Monthly Archives: February 2015

Manchester’s week in science: 15th-20th February.

Informative DVD may improve reliability of MRI scans:

800px-MRI-PhilipsThe walls feel like they are closing in as you lay still, confined within a narrow tube, listening to an intensive cacophony of screeches and bangs caused by giant magnets moving around your body. This may sound like an exert from some futuristic sci-fi, but it’s actually a common medical procedure experienced by many on a daily basis. MRI scans can feel pretty intimidating but, for doctors to get a good look inside your head, it’s vital that patients stay entirely still and remain so throughout the entire procedure – not an easy task!

Research conducted by Dr Rachael Powell, from the University of Manchester’s school of psychological sciences, has found that watching a DVD explaining the procedure and outlining relaxation techniques improves MRI success rates for many patients. This study followed 83 outpatients who were due to have MRI scans. Approximately half of these patients were given paper based information detailing the procedure and appointment particulars, while the other half were sent a DVD. The DVD contained lots of information about the procedure, including a demonstration, detailed accounts of other patents experiences and a range of relaxation techniques and exercises. – Of the 41 patients who received the DVD, 35 had satisfactory scan outcomes, while only 23 of the 42 patients who did not see the DVD managed a successful scan.

Dr Powell explained: “We found that the vast majority of participants found the DVD an easy format to use, with almost all participants viewing the DVD at least once, with over half the participants using it at least twice. Most of the participants found the DVD useful and said it helped them to feel less anxious and more confident about taking the scan.

“Given the high number of scans where either patients move in the scanner, reducing image quality, or where patients do not manage to stay in the scanner long enough to complete the examination, the finding that an affordable, acceptable and effective intervention can be sent to patients by post prior to their scan could have an important impact on patient care and health care costs.”

Hospital hygiene rubbing staff up the wrong way:

Human_hand_with_dermatitisThere is no denying that increased hygiene in hospitals has had a positive impact on the prevention of healthcare-associated infections, such as MRSA and C-difficile. But, researchers from Manchester University’s Institute of Population Health have found that healthcare workers are now 4.5 times more likely to suffer from irritant contact dermatitis than they were back in 1996 – before the introduction of new hygiene measures.

Irritant contact dermatitis is a form of contact dermatitis where the skin can become injured by friction or over-exposure to water or chemicals. Meaning that the same high levels of hygiene, vital for preventing infection in hospitals, may also have the knock on side effect of increasing dermatological problems in frontline health workers. This may potentially lead to staff choosing not to wash their hands as often in an attempt to reduce irritation on damaged or broken skin.

Dr Jill Stocks, who led the research, said: “Campaigns to reduce these infections have been very successful and many lives have been saved.  However, we need to do all we can to prevent skin irritation among these frontline workers.”

Dr Stocks said: “Obviously we don’t want people to stop washing their hands, so more needs to be done to procure less irritating products and to implement practices to prevent and treat irritant contact dermatitis.”

New ‘life’ for extinct marine reptile:

James McKay

James McKay

Dean Lomax, palaeontologist and honorary scientist at the University of Manchester, has recently helped uncover the secrets of a ~185 million year old fossil. The fossil, first unearthed on Dorset’s Jurassic coast and displayed at the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery, has finally given up it’s secrets; revealing the existence of a new type of ichthyosaur (an extinct marine reptile).

Lomax, who first examined the fossil in 2008 noticed a rage of abnormalities in its bone structure and, working with Professor Judy Massare of Brockport College New York, spent five years traveling the world in the hope of better understanding the fossils peculiarities.

Dean said: “After examining the specimen extensively, both Professor Massare and I identified several unusual features of the limb bones (humerus and femur) that were completely different to any other ichthyosaur known. That became very exciting. After examining perhaps over a thousand specimens we found four others with the same features as the Doncaster fossil.”

Ichthyosaurs were similar in shape to modern-day dolphins and sharks and inhabited the seas for millions of years during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The discovery of a new species if ichthyosaur is very important for both our understanding of these extinct reptiles and their modern day relatives.

The new species has been named Ichthyosaurus anningae in honour of the British collector, and woman in science, Mary Anning, who first collected ichthyosaurs in the early 1800’s. It is the first new Ichthyosaurus identified for almost 130 years.

Dean added: “It is an honour to name a new species, but to name it after somebody who is intertwined with such an important role in helping to sculpt the science of palaeontology, especially in Britain, is something that I’m very proud of. In fact, one of the specimens in our study was even found by Mary herself! Science is awesome.”

“This discovery shows that new species, and not only ichthyosaurs, are awaiting discovery in museum collections. Not all new discoveries are made in the field.”

Manchester’s week in science: 8th-14th February.

Manchester scientists present at the birth of a new multiple-star system.

As we go about our lives, safe on our cozy little rock cruising around the sun, it’s easy to forget that beyond our tiny corner of the universe exists a world of immense diversity. Scientist from the University of Manchester, Liverpool John Moors University and other European institutes have been peering out into the universe for many years and have recently observed a pretty amazing occurrence.

