviral drugs with terrifying speed, but we know that it depends on our own proteins to replicate. My hope is that the genes that make some people get very sick, or even die, from flu will lead us to drug targets that we can use to make susceptible patients become resistant.

Similar approaches can yield important insights in other diseases too. Ultimately my aim is to exploit the information from genomics to better understand and treat critical illness.

What does your average day involve?

Much of my research is computational, so I spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer. To an observer it would look boring, but when I think I’m onto something good (which is most days, but usually a false positive) I sit at my desk with my heart racing.

I think one of the biggest selling points for a career in science is the freedom to follow whatever ideas you like. I can have an idea on the way to work and then spend a week obsessing over it, and no-one bats an eyelid.

I always have several active projects, and I try to work on whatever is exciting me at a particular moment.

Why is your work important?

I have a lot of statistics to show that flu is a big killer, and that pandemic flu is potentially a very serious threat, but the same argument can be made for many diseases. For me, as I think is the case with most doctors who do research, the importance is more personal. I think the biggest single factor that pushed me to work on this problem was the incredulity of a bereaved relative of one of my patients – how can a young, healthy person die of flu in the 21st century?

I share that incredulity with respect to many common problems in critical care: we see people deteriorate over days, one organ failing after another, all from the host response to infection. It must be possible to prevent it, but we still haven’t found effective ways to intervene to help people survive.

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

I want to find new treatments for critical illness, particularly flu.

Probably the surest way for me to do that would be to become a trialist and start resolving some of the many therapeutic questions in critical care medicine, but my work is primarily basic science, where we work on the assumption that understanding disease will one day help us to treat it.

The hope is that we will come up with completely new approaches that will be more effective than the current treatments. In critical care that bar is very low: besides antimicrobials, we have very few treatments that make any direct difference to the progression of disease.

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

B0006927 Influenza virusI chose to train in critical care medicine because I love the physiology, and the mystery of sepsis and critical illness. There are so many unanswered questions that I can’t imagine ever running out of challenges.

Another reason is that, back in 2003, it seemed like a field that was taking off. Three big studies were published that promised to radically cut mortality: early goal-directed therapy, intensive glycaemic control, and activated protein C. Unfortunately all three were to some extent discredited in the following decade, but by then I was already hooked.

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

It has been completely invaluable.

Wellcome funded my clinical academic training through the Edinburgh Clinical Academic Track (ECAT) scheme. I can’t overstate the impact of this scheme on my progression. In particular it gave me access to the best mentorship I could hope for, and guided me into the field I now work in.

Right now Wellcome funding is enabling me to establish my lab and follow up on some very exciting findings, and to visit Broad Institute, where I am working with some of the most brilliant people in biological science.

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

“Can you predict who will get sick from flu?”

People make the assumption that genetics is about prediction. But predicting who will get sick is no use unless you can do something about it.

I don’t want to find a better way to tell which of my patients should write a will. I want to find a way to send them home alive. Genetics is potentially a very powerful way to do that, but it will take a long time.

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

“How long will it take to find a cure?”

A perfectly understandable question, but the answer can only be known in retrospect. Also the word “cure” makes it impossible to answer without sounding extremely unrealistic.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

It isn’t a world record, but to my knowledge no-one has ever completed the circumnavigation of the Baltic Sea by bicycle relay faster than a team of 15 people, including me, in 2000. (It took 13 days, 10 hours, and 23 minutes, in case you are wondering.)

What keeps you awake at night?

My kids. Particularly when they are ill.

Also since I presumably share genetic susceptibility to viral infections with them, when they get sick, I get sick. A sensible approach would be for all of us to swap children on day one so that we get fewer of the nursery bugs.

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

Before I chose my PhD project, Derek Angus (University of Pittsburgh) told me: “Find the best scientist in your university, and go work for them”.

The chain reaction question, set by the previous spotlit research Dr Helen Lee is: “What lessons have you learned from doing your research that could help other scientists?”

I’m really just starting out as an independent scientist, so I have a great deal yet to learn. So far I think the biggest lesson has been to tackle important questions.

It is quite daunting to think of how many brilliant people are already working on flu already – it seems almost arrogant to think that I could make any contribution on top of their efforts. But everyone has a different approach, and the more perspectives we have, the better chance we’ll make big advances.

You can find out more about Dr Kenneth Baillie’s work on the Roslin Institute website or by reading his papers on Targeting the host immune response to fight infection and A promoter-level mammalian expression atlas.

Image Credit: Representation of influenza virus, Anna Tanczos, Wellcome Images

Image of the Week: Celebrating science

17 Oct, 2014

Evening Standard The 1000 event 2014

Last night the grounds of Crick Institute played host to an event celebrating scientific ambition and global humanitarianism in the capital. Supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alongside the Crick Institute, this year’s Evening Standard list of the 1000 most influential Londoners had a special focus on science. Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick Institute, welcomed guests and spoke of his hopes for the institute (opening in 2015) to become a global hub for science collaboration.

This week’s image above shows of one of the science-based entertainments, from the evening. An installation enabling guests to get an answer to the question “Am I attractive?”

There was no danger of causing offence since the judges of “attractiveness” were hungry mosquitoes, contained in the orb and cube shown above. Putting your hand in special slots enabled the mosquitoes to detect chemicals in your sweat and if they liked what they found they moved in close to take a bite.

Thankfully a mesh barrier prevented partygoers from getting bitten, even if they were particularly attractive to captive mosquitoes!

This year’s list, described by Trust director Jeremy Farrar as a good way of “celebrating the connectivity of people from all walks of life”, includes a number of Trust staff and researchers.

We would like to congratulate all those from the Wellcome community who have been recognised on the list – including UCL’s Dr Molly Crockett, Prof Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Prof Nazneen Rahman from the Institute of Cancer Research, together with our director Dr Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust Chair Sir Bill Castell and head of investments, Danny Truell.

Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 13/10/14

13 Oct, 2014

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

Identifying the genetic factors of height is a tall order

N0011513 Child development; measuring heightAn international collaboration of scientists has identified a fifth of the genetic factors that cause height to vary between individuals.

