Jan – June 2016

Scratching the itch: towards a new treatment for eczema

Atopic dermatitis is a common form of eczema that affects millions of people worldwide, and for which there is currently no cure. Characterised by dry skin sometimes over the entire body, and intensely itchy lesions in places such as the knees and elbows, the condition makes life extremely uncomfortable for the many people that suffer from it. Understanding how and why this form of eczema develops is critical to identifying new, more effective treatments for the disease, and new research led by Graham Ogg in the Human Immunology Unit at the WIMM holds the promise to do just that. In this latest blog post, Lauren Howson explains what they found.

Scientists without borders

Here in Oxford, scientists have access to some of the best research facilities in the world. These resources allow researchers working here to develop skills and techniques that those in less well-resourced parts of the world cannot. In recognition of this, Erdinc Sezgin, a postdoctoral research scientist working in Christian Eggeling’s lab in the HIU, recently organised a microscopy workshop in Turkey (funded by the British Council) to help bridge this divide, and allow researchers in Turkey access to the skills, techniques and facilities that we in Oxford so often take for granted. In this blog, he describes the international friendships that the workshop inspired, and explains the importance of sharing resources and expertise across borders.

It’s not all about sex: there’s a biological clock ticking in fathers too

It is well known that as a woman ages, the number and quality of eggs that she produces declines – making it more challenging to conceive later in life, and increasing the risk of difficulties during pregnancy. But what about men? In a recent study published in PNAS, a team of Wellcome Trust-funded scientists led by Andrew Wilkie and Anne Goriely at the WIMM have shown that older fathers are at a greater risk of having children with genetic diseases such as dwarfism and craniofacial malformations. In this blog, Geoff Maher, first author on the paper, explains what they found.

What’s in a brain?

Studying human neurological diseases has always presented scientists with a major challenge due to the ethical and clinical inaccessibility of living human brain tissue. In order to circumvent this problem, scientists have turned to an exciting new approach: taking skin or blood cells from a patient with a neurological disease, and turning them into brain cells in the lab using cutting edge stem cell technologies. These lab-derived brain cells arguably represent the best currently available method to study human neurological diseases in a lab without the need to obtain brain tissue directly from the patient. As with every experimental model, however, scientists need to ask: “How well does this actually mimic real thing?” An answer to this question was provided in a recent study designed by Dr. Handel from the Neurogenetic Disorders Group and led by Zameel Cader at the WIMM. Bryan Adriaanse, a DPhil student in the Cader lab, explains more.

Dealing with damaged DNA

The DNA inside your cells is under an enormous amount of strain, every second of the day. It is constantly being pulled, twisted, folded, squashed and stretched – and all it wants to do is carry on doing its absolutely essential job of keeping you alive. In patients with Fanconi anaemia, a form of blood cancer, a set of proteins which is essential for keeping the DNA intact whilst it undergoes all this stress are faulty, leading to damage to the DNA molecule that eventually leads to the development of cancer. Scientists have known for some time that these proteins play a critical role in preventing DNA damage, but precisely how they work has remained elusive – until now. A recent study by Wojciech Niedwiedz’s lab, published in Molecular Cell, shows some critical insights into why patients with Fanconi anaemia develop the disease. Martin Larke explains more.

DNA origami: how do you fold a genome?

Inside each of the cells in your body is an entire instruction manual containing all the information required to build an entire human being. Yet it isn’t just the words in that manual that are important: you have to read the right chapters, and in the right order. To build one particular part of a human, sometimes the end of one paragraph will redirect you to a different part of the book – but how do cells get redirected to the right bit? Complicated interactions between different parts of the instruction manual (otherwise known as your DNA) underlie the fascinating complexity of the human body, but understanding when, where and how they occur remains a fundamental challenge in biological research. In this blog, Marieke Oudelaar, a DPhil student in Jim Hughes’ lab at the WIMM, describes a new tool developed in the Hughes lab that holds the promise to decipher this complex code.

Know your enemy: fighting cancer from the inside out

The horrific side effects of many cancer treatments are all too well known: hair loss, muscle wasting, loss of appetite – and many more. The reason that the majority of cancer therapies have such broad and devastating effects on the health of the patient is that these treatments are often what is known as non-specific: that is, although they will hopefully eventually kill the tumour – they will also kill a vast amount of healthy tissue in the process. To try and minimise the side effects of cancer treatments, scientists are working hard to try and understand precisely what goes wrong inside cancer cells to allow them to develop into tumours, and therefore arm themselves with the knowledge to develop better, more specific treatments for the disease. In this blog, Laura Godfrey, a DPhil student in Tom Milne’s lab in the WIMM, describes work from their group (done as an equal collaboration with Marina Konopleva’s lab at MD Anderson in Texas) which hopes to do just that.

How do you train a super-sense?

In order for you to complete pretty much every bodily function you can think of, your brain must continuously communicate with every single part of your body. This communication is co-ordinated via your nervous system, a highly complex network which connects your brain to your muscles, and allows you to physically respond and adapt to changes in your surroundings. At the WIMM, David Beeson’s group are interested in how genetic mutations affect the communication between nerves and muscles, but researchers in other departments within the Medical Sciences Division are working on the other end of the system – how we perceive the sense of touch. In this post, guest blogger Harriet Dempsey-Jones (a DPhil student in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences) explains more about her own research into how our sense of touch can actually be heightened by training, and the context in which this could be an enormously valuable skill.

Lighting up our sentinels

Traditionally, gynaecological cancers (those found in a woman’s reproductive system) are diagnosed using an invasive and potentially dangerous technique that often leads to additional health concerns for the patient – as if coping with the cancer itself wasn’t enough. Fortunately, scientists working in Professor Ahmed Ahmed’s lab at the WIMM have recently developed an alternative method to diagnose these cancers, which could revolutionise how doctors treat women suffering from this disease. Eva Masmanian explains more.

From stem cell to specialized cell: but what happens in between?

Stem cells have the remarkable ability to develop into a whole host of highly specialized cell types, but the process by which this happens is extremely transient and therefore enormously challenging to study. However, a new paper from Claus Nerlov’s and Sten Eirik Jacobsen’s labs, published in Nature Cell Biology two weeks ago, is one of the first studies to show that the physical environment within which these elusive cells mature is critical to their development. Bryony Graham explains more.

An alternative path to immortality

In December 2015, David Clynes (a postdoc in Richard Gibbons’ lab) was awarded a 5-year fellowship from Children with Cancer to set up his own research group. Here, his colleague and co-author Barbara Xella describes the work that was instrumental in obtaining this funding, published in Nature Communications last year.

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