Jan – Jun 2015

Blog Articles from 2015


Beyond the double helix

So, DNA. It’s a code; it’s made up of four letters, and it’s essential for life. Scientists worked out the sequence of the entire human genome about a decade ago (that’s all the DNA code in your body) so what else is there to know? A lot, says Barbara Xella – it turns out DNA can form all sorts of 3D structures, and if these odd formations aren’t recognized properly by proteins inside the cell, it can be deadly.

One week; one drug; one chance to walk again

Medical research aims to better understand and treat a plethora of different human diseases. But it is not often that scientists see their research translated directly to the clinical setting, and rarely are they are able to watch it have an immediate effect on patients. In this blog, Lauren Howson describes a remarkable new treatment for chronic muscle weakness developed by Professor David Beeson, a scientist in the Neurosciences department at the WIMM, which within a week of treatment allowed a wheelchair-bound patient to walk again.

Why one cell is better than 40,000,000,000,000

Your body is a mass of millions and millions of tiny building blocks called cells, which all work together seamlessly on a daily basis in order to allow you to eat, drink, sleep, work, consume caffeine and perform all other essential bodily functions. A major outstanding question in the biological sciences is how these cells behave individually, but until recently scientists have not been able to isolate and analyse these tiny tiny entities on their own. However, huge technological advances in recent years mean that finally this is now possible, and in this blog post Martin Larke explains how scientists at the WIMM plan to use these new methods to ask previously unanswerable questions.

The United Kingdom – the first country to have a detailed map of the genetic distribution of its people

The United Kingdom boasts a colourful history of wars, invasions, and both immigration and emigration of many, many different people. Archaelogists and historians can tell us much about how the Romans, Vikings, Normans and many others impacted the lives of the native Britons who lived here – but how are these historical events reflected in the genetic makeup of the population? Did these conquerors leave a lasting impact on the DNA of the people of the British Isles? Twenty years ago, Sir Walter Bodmer (a group leader at the WIMM) initiated a colossal study to collect DNA from thousands of individuals in the UK to address this very question, and the findings were finally published last month in Nature.

What links Down Syndrome and childhood leukaemia?

In short: we don’t know – but scientists at the WIMM are hoping to find out. Just over a year ago, Professor Irene Roberts moved from the Hammersmith Hospital in London to the WIMM, where she is continuing her long-standing research into haematological disorders that affect newborn babies – particularly those with Down syndrome. In this blog, Dr. Barbara Xella talks to Irene about her work, and how she hopes it will help to improve diagnosis and treatment of these devastating childhood disorders.

Immunology taught by bees

As many of us are painfully aware, bees and wasps are best known for their irksome ability to deliver a nasty sting. But what isn’t so well known is that the contents of the sting can provide insights into how the body detects attacks from the outside world, and even provide potential new avenues for treatment. In this blog post, we find out how Graham Ogg and his team have been taking a lesson in immunology from an unexpected source.

Scientists, solar eclipses, and smartphones

‘Interdisciplinary collaboration’ is a phrase familiar to many scientists. It is tied into funding applications, policy decisions, and teaching. But sometimes, it is the wonder of science and science alone that brings people from all different walks of life together, and that’s what happened on Friday March 20th when, briefly, the moon eclipsed the sun and the earth was plunged into darkness. Here Kevin Clark explains how scientists from the WIMM were joined by members of the public to witness this remarkable event.

How students see scientists: Part IV

A group of undergraduate students studying human biosciences at Petroc, a further education college in north Devon, were invited to visit the WIMM for a day. In the fourth blog from our series of posts by students who undertake work placements at the WIMM, they share their impressions of the experience. In mid-January this year, the FdSc Human Bioscience Team headed off for a day trip to the world-renowned Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM). The Institute, located next to the John Radcliffe hospital, is a hotbed of cutting edge research in the fields of inherited and acquired human diseases. Our host was Dr Peter Canning, a member of Professor Terry Rabbitts’ research group. He had organised a full day of activities, packed with eye opening experiences for students and staff alike.

A year in the life of a research institute: the WIMM blog celebrates its first birthday

Just over a year ago, the WIMM Blog first appeared on the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine’s webpage, tentatively re-posting an article that had originally been written for the MRC blog Insight. Today, the blog is a fully-fledged interactive site, and has had over two and half thousand hits in the last four months alone. Here we review the blog’s first year, and take a peek into what the future might hold…

Exposed: the secret life of cells

Last year, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Eric Betzig, William Moerner and Stefan Hell for developing powerful new microscopes capable of looking at cells in unprecedented detail. Known as super-resolution imaging or optical nanoscopy, this new technology allows scientists to ask fundamental questions about how cells work that previously could only be speculated about. Professor Christian Eggeling (a group leader in the WIMM Human Immunology Unit and the scientific director of the new imaging facility at the institute) worked as a senior scientist with Stefan Hell, and here Dr. Bryony Graham explains how Prof. Eggeling’s team has in collaboration with some of his old colleagues been using optical nanoscopy to observe novel details on how molecules interact on the surface of the cell, otherwise known as the cellular membrane.

Specifying stem cells, specifically

Your blood is made up of many, many different types of highly specialized cells: white blood cells to fight infections; red blood cells to carry oxygen; and platelets to allow your blood to clot (to name but a few). Scientists now know that all of these diverse cell types originate from a single parent cell – the blood (or haematopoietic) stem cell, which is found in the bone marrow. These rare stem cells have huge clinical potential for helping to cure people with devastating blood-related diseases such as leukaemia, but to date little has been known about where these cells themselves originate. However, new research from Roger Patient’s lab helps to shed light on how these unique cells are made.

How students see scientists (Part III)

In the third instalment of our series of blogs by students who have undertaken work placements at the WIMM, here Jonathon Leung explains why he chose to come to the Institute as part of a unique undergraduate medical course at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The programme, known as the Global Physician-Leadership Stream, encourages its students to travel abroad during their studies to experience research or clinical environments in other countries. Last year, Jonathon spent six weeks in Doug Higgs’ lab, and here he describes how his time at the WIMM has inspired him to pursue clinical research in the future.

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