A study which examined data on DNA from more than 250,000 people, published in Nature Genetics, roughly doubles the number of known genome regions involved in height to more than 400. It also revealed that more than half of the factors involved in determining height are explained by simple common genetic variation – the sort of genetic variation that exists in more than 1 in 10 people.

The research team checked more than 2 million common genetic factors – those shared by at least five per cent of participants. From this they found 697 genetic variants in 424 regions of the genome that are related to height. The findings represent a massive stride forward in an area of research in which virtually nothing was known as recently as 2007.

Professor Tim Frayling from the University of Exeter Medical School, who oversaw the study, said: “It’s common knowledge that people born to tall parents are more likely to be tall themselves. Most of this is down to the variations in our DNA sequence that we inherit from our parents – the different versions of all our genes. We have now identified nearly 700 genetic variants that are involved in determining height.”

He added: “[This research] is also a step forward towards a test that may reassure parents worried that their child is not growing as well as they’d hoped – most of these children have probably simply inherited a big batch of “short genes”.

The collaboration, aptly named the GIANT consortium, is co-led by the University of Exeter Medical School and part-funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Watching molecules ‘wiggle’

A new crystallographic technique developed is set to transform scientists’ ability to observe how molecules work.

A research paper, published in the journal Nature Methods, describes a new way of doing time-resolved crystallography, a method that researchers use to observe changes within the structure of molecules.

The new method will allow researchers across the world to carry out dynamic crystallography and is likely to provide a major boost in areas of research that rely on understanding how molecules work, such as the development of novel smart materials or new drugs.

Understanding how structure and dynamics are linked to function is key to designing better medicines that are targeted at specific states of molecules, helping to avoid unwanted side effects.

“A time-resolved structure is a bit like having a movie for crystallographers,” said Professor Arwen Pearson, who led the team at the University of Leeds. “Life wiggles. It moves about and, to understand it, you need to be able to see how biological structures move at the atomic scale. This breakthrough allows us to do that.

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and was conducted at the University of Leeds and the Diamond Light Source.

First pictures show how BRCA2 protein works to repair damaged DNA

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Mutations in the gene that encodes BRCA2 are well known for raising the risk of breast cancer and other cancers. Although the protein was known to be involved in DNA repair, its shape and mechanism have been unclear, making it impossible to target with therapies.

Researchers at Imperial College London and the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute (LRI) purified the protein and used electron microscopy to reveal its structure and how it interacts with other proteins and DNA. The results are published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

Around 1 in 1000 people in the UK have a mutation in the BRCA2 gene. The lifetime risk of breast cancer for women with BRCA2 mutations is 40 to 85 per cent, depending on the mutation, compared with around 12 per cent for the general population. Many women who test positive for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations choose to undergo surgery to reduce their risk of breast cancer. Mutations can also raise the risk of other cancers, such as ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancer.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes encode proteins involved in DNA repair. The DNA in our cells undergoes damage thousands of times a day, caused by toxic chemicals, metabolic by-products and ultraviolet radiation. Repair mechanisms correct most of this damage, but unrepaired damage can lead to cancer.

“This study improves our understanding of a fundamental cause of cancer,” said Professor Xiaodong Zhang, a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator, who led the research along with Dr Stephen West at the LRI. “It’s our first view of how the protein looks and how it works, and it gives us a platform to design new experiments to probe its mechanism in greater detail.”

In other news…

B0007437 Dame Kay DaviesWellcome Trust governor Professor Kay Davies and Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow Professor Jane Clarke have been shortlisted for the 2014 WISE Lifetime Achievement Award and WISE Champion Award respectively. WISE (Women in to Science and Engineering), is an organisation whose mission is to increase the gender balance in the UK’s STEM workforce.

The Wellcome Trust is collaborating with Merck Serono (the biopharmaceutical division of Merck) and the Institute of Cancer Research to identify inhibitors of tankyrase, an enzyme of the poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase family, with the goal of bringing a new cancer therapeutic drug to patients. The agreement follows on from an existing drug discovery program at the ICR, which supported by a Seeding Drug Discovery Award.

Image credit: Kay Davies – Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images

The Help We’ll Need to Fight Ebola

10 Oct, 2014

C0105595 Dr Felicity Hartnell. Ebola vaccine trial

With the Ebola epidemic continuing to grow – the World Health Organisation reports 10,000 cases and expects a further 10,000 before the epidemic is over – Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Trust and Dr Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, call for unprecedented action to be taken with regards to testing potential treatments. The following joint statement first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 9th October 2014.

The imported cases of Ebola in the U.S. and Spain are almost certainly not the harbingers of extensive and sustained outbreaks in developed countries. But neither will they be the last of their kind. For as a long as Ebola continues to rage in West Africa, more infected people can be expected to make their way to Europe, the Americas and beyond. More cases of secondary transmission, as has happened in Spain, are to be anticipated too.

Small outbreaks of this sort will be contained in countries with good hospital systems and infection control, but the developed world will still pay a human and financial price for its failure to respond quickly to the catastrophe in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The case for increased action by Western nations against the epidemic remains first and foremost a matter of moral and humanitarian urgency. But there is self-interest at stake as well.

What, though, should the rich world be doing? The key to containing any epidemic infectious disease is a concept called R, the reproductive number. This is the number of people that each person with the disease will themselves infect. When R is greater than one, an epidemic is growing. When it is less than one, it is dying out. In this Ebola epidemic, R is currently estimated at between 1.3 and 1.8, and at some hotspots of infection it is higher still. Getting this down is the overwhelming priority. For R to reach one, models suggest 70% of Ebola patients must be isolated. Containment and care efforts must concentrate on achieving that, to reduce transmission in the community while reducing mortality through supportive care.

One approach would be to invest in ways to proactively identify and isolate cases, but that may be too resource-intensive to be implemented with the necessary speed. And if it is at all coercive in nature, it also risks further undermining public trust in already fragile health systems. A better option may be to provide incentives for people who might be infected to seek care earlier—both for the sake of their own survival and so they can be appropriately isolated to prevent transmission for others.