The constellation Perseus as it can be seen by the naked eye

The constellation Perseus as it can be seen by the naked eye

Using the combined power of the Very Large Array radio telescope cluster (VLA), the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and the worlds largest astronomical telescope (the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT)), researchers have seen the gaseous beginnings of a multiple star system. This system is forming from fragmenting gas within a dense core of gas called Barnard 5 (B5) – found in the constellation Perseus.

Professor Gary Fuller of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Centre for astrophysics notes how amazing this discovery is stating “Seeing such a multiple star system in its early stages of formation has been a longstanding challenge, but the combination of the Very Large Array (VLA) and the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) has given us the first look at such a young system.”

The discovery was made by analysing radio emissions from ammonia molecules within B5. These emissions revealed filaments of fragmenting gas which were contracting and beginning to form new stars – a process which will ultimately lead to the creation of a new multiple-star system.

Jaime Pineda, of the Institute for Astronomy, ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, who led the project, said: “This provides fantastic evidence that fragmentation of gas filaments is a process that can produce multiple-star systems,”

Dr Richard Parker, of the Astrophysics Research Institute at LJMU who performed the stability analysis calculations on the system, said: “Observing the formation and subsequent destruction of these systems will ultimately help us to understand whether our own Sun was once part of such a system and if it was, what happened to its stellar siblings.”

The art of a healthy life.

A new report, fresh out of Manchester Metropolitan University, suggests that engaging with the arts has a positive long-term effect on health and wellbeing. This work, based on evidence from 15 long-term international studies and compiled by Dr. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbit, suggests that active engagement with the arts has a beneficial impact on a range of chronic diseases. These include cancer, heart disease, dementia and obesity.
This report suggests that the observed benefits may be due to environmental enrichment. Specifically, the positive psychological benefits which come from enjoyable activities and socialising can have a huge impact on our health and ability to ‘fight off’ disease – This may stem from changes in our immune response or even small modifications to our genes (see epigenetics).

Although we certainly can’t underplay the necessity for medical treatments in the fight against human disease, we also can’t ignore the effect a positive mental state has on patient recovery. So, in a time when increasing pressure is being places on arts organisations to account for themselves in economic terms, it is important to emphasise the social value of culture and the positive effect this can have on our nations health and wellbeing.

Volunteers needed to take part in study exploring the effect of stress on skin ageing:

13963723690_b7e84ea9f6_mSkin ageing can be influenced by many factors including sun exposure and smoking alongside the natural ageing process. However, new research is now also highlighting the possible impact stress can have on the health of our skin. There is evidence to suggest psychological stress impacts our immune systems and so may also affect our health and how we age.

Researchers from the University of Manchester, in partnership with Laboratoire Clarins, are running a study to better understand the effect stress has on skin ageing. To perform this research they are looking to recruit Caucasian (white skinned) women, aged 25-40 years to travel to the Dermatology Centre in Salford and have their skin analysed in detail by a high specification camera.

Dr Rachel Watson is leading the research in Manchester and Wai Yeung, from the University’s Centre for Dermatology Research is organising recruitment.  He said: “People are leading increasingly stressful lives with disrupted sleep patterns and we believe that this could have specific and measurable effects.”

“The results from the research should allow us to understand the skin ageing process better and could lead to new treatments and products.”

The study involves completing an online survey and a single one hour visit to the Dermatology Centre in Salford. All participants will be reimbursed for their time. If you are interested in taking part, more information is available here:

Cell Cookies


Some of the fantastic creations courtecy of the Science Specacular visitors

Up until now you may have thought the main function of digestive biscuits, giant chocolate buttons and jelly beans was to act as delicious treats. You were wrong. Together, they actually make a fantastic cell model. Who knew?

The premise of the activity is fairly simple. Digestive biscuits act as the base for animal cells and square crackers are plant cells. You can then add icing sugar, which acts as the cytoplasm that the sweetie organelles are attached to. Here’s the sweets I used for organelles;

Nucleus – Giant Chocolate Button

Mitochondria – Mini Jelly Beans

Cell Membrane – Red Laces (Only if you’re using larger biscuits)

Vesicles – Sugar balls (cake decorations)

Endoplasmic Reticulum – Jelly Snake

Golgi apparatus – Jelly Squirms

Chloroplasts – Chopped up green wine gums (left over from DNA sweets)

Cell Wall – Green fizzy lace.

We realised that the activity works really well at events aimed at families because the younger children tend to be interested in the cookies, and the parents are interested in what’s inside cells. I think this could be a good as a group activity for children (or adults) of all ages as the amount of details you include can be adjusted. Also, if you were going to do this as an activity for AS level students it might be worth buying bigger biscuits to ensure you can get all the organelles on – maybe a water biscuit.

I’ve uploaded the instruction sheets I used on the here and as I haven’t had time to write about research yet (which is cell biology) this link provides some great info on cells.