This means creating community clinical facilities—tents or converted buildings will do—where these people can expect good care, nutrition and infection control, so that those who have Ebola don’t pass it on to those who do not. Such facilities would ensure that people suspected of having Ebola are isolated from the community until infection is confirmed and they are transferred to treatment centres, or they test negative and are discharged. But it requires building public confidence that seeking care will help, not hinder, an individual’s chances of survival. That requires investment in facilities and, above all, listening to people to understand their concerns and beliefs.

Supporting the provision of community facilities and treatment centres has rightly become the focus of most recent international interventions, such as the U.K. and U.S. military deployments, and contributions from China, Cuba and France. This global response is scaling up, and it will make a tangible difference.

More resources, however, are still urgently required. Models already suggest that thousands of beds will be needed. Any delay in supplying them will increase the number needed as the epidemic gets worse. Underinvestment in the international response would cost us much more in the long run.

C0105554 Ebola vaccine trial at Oxford University

Another investment priority is the development of drugs and vaccines. Safety trials of vaccines are already under way. If one proves even partially effective, it could have a transformative effect on the progress of the epidemic. Drugs matter too, even though they would do little directly to stem transmission. Besides potentially reducing mortality, their availability would provide a critical incentive for people with symptoms to seek medical care. It is so much easier for health-care systems to build trust when there is at least a little hope to offer.

Which is also why we believe that as candidate drugs begin to be tested, the West shouldn’t insist on randomised, controlled trials of the sort generally required by our regulatory systems. Randomising patients to receive an investigational drug or conventional care is neither ethical when conventional care means 70% mortality, nor practical when health-care systems and civil order are breaking down. It might even threaten the trust we need to build. There are other ways to achieve the safety and efficacy data that the World Health Organisation will need to identify the most beneficial options, with greater speed and community acceptance.

Ebola is out of control, but it is certainly controllable. Now that international resources are finally being mobilised and deployed, it is crucial that they go where they can make a difference and save most lives.


Image of the Week: Florence Nightingale’s Moccasins

10 Oct, 2014

L0057412 Florence Nightingale's moccasins, 1850-1856This week we’ve discovered some footwear which may have helped keep some very famous feet warm! These moccasins from the Science Museum are purported to have belonged to Florence Nightingale while she worked in Scutari military hospital, in what is now Istanbul, Turkey.

The “lady with the lamp” is commonly known for reducing the death rates on the wards – from a whopping 42%, down to 2% in two years. However there is still debate amongst historians as to her role in this, as well as her impact on modern healthcare. A traditional interpretation is that by enforcing cleanliness, altering diets and efficient running of the hospital, Nightingale reduced the death rate. However recent analysis suggests that her changes initially facilitated the spread of diseases such as Cholera, Dystentry and Typhoid. The death rate only dropped after a commission was sent out six months after her arrival to clean sewers and improve ventilation, preventing the spread of the water-borne diseases.

One thing that most agree on however is Nightingale’s meticulous records and use of data. Florence Nightingale was innovative in her use of statistics and an evidence base in nursing. She used visual representations of statistics to persuade decision makers– an early trendsetter for infographics!

Do you want to hear how Florence spoke as well as her choice of footwear? The Wellcome Collection has a recording of Florence Nightingale’s voice on display as part of their A-Z of the Human Condition which closes in just two days on Sunday the 12th of October – so head over quickly!

Image credit: The Science Museum, 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.

Researcher Spotlight : Dr Helen Lee

6 Oct, 2014

helen leeDr Helen Lee is  the Director of Research at the Diagnostics Development Unit at Cambridge University, where she leads the development of diagnostics for diseases such as HIV and chlamydia. She is also President and CEO of spin-out company Diagnostics for the Real World , which  takes these diagnostics  to market. This week she tells us about her work, what motivates her and how she got to where she is today.

What are you working on?

My group develops technologies and translates them into diagnostic assays for the detection of infectious diseases specifically for resource-poor settings. Due to the limitation of infrastructure and lack of highly-trained personnel, the tests need to be simple, robust and yet with high-performance. Our goal has always been to DELIVER these assays to rural areas where they can be used to give rapid results while the patients are still on site. I have always said that if all we do is to develop a prototype assay or publish papers, then we would have failed.

What does your average day involve?

I interact a great deal with the development team with different yet complementary skills that are necessary for the development of diagnostic platforms. The team is made up of a kaleidoscope of molecular biologists, clinical trial, regulatory and quality control specialists, hardware and software engineers, plastic component designers, mechanical engineers, project or product managers and production assemblers.

Why is your work important?

 I would not necessarily describe our work as important, but I do think it is very useful — particularly to those living in rural areas of developing countries who do not have access to timely diagnostic tests and therefore appropriate treatment. By providing simple and yet effective diagnostics that do not require highly-trained personnel or cold chain transport/storage, we aim to make a difference.

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

 For anyone who has visited rural clinics in sub-Saharan Africa, s/he cannot help but be struck by the image of women with one child on her back and others tethered to her hand, waiting on the lawn because there is no waiting room. Some of them must have slept over night there since they are waiting in the early morning. I do not know how they get there since I do not readily see public transport. I hope our rapid test which can lead to a clinical action during one such visit will make their life a little easier and better.

helen lee lab

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

 I used to work in industry, at one of the fortune 500 diagnostic companies. A group of us wanted to do something about the diagnostic needs in developing countries where the prevalence are highest and resources the poorest. For obvious and in fact legitimate reasons, the company’s responsibility was to the shareholders. Consequently, we decided to put our money where our mouth was and left industry to academia, where profit is not the motive and where we could find an environment to develop technologies specifically for resource-poor settings.


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

 What we do has little or no commercial value, even though it can be extremely useful. If it had not been for the funding from the Wellcome Trust throughout the years, we would not be where we are today.

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

 People often ask me what makes innovation? And my answer has always been that innovation is not just about intelligence – most people are pretty intelligent. Rather, it is about being able to deal with failures, day in and day out. In fact, if something is that easy to do, someone would have done it already. So for me, innovation is rooted in perseverance. More than anything else, it is about finding a way to do what needs to be done and never give up.

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

 I do not dread any question about my work. I do dread that I am not efficient at my work, and I often am not, alas.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

 I am an avid football fan and for a Chinese woman working in academia, this often surprises people. In fact, I only came in to finish this interview today after the Arsenal and Chelsea game. Although my husband is French and we tend to support Arsenal, Chelsea deserved to win today and Wenger made a mistake in not taking Cesc Fabregas back…

What keeps you awake at night?

 Failure to deliver the tests to where it is needed – and after all this effort over the years. I worry the most about failing those who have worked so hard and so long alongside with me and who have believed in what we are trying to do.

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

 Something my mother told me many years ago: If you really want to do something, and if what you really want to do is truly worthwhile, the world will step aside and let you go through.

helen lee lab 2

And finally, the “chain-reaction” question set by our previous spotlit researcher Professor Helen McShane: Do you love what you do?

Absolutely!  In the past 20 years, I do not ever remember dreading on a Sunday evening that I have to go to work the next day. I often think how lucky I am — not rich but earning a good enough living, doing something that is intellectually challenging but also useful, and having the freedom to work on what I believe in.  Working has been a privilege to me.

If you want to explore Dr Helen Lee’s work further then take a look at this  short film about Helen’s work, or read some of  her recent published work : Performance of a New Rapid Test for the Detection of Hepatitis B Surface Antigen in Various Patient Populations, SAMBA HIV Semiquantitative Test, a New Point-of-Care Viral-Load-Monitoring Assay for Resource-Limited Settings



Image of the Week: Thuja seed

3 Oct, 2014

B0006894 Seed head of a thuja tree.

This week we bring you a wrinkly, dull coloured seed. Whilst we certainly have some more stunning images in the collection, it’s the story behind this plant that makes it worth seeing.

This is a seed head from the Thuja tree – a genus of plants which have been used to make antimicrobial ointments to combat everything from thrush to warts and ringworm. Thuja oil was popular with herbalists in the 19th century and is still used in alternative medicine, where it remains a popular treatment for venereal warts!

Whilst experimental evidence for the antimicrobial properties, or indeed safety for medical use, of Thuja is lacking, many clinically-trialled antimicrobial medicines do have roots (no pun intended) in plants and fungi. Notably quinine, from the Cinchona Tree and artemisinin, from Artemisia annua are plant-derived treatments for malaria that were previously used in traditional medicine.

The ability of some plants and fungi to kill or stop the growth of pathogens has been well exploited, most famously in the development of antibiotic penicillin from the Penicillium fungus. Unfortunately, over use of antimicrobials has often led to pathogens evolving resistance to them. Antimicrobial resistance is an issue that the Wellcome Trust has been very involved with, working closely with the UK government. Different ways of combating resistance include using existing medicines more wisely, developing new antimicrobials, and using a variety of antimicrobials for treatment. Interestingly, looking to traditional medicine and plant derived products is often part of these solutions.

Image credit: Annie Cavanagh, 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.

Director’s Update: Changes to the Wellcome Trust’s structure and leadership

1 Oct, 2014

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome TrustSince he joined us this time last year, Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, has been listening – to staff, to researchers, to members of the Wellcome community, and more. In this post he explains some changes to our organisational structure and leadership team…

A year ago today, I became Director of the Wellcome Trust. It has been a fantastic twelve months and a wonderful journey, in the course of which I have been listening to people’s views about this great organisation, and learning much about it, from within and from outside. I am very grateful to everyone who has come to talk to me, to share your ideas, your work and your thoughts for the future.

New leadership is always an opportunity to look afresh at an organisation’s direction and structure, and it has been my priority over the past year to think over how best to take forward our vision, together with colleagues from across the Trust and the Board of Governors. In July, I announced an evolution of our funding framework, with a focus on broadening our funding opportunities for younger researchers, for teams, for people with innovative ideas and to give us the space to act more strategically and all with a global perspective. We hope to be able to share further details of this next month.

Today, I am also delighted to announce some changes to the organisational structure and executive leadership of the Trust, which I believe will help us to achieve our goals and deliver our mission.

Following the decision by David Lynn to retire early, for personal reasons, from full-time work and the position of Director of Strategic Planning and Policy, we have created a new division of the Trust, Strategy. It will be tasked with refining and articulating the Trust’s ambitious vision of improving human and animal health, embedding our new strategic funding framework, and helping us to track our progress. It will nurture and develop our external relationships and influence (in the UK and globally), and sit at the heart of the Trust so it can draw on expertise from across the organisation. It will bring together the existing teams of Strategic Planning and Policy, Evaluation, Communications, Education and Grants Management, along with a new “Incubation Unit” for developing new projects. This last unit will include the Sustaining Health initiative led by Ted Bianco.

I am delighted that Clare Matterson has agreed to lead this new Division as Director of Strategy. Over the past decade, Clare has proved herself to be visionary leader as Director of Culture & Society, where she has overseen a significant expansion of the Trust’s investment in humanities, social science, public engagement and education, as well as launching the critically-acclaimed and much-visited Wellcome Collection.

We hope to appoint Clare’s successor as Director of Culture & Society soon, to continue to build on her inspiring work at a time when the resources available for it are increasing. Clare will look after both divisions until this process is complete. We are also beginning the search for a Director of Innovations to succeed Ted Bianco.

We will also be creating a second new division, People & Development. The greatest asset in any organisation is its people, and I want the development, careers, leadership and recruitment of individuals and teams to be central to discussions at the Executive Board. I also think the Trust could do more to support leadership and personal and team development in our wider research community. To that end, we will appoint a Director of People & Development, with a focus on finding and encouraging talent and leadership both internally and externally.

Finally, recruitment is now advanced for a Chief Financial Officer, to lead the Finance & IT division that has a crucial role in providing assurance and guidance on our spending, as well as bringing creative and resilient technological solutions to enable us in our work. The responsibilities previously held so ably by Simon Jeffreys, who stepped down as Chief Operating Officer earlier this year, will be divided between Finance & IT, People & Development, Strategy and Legal.

Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 29/09/14

29 Sep, 2014

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

Immune system of newborn babies is stronger than previously thought

The immune system of a newborn baby, although very different to an adult’s, may still be able to mount a strong immune defense, according to new findings that go against the received wisdom on this topic.  Baby, newborn Credit:Anthea Sieveking

The study, published in Nature Medicine and funded by the Wellcome Trust, found that the immune T cells of newborn babies may have the ability to trigger an inflammatory response to bacteria. Up to now, it was generally believed that babies have an immature immune system that doesn’t allow this. Although babies need to protect themselves from the harmful pathogens they are exposed to from birth, it was thought that their T cells were suppressed to some extent to prevent inflammatory damage to the developing child.

Now, a team at Kings College London has discovered that whilst T cells in newborn babies are largely different to those in adults, it is not because they are immunosuppressed. Rather, they manufacture a potent anti-bacterial molecule known as IL8 that has not previously been considered to be a major product of T cells, and that activates neutrophils to attack the body’s foreign invaders.

Deena Gibbons, lead author at King’s College London, says: “We found that babies have an in-built anti-bacterial defense mechanism that works differently to adults, but nevertheless may be effective in protecting them. This may also be a mechanism by which the baby protects itself in utero from infections of the mother. The next stage of our work will be to better understand the pathways that result in the immune cells of newborns being so different to those in adults.”

Statins associated with modest increases in weight and diabetes risk

The mechanism by which statins increase the risk of type 2 diabetes has been investigated in a large-scale analysis from an international team led by researchers from UCL and the University of Glasgow, using information from genetic studies and clinical trials.

HMG-CoA reductase Credit:T. Greenhough & A. ShrivePublished in The Lancet, the work received support from a number of funders including the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, Rosetrees Trust and National Institute for Health Research University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre.

Among nearly 130 000 participants from clinical trials that previously tested the effect of statins on heart disease and stroke, those assigned statins vs. placebo, or higher vs. lower doses of statins, were noted to have a small increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, of about 12% over a four-year period, and also to gain an excess of 240g (around half a pound) in weight.

“Weight gain is a risk factor for diabetes which might help explain the small increased risk of diabetes observed in people taking statins”, explains co-lead author Dr David Preiss of the University of Glasgow Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences.

Statins work by reducing the efficiency of a liver enzyme involved in cholesterol production, which causes liver cells to trap more low-density lipoprotein (LDL-) cholesterol from the bloodstream, reducing its circulating level. This mechanism is thought to underlie the efficacy of statins in lowering the risk of stroke and heart disease.

HIV-infected individuals receiving therapy are still susceptible to TB disease

People infected with HIV, but who are stable and taking a combination of potent antiretroviral drugs (known as ART), are still more susceptible to developing TB disease than those who are not HIV-infected because of problems with TB-specific immune responses in their lungs, according to a new study.

HIV particles Credit:R. Dourmashkin

TB is an opportunistic infection which commonly infects and kills people who have HIV. A new study, conducted by researchers at the Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme, explains why people taking ART who have undetectable concentration of HIV viruses in their blood and a high T cell count (indicating a good response to ART and a strong immune system) are still susceptible to developing TB disease.

The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, examined blood and lung samples from 35 HIV-uninfected, 25 HIV-infected ART-naïve (those who were not taking ART), and 50 HIV-infected ART-treated adults.

They found that immune cells found in the lungs called ‘alveolar macrophages’ and T cells that respond specifically to the presence of the TB-causing bacteria or its proteins do not work properly in HIV-infected adults who have taken ART for less than four years, partly explaining why they are susceptible to developing TB disease.

Dr Kondwani Jambo, a postdoctoral fellow funded by the Malawi Health Research Capacity Strengthening Initiative (HRCSI), which is part-funded by the Wellcome Trust, and Dr Henry Mwandumba, a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow, are among the authors of the study. Dr Mwandumba said: “These findings underscore the need for strategies to augment ART to improve lung immune cell function and reduce the incidence of TB. The use of vaccines that promote repopulation of the lungs with TB-specific immune cells and the use of preventive TB treatments, especially during the early years of ART when HIV-infected individuals are most vulnerable, ought to be considered.”

Image credits:
Newborn baby – Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images; Model of human enzyme inhibited by statins – T. Greenhough & A. Shrive, Wellcome Images; HIV particles – R. Dourmashkin, Wellcome Images. 

Image of the Week: Artificial Knee Joint

26 Sep, 2014

B0000523 SEM cobalt chrome tibial tray/artificial knee

Perhaps you see vessels or worm-like structures when looking at our image this week. Or perhaps it looks more like synthetic fibres or metal wires. There’s something quite beautiful about it but also something a little bit unsettling.

Is this a photo of something man-made or organic? You could say it is both! It is part of an artificial knee joint, photographed under a Scanning Electron Microscope. This particular part is called a tibial tray, and attaches to the shin bone (tibia) to help keep the joint stable. This type of knee replacement has what’s known as a porous coated design – you can see gaps between the sections of metal, which allows bone to grow into the replacement joint, reducing the chances of the artificial limb being displaced or becoming unstable. It allows the synthetic and the organic to merge together.

The photo was taken after the artificial knee joint was removed from a patient during surgery and replaced with a new one. Surgery would have taken around three hours and is a larger undertaking than the original knee replacement. We can see the structure so clearly because the tissue has been digested, allowing the metal to be visible. However, traces of the tissue can still be seen. They are a reminder that we are seeing something that was once an important component of someone’s body – part man-made, part organic.

Image Credit: EM Unit, UCL Medical School, Royal Free Campus, 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.

Shaping our Sustaining Health initiative

25 Sep, 2014

The city of New York came to a standstill on Sunday as hundreds of thousands of people joined the People’s Climate march. Chants of “Show me what democracy looks like – This is what democracy looks like” echoed around Times Square as people from over 2000 groups and organisations joined thousands more individuals all wanting to get their voice heard on the issue of climate change. The Wellcome Trust’s Sustaining Health team were also in town to hear from a diverse range of experts, to help us shape our Sustaining Health initiative. Kate Arkless Gray gives a taste of the discussions taking place in New York…
photo 4
“Never before has a species thought its way out of a Darwinian selection process” said Ted Bianco, from the Trust’s Sustaining Health team, opening the discussion ‘Sustaining Health: Linking environment, nutrition and health’.