Activity courtesy of Liz Granger @Bio_fluff

Manchester’s week in science: 1st-7th February.

Graphine and a flexible future for technology:

800px-GraphenA future of flexible electronics may be just around the corner, as researchers from the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield combine forces to show that 2D ‘designer materials’ can be customised to create flexible, see through and more efficient electronic devices.

The research group, lead by Nobel Laureate Sir Kostya Novoselov, showed that graphine and related 2D materials can be manipulated to create light emitting tech for the next generation of mobile phones, tablets and televisions.

This amazing technology sees researchers stacking layers of 2D materials (such as graphine, boron nitride and molybdenum disulphide) into thin flexible sheets called heterostructures. These sheets can be 10-40 atoms thick and, with the introduction of quantum wells to control movement of electrons, can emit light across their whole surface. Explaining the creation of the LED device Sir Kostya Novoselov said: “By preparing the heterostructures on elastic and transparent substrates, we show that they can provide the basis for flexible and semi-transparent electronics.”

Freddie Withers, Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow at The University of Manchester, who led the production of the devices, said: “As our new type of LED’s only consist of a few atomic layers of 2D materials they are flexible and transparent. We envisage a new generation of optoelectronic devices to stem from this work, from simple transparent lighting and lasers and to more complex applications.”

This work, published in the scientific journal Nature Materials, may be set to revolutionise the future of electronic technology.

Hope for better implantation rates in IVF patients:

Sucking_his_thumb_and_wavingFor many couples with fertility problems IVF may be the last hope when it comes to starting a family. Unfortunately, despite a wealth of success stories, IVF embryos only have around a 25% chance of developing to term – predominantly due to high rates of failure when embryos attempt to implant into the uterine wall. Novel research from the University of Manchester is now exploring embryonic implantation and findings suggest that this work may lead to increased IVF success rates.

Altered levels of microRNA have been found in the endometrium (uterine lining) of women who are prone to IVF implantation failures. One microRNA (microRNA-145) and its target receptor (Insulin-like growth factor – IGF1R), are now causing a stir, as studies reveal a previously unknown role for this microRNA and its receptor in the embryonic attachment process.

Professor John Aplin, who led the study said: “When an embryo is ready for implantation, its replacement is carefully timed to coincide with the window of maximal receptivity in the uterus.

“This window is open for no more than four days.  Our study suggests that the presence of IGF1R during this period is required for the embryo to stick to the uterus.”

It seems that increased levels of microRNA-145 could inhibit production of IGF1R, leading to failures in embryonic implantation. Although this work is still in its infancy, and more research is needed to confirm this observation; Professor Alpin believed that treatments which suppress microRNA-145 may improve rates of attachment, saying – “This is one of the hardest groups of women to treat in fertility science and rates are still very low across the board.  Repeated IVF cycles are stressful and can be expensive too.  Greater understanding of the mechanisms which control success or failure can lead directly to treatments to make IVF cycles more efficient so that infertile couples can start their families.”

The full paper: miR-145 suppresses embryo-epithelial juxtacrine communication at implantation by modulating maternal IGF1R’, published in the Journal of Cell Science can be read here.

Robotic scientists join the hunt for the next big medical breakthrough:

Medical science has a vast and growing library of chemical compounds at its disposal. These compounds are a bit like keys, although many may prove useless, others could unlock the door to previously unknown treatments. The problem is finding the time and resources to test all possible combinations.

Eve hard at work

Eve hard at work

Enter Eve; an artificially-intelligent Mancunian ‘robot scientist’ designed to make drug discover faster, cheaper and more efficient.

When put to task, Eve can screen over 10,000 compounds per day in the search for new life saving treatments. But, ‘she’ is much more than just a high throughput drug screening device. “Eve exploits inbuilt artificial intelligence to learn from early successes in her screens and select compounds that have a high probability of being active against the chosen drug target. A smart screening system, based on genetically engineered yeast, is used. This allows Eve to exclude compounds that are toxic to cells and select those that block the action of the parasite protein while leaving any equivalent human protein unscathed. This reduces the costs, uncertainty, and time involved in drug screening, and has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide.”

Scientists from the Universities of Manchester, Cambridge and Aberystwyth have demonstrated Eve’s capabilities by using her skills to uncover a compound, previously investigated for its anti-cancer properties, which may also be used in the fight against malaria. This compound inhibits a key molecule in the malaria parasite known as DHFR and may be just what is needed to cope with newly emerging strains of drug resistant malaria.

Steve Oliver from the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre and the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge says: “Every industry now benefits from automation and science is no exception. Bringing in machine learning to make this process intelligent – rather than just a ‘brute force’ approach – could greatly speed up scientific progress and potentially reap huge rewards.” “Despite extensive efforts, no one has been able to find a new antimalarial that targets DHFR and is able to pass clinical trials,” adds Professor Oliver. “Eve’s discovery could be even more significant than just demonstrating a new approach to drug discovery.”

Original press releases can be found here.