There is a real sense of energy in New York as the world’s leaders convene for the UN Climate Summit. The whole city is alive with people discussing commitments to change, debating what can be done, and forging new collaborations. Ban Ki-Moon proclaimed that leaders are “not here to talk, but to make history”.

For our own part, the Wellcome Trust, together with the International Research Institute for Climate & Society (IRI), Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Meteos, hosted an event to bring together a range of global voices to discuss the links between climate and health. These included public health researchers, economists, investors, social entrepreneurs, climate scientists and more.

We began with Professor Kirk Smith, Convening Lead Author of ‘Human Health: Impacts, Adaptation, and Co-benefits’ the IPCC fifth assessment report, giving an overview of the report’s findings in relation to health.

photo 5

With 190 countries signed up to it (and thus having to sign off the report) getting everyone to agree was not straight forward. Smith explained the report’s strength comes from the number of countries involved, but it was a double-edged sword at times, and the need for unilateral agreement affected the content.

Smith summed up the report by splitting the issue into three eras: The present – where it’s very difficult to assign a significant burden of disease to human-caused climate change to date, although local effects are occurring; the future up to 2050 – where growing health impacts can be expected if adaptation measures are not taken, but could be greatly reduced if they were; and the future post 2050 – where there is a risk in the higher emissions scenarios that exceeds conceivable adaptation potentials, thus leading to major impacts on health, particularly among the poor.

With the scene set, the discussion began. Our panel – Steve Davis, President and CEO, PATH, Ricardo Fuentes Nieva, Head of Research for Oxfam GB, Patrick Kinney, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health and Madeleine Thomson, Senior Research Scientist at IRI – gave their reflections and opened up the conversation to the room.

Smith’s assertion that climate change is “the most regressive tax in history” chimed with Fuentes Nieva. Introducing a theme that continued throughout the afternoon, he reminded us that while climate change is a global problem, it doesn’t affect everyone equally. The most vulnerable people, the poorest people, the ones less able to adapt to change, will be at the frontline where climate change exacerbates existing problems.

Two trends – the increasing numbers of vulnerable people, together with a growing increase in inequality – mean that without action, we risk leaving people behind.

The discussion around the role of science and technology included the potential benefits of big data, which led to John Krebs voicing the need for linking data sets and connecting the silos. Anne Johnson highlighted the mismatch in the places with available data and those where action is needed.

John Balbus (NIH-NIEH) pointed out that health is late to the climate impact data-modelling game, which could be an avenue worth exploring, while Madeleine Thomson reminded us of the need to consider whether data is collected and shared in a format that meets the need of people on the ground.
It’s not just researchers that need access to accurate, relevant and fit for purpose data. Health ministers also need access to reliable data, in a format that is useful to them.

Climate change is a global problem, but solutions need to be locally appropriate. What works in one place won’t always work elsewhere, and so far the focus has often been on solutions that work for middle-income settings, rather than the most vulnerable.

photo 2

Another exciting concept is that of ‘Healthy Cities’ however Kinney remarked that despite much activity in this area, there has been little in terms of assessing the cost-effectiveness of measures linking obesity, pollution and city development.

Richard Horton reflected on “Countdown to 2015” – a scientific network set up when it became clear that the millennium development goal on child and maternal mortality would be missed. He suggested that perhaps there could be lessons taken from this collaboration, which tracked indi

cators that mattered to the public as well as to governments. Long-term investment in bringing people together is needed.

The question was raised of how to get corporations involved in the debate and taking action. Understanding the financial markets and changes in the way they are working with technology and health could be key to that.

Other areas touched upon during the afternoon included food security – alternative crops and food sources need consideration, population and family planning – a sensitive issue, which would need careful handling, social networks and use of technology to drive behavioural change, and the collection of metrics on exposure.

Finally, Kirk Smith called for artists, philosophers and authors to help start a cultural revolution to help inform and create debate to combat and survive climate change and protect our future.

It was a gracious, honest conversation, with people from different backgrounds bringing their experience and perspectives to the discussion on linking environment, nutrition and health.

It’s given us plenty of food for thought and we will continue to listen to a wide range views from disparate sectors to inform our decisions on how the Wellcome Trust can have an impact on sustaining health.

You can find out more about the Sustaining Health initiative on on the Wellcome Trust website. A record of the live tweets  from the event in New York using the hashtag #SustHealth are available on the @WellcomeLive twitter account.

Image credits: Kate Arkless-Gray

Reality behind research: 21 years of oral history with Wellcome Witness

24 Sep, 2014

Thousands of scientific papers are published every year, reporting on interesting results, but the standard format – introduction, materials and methods, results, conclusions, references – leaves little space for the social context of the work. For over 20 years, the Wellcome Trust has been supporting Wellcome Witness seminars, which bring together key figures in research to discuss the stories behind the discoveries. Professor Tilli Tansey discusses the Witness Seminars, and on the occasion of the publication of the 50th volume in the Wellcome Witnesses to Contemporary Biomedicine series, reflects on some of the highlights and the remarkable people she met along the way…

Dr Tilli Tansey and Sir Chris Booth, at a Witness Seminar

Dr Tilli Tansey and Sir Chris Booth, at Witness Seminar on post-penicillin antibiotics, 1998 © Wellcome Library, London

On 24th September 1993 we did an experiment in the Wellcome Building at 183 Euston Road. ‘We’ were the Wellcome Trust’s History of Twentieth Century Medicine Group (initially me, Sir Christopher Booth – a retired clinician, and Mrs Wendy Kutner – our secretary for two days a week). The group was set up by the Wellcome Trust in 1990 to try to bring together historians, scientists, clinicians and others interested in studying recent medical history. The aforementioned “experiment” was our first ever Witness Seminar, on the topic of monoclonal antibodies.

Monoclonal antibodies were discovered in the 1970s when it was shown that a single clone (i.e. of genetically identical cells) grown in culture, could be treated so as to produce pure, specific antibodies, which opened up exciting new possibilities of precisely targeted forms of medicine. This was an important discovery to explore and we wanted to get behind the rigid structure of the published scientific papers to hear from those who were there at the time. What really happened, and how and why? What were the key experiments that influenced the work? Who were the main players (including those lesser known names)? What went right, and – what one rarely hears about – what went wrong?

As well as being an important medical discovery, here was another reason we wanted to discuss monoclonal antibodies. The techniques had never been patented in the UK, although American scientists seized on the discovery and did get patents. By the late 1980s this had become a ‘scandal’, seen by some as another example, like the ‘loss’ of British penicillin to the USA in the Second World War, of the inability of naive scientists and their institutions to exploit discoveries commercially.That afternoon, 21 years ago, was fascinating – our witnesses included the two principal scientists involved, César Milstein and Georges Köhler who shared the Nobel Prize in 1984; contemporary colleagues and rivals; administrators and journalists. They were all open and frank (although not necessarily in agreement) about the development of vital techniques in the lab, the role of key personnel, and in particular the role of patents and commercialisation in medical research.

The whole meeting was recorded, transcribed with permission from the speakers, and the tapes and transcript were deposited in the archives of the Wellcome Library for the use of future historians.

We realised that this approach provided insights, details and discussions not available elsewhere and planned a few repeat experiments. In 1996 we decided to publish the edited proceedings, and the following year a volume, optimistically labelled as ‘one’, appeared.

With the continued support of the Wellcome Trust, initially in-house, then at UCL and more recently at QMUL, we continued to develop this technique and have published nearly 60 meetings, mostly in the series Wellcome Witnesses to Contemporary Medicine (formerly Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine).

In line with the open policy of the Wellcome Trust, all of our material is freely available for use by others.

Over the past 20 years, over 1400 people have contributed to our seminars, including several Nobel Laureates, clinicians and scientists of practically every medical specialty, and patients, technicians, nurses, and journalists, amongst others. I am convinced of the power of this technique in allowing many authentic but diverse voices of modern biomedicine to be heard and proud that we have been able to record the voices behind some great discoveries.

Over the years there are some particular favourites, a few of which I’d like to share.

Dr Ethel Bidwell and Dr Charles Rizza at Witness Seminar on haemophilia

Dr Ethel Bidwell and Dr Charles Rizza at Witness Seminar on haemophilia, Feb 1998 © Wellcome Library, London

One of these is from Dr Ethel Bidwell from our meeting on haemophilia. She was extremely reluctant to attend, telling me over the phone when I invited her that she had nothing to contribute. But I knew, from reading the journals of the time and from a casual conversation with a haematologist friend that she was the person who, in the 1950s, had discovered factor VIII, the first reliable treatment for haemophilia, and I wanted to hear her story.

Fortunately I managed to persuade her to come, and when she arrived we persuaded her to talk about her early work. Trained as an enzyme chemist, she joined the MRC Blood Coagulation Lab in Oxford to work on gas gangrene, but finding no-one there interested in her work, she decided to see if she could ‘make something from animal blood’ to treat haemophiliacs.

Ethel described the primitive conditions in which she collected blood from the local abattoir, where the slaughterhouse men always wanted her to have blood from the prize animals that won rosettes. She reckoned that ‘ancient old cows were much better’.

Page on haemophilia in volume 50

Page on haemophilia in volume 50

After pouring the blood into a big glass Winchester bottle she would strap it to the back of her Vespa scooter and gingerly ride back to the lab, constantly worried that she would have an accident and the blood would spill all over the road.Another memorable witness was from the same meeting, Clifford Welch. Himself a mild haemophiliac he described how life ‘severely shook up’ in 1930 when he was five and triplet brothers were born, all of whom had haemophilia. He vividly described the limited availability of treatment, the frequent trips to Barts Hospital in London, as one or other brother, sometimes two or more together, were admitted. He gave a particular mention of the ‘miracle’ of blood transfusions from their mother that saved their lives on numerous occasions.

picture 4 WWDr Usama Abdulla and Mr Thomas Brown at Witness Seminar on obstetric ultrasound

Dr Usama Abdulla and Mr Thomas Brown at Witness Seminar on obstetric ultrasound, March 1998, © Wellcome Library, London

Tom Brown, a star witness at the seminar on Obstetric Ultrasound, recalled his early days as an engineer in the Glasgow shipyards, working on using ultrasound as a non-destructive way to detect flaws in metals being used to build submarines. Hearing that the Professor of Midwifery was trying to find ways of visualizing the foetus in utero, Tom looked him up in the phone book, gave him a call, and their initial conversation led to the collaboration that developed the machines and procedures that are now routine in every ante-natal department.

These are the sort of insights that we aim to capture – the personal tales and memories that have no space in traditional scientific publications, but shed light on the reality of iconic research.It is not only individuals, but sometimes whole groups that are particularly memorable. We have held a number of meetings to examine the history behind large scale survey work, including NATSAL (National Survey of Sexual attitudes and lifestyles); ALSPAC (Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children); and the work of the MRC Epidemiological Research Unit in South Wales. The little-heard voices of the interviewers themselves provided intriguing details.

Wendy Williams described how, before working on NATSAL, potential interviewers had to be ‘desensitised’ by listening to every known term connected with sexual activity so they would never be surprised by anything during an interview. After this two-day barrage, several male interviewers dropped out feeling unable to continue, whilst most of the women remained.

It’s not always easy to track down all the people that we’d like to hear from. Locating the scientists and clinicians who were involved in particular fields is comparatively easy, since even in retirement they can usually be traced through their former institutions or professional organisations. To find the less well-known contributors however we have to be a little more creative, using pension and social clubs, Christmas card lists, friends-of-a-friend-of-a-friend connections, for example.

ALSPAC Witness Seminar at the Wellcome Trust, London

ALSPAC Witness Seminar at the Wellcome Trust, London, 2011 © Wellcome Library, London

Finding one technician can lead to others; one patient may be in touch with fellow sufferers; one fund-raiser can link us with associates; and one retired midwife may keep up a lively correspondence with friends that suddenly gives us access to a wide network.Sometimes, we are simply too late – the key figures, whether well known or not, are no longer with us or no longer able or willing to travel to London to participate. Conversely we have occasionally been too early – in a still active field appropriate contributors may be too busy or impatient to take an afternoon off to consider the historical dimensions of their work.As we celebrate our 21st birthday, we are publishing the 50th volume of Witness Seminars. This anthology of extracts from all our previous meetings is titled ‘Monoclonal Antibodies to Migraine’, reflecting the scope of biomedical subjects we have tackled over the years. These include issues of professionalisation and specialisation within medicine, such as the creation and impact of sports medicine; medical physics; intensive care and clinical pharmacology.

We have heard from eye-witnesses involved in the development and use of new treatments for conditions including haemophilia; leukaemia; cystic fibrosis; and peptic ulceration. The development, problems and potentials of treatments including hip replacement surgery; heart transplants; and renal dialysis have all been debated, as have the impact of technology such as obstetric ultrasound and NMR and MRI.

As the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and former Director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Mark Walport says in his foreword, this volume is full of gripping vignettes and stories – we hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed collecting them over the years.

Now supported by a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award, the project continues until early 2017, focussing on five main themes: clinical genetics; neurosciences; global and infectious diseases; ethics in medical research and practice; and medical technology. With so many topics to explore, perhaps the 100th volume will be along earlier than expected!

You can find out more about the Wellcome Witness series on the History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group’s website or you can follow them on Twitter or connect via Facebook. The Makers of Modern Biomedicine project is supported by a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award.

Researcher Spotlight: Professor Helen McShane

22 Sep, 2014

DSC_6454Professor Helen McShane is a Professor of Vaccinology and Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Fellow at Oxford University, where she leads a programme of research to develop a new vaccine for Tuberculosis (TB).  Here she gives an insight into the international nature of TB research and her motivations for starting, and continuing, research in this field.

What are you working on?

Tuberculosis vaccine development and tuberculosis immunology.

What does your average day involve?

There’s no such thing as an average day! And that’s partly why I enjoy it so much.

All my days involve an early start, and often the only time I can get to my email is either first thing in the morning, before my children wake up, or late at night after they’ve gone to bed. Although as they get older the window between them going to bed and me going to bed is shrinking!

I spend a lot of time on the telephone. We are currently conducting clinical trials in South Africa, Senegal and Uganda, and collaborating with two industrial partners on clinical trials in the UK. We have regular teleconferences on each trial to keep in touch and trouble-shoot any issues in real time. I also spend a lot of time interacting with my collaborators and partners in the US including the Gates and Aeras Foundations. Managing the time zones and fitting things around everyone’s schedules can be challenging!

I meet with my PhD students and post-docs to go through their data, and discuss next steps. Once a week I do an HIV clinic, which I love. It keeps my feet on the ground! In an HIV clinic you can see life at its rawest – but it’s also a great example of evidence-based medicine. I’m usually writing at least one grant application at any one time, and two or three manuscripts which someone in my group or a collaborator has written that need reviewing.

At least once a month I’ll travel somewhere – either for an international conference (where I am often asked to speak) or a field visit to one of the African centres. I try to keep the trips short and the travelling to a minimum because of my children, but I love visiting the field sites in Africa. I am fortunate to collaborate with some amazing people, and visiting the sites in Africa, where TB (and HIV/AIDS) is such a problem, reminds you why it is all worthwhile and what it is we are working for.

Why is your work important?

TB remains a very significant cause of disease and death throughout the world – in 2012 there were 8.6 million new cases and 1.3 million deaths. Co-infection with HIV (which makes people more susceptible to TB) and the emergence of drug resistance have made the problem worse. We urgently need better tools with which to control this epidemic and vaccination is the most cost-effective way to control any infectious disease.

In my group in Oxford, we developed the first new TB vaccine to enter into clinical testing, and the first vaccine to enter into efficacy testing. We’re currently testing an aerosol version of the vaccine, to induce immunity in the lungs, which is where TB enters the body.

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

I hope to contribute to the development and licensure of an effective TB vaccine.

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

As a junior doctor I worked in Brighton at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in this country and I became interested in HIV, and infectious diseases. At that time we had no drugs to treat HIV, and all of my patients were dying. From there I moved to Oxford and then London, to gain more experience in HIV and infectious diseases.

It was in London, when I was learning to do bronchoscopies on patients, that I became interested in TB and decided I wanted to do some basic research in this area. I came to talk to Adrian Hill in Oxford, who at the time was starting a big programme of research in malaria vaccine development, and persuaded him to let me start working on TB vaccine development in parallel.

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

Wellcome funding has been instrumental to my career development. After receiving an MRC Clinical Training Fellowship to fund my PhD, I was lucky enough to secure a Wellcome Clinician Scientist Fellowship. This allowed me to complete my clinical training, continue my research programme, and have a day off a week to look after my two children. I was then awarded a Wellcome Senior Fellowship, which I have since renewed.

In addition to that personal programme support, the Technology Transfer division of Wellcome has also been very supportive, and I have received a Technology Transfer grant and a Strategic Grant from the Trust to fund the overseas vaccine programme in South Africa.

Throughout my now 13 years as a Wellcome fellow, the Trust has been enormously supportive, flexible and approachable. I have felt very lucky to have its support.

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

Why is developing a TB vaccine so difficult?

Which question about your work do you most dread?

Anything to do with badgers!

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I love wild swimming, and swimming in the sea, regardless of the temperature!

What keeps you awake at night?

How I can continue to raise funding to keep the wonderful team of post-docs, RAs, clinicians, nurses and project managers I am lucky enough to have working with me in my group.

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

Ironically, it may be the advice of my maths teacher, in a South London comprehensive, who was of the view that I should be a housewife! I was stubborn and contrary enough to use this as the final incentive I needed to work hard and get to Medical School.

The “chain-reaction” question set by our previous spotlit researcher Prof Mike Barrett is this: If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

If I weren’t a scientist, I’d be a doctor! But to be able to do both is wonderful.

You can find out more about Professor Helen McShane’s work on her researcher profile. You can also read about Professor McShane’s recent research in the following papers: Safety and efficacy of MVA85A, a new tuberculosis vaccine, in infants previously vaccinated with BCG and Safety and immunogenicity of a candidate tuberculosis vaccine MVA85A delivered by aerosol in BCG-vaccinated healthy adults.

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.


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.


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.


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