Category Archives: Manchester Science

Manchester’s week in science: 15th – 21st March – Eclipse special

Eyes on the sky: Images of the eclipse in manchester:

On Friday the 20th of March 2015 millions of eyes (and camera lenses) were turned skywards as our Sun became eclipsed when the Sun Earth and Moon came into alignment. Solar eclipses, like the one we saw today, are relatively rare events and the next time Manchester will be plunged into this type of unnatural darkness will not be until 2090. Luckily for may of us, this Friday offered just the right amount of cloud cover to observe the whole event pretty clearly and to capture some amazing images – Thanks Manchester! As a reminder of this awe-inspiring event, here are a few amazing shots taken from just outside the city centre in Bury, Lancashire, using a semi-professional astro-photography set-up:


DSC_1832DSC_1874DSC_1900DSC_1917DSC_2028If you want to learn more about last weeks eclipse and other similar celestial events, you can find more information here.

Manchester researchers take steps towards a better understanding of stroke:

66245374_afe6d3d8d1_zLike a fire sparked in the brain a stroke can happen fast, coursing through large sections of brain tissue. The damage caused by a stroke can be utterly devastating and is recognised to be the leading cause of disability worldwide. However, it’s not just the stroke itself which underpins brain damage experienced by sufferers. In fact, we know that the time period after a stroke has occurred is extremely important for patient recovery. Specifically because, during this period, the body mounts its own response to this onslaught in the form of inflammation. But, rather than aiding recovery, inflammation in the brain can actually cause and worsen damage!

Therefore, it is particularly important for improved treatment strategies that we understand how and why inflammation occurs, with a view to modulating its actions.

Scientists from the University of Manchester are doing just that. Dr David Brough, working in the Faculty of Life Sciences alongside Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell and Dr Stuart Allen, are studying the role of inflammation in stroke. This group studies inflammasomes: large protein complexes which are responsible for controlling production of the inflammatory protein Interleukin-1, which has a myriad of roles in the inflammatory process including a contributing role in brain cell death.

Dr Brough explains: “Very little is known about how inflammasomes might be involved in brain injury. Therefore we began by studying the most well researched inflammasome NLRP3, which is known to be activated when the body is injured. Surprisingly we found that this was not involved in inflammation and damage in the brain caused by stroke, even though drugs are being developed to block this to treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

Further studies using experimental models of stroke demonstrated that it was actually the NLRC4 and AIM2 inflammasomes that contribute to brain injury, rather than NLRP3. This result was unexpected, since NLRC4, was only known to fight infections and yet Dr Brough and colleagues found that it also caused injury in the brain.

This new discovery will help the Manchester researchers discover more about how inflammation is involved in brain injury and develop new drugs for the treatment of stroke.

Manchester’s week in science: 9th-14th March

Rodent evolution driven by monsoon rains:

3984800314_6ffcd925d5_zWe know that environmental pressures play a pivotal role in the evolution of species and, what could be more life changing than the presence, or absence, of seasonal monsoon rains?

Findings published this week in the Nature journal ‘Scientific Reports’ reveal how Asia’s monsoons have played a key role in mammalian evolution and highlight implications for conservation in areas affected by these rains.

Researchers from the University of Manchester, the University of Bristol, the Chinese Academy of Science and Harvard University have uncovered proof that waxing and waning monsoon rains played a key role in the evolution of many species of Asian rodent. Monsoon variations were shown to drive changes in tooth and head shape in these rodents over a period of 24 million years and appeared to be responsible for driving several species into extinction.

Dr Fabien Knoll, a senior researcher at The University of Manchester, said:  “It was natural to assume that a mighty climatic phenomenon like the monsoon would play a part in evolution, but until now there has never been any decisive evidence thereof. We have now found that.”

Changes in the density of the forest canopy and vegetation are driven by the rains and, in turn, drive survival of rodents who depend on this vegetation for cover. Researchers found that, during periods of weaker monsoon rain, cover was reduced and environmental pressures favoured species with teeth and limbs best suited for digging – meaning these animals had a better chance of hiding from predators.

Dr Knoll added: “We used rodents in this study because they are the most common mammals in the fossil record, they evolved rapidly and are very sensitive to any changes in their habitat.”

The authors of this study added: “We suggest that the variations in the monsoon intensity have impacted the evolution of most, if not all, mammals living in this region, although this remains to be proved convincingly (using our methodology or others) and the pattern would probably vary from group to group.”

The social and personal cost of redundancy: 

7189456105_cd0fb558a5_zWe spend on average 60% of our lives in formal employment. That’s a significant proportion of our adult lives and our happiness over this period is very important for both our physical and mental wellbeing.

A recent study, fresh out of the University of Manchester, has found that people who face redundancy during their working lives often loose more than just an income. This work, conducted by social scientist Dr James Laurence, found that people who loose their jobs can be less willing to trust others for up to a decade after being ‘laid-off’. This loss of trust has a negative impact on both the individual and society as a whole.

Dr Laurence, an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Future Research Leaders Fellow at The University of Manchester, said: “People’s willingness to trust others tends to remain largely stable over their lifetime. However, this work shows that trauma, like redundancy, can shift people’s outlook on the world and this change persists long after the experience occurred.

“Society is still recovering from one of the longest recessions this century and much has been discussed in counting the economic costs of that. This study looks at the social costs of recession.”

“Even a single experience of redundancy can lead to depressed trust and what is particularly concerning is that people reported less willingness to trust others even after they got another job. The study shows that the experience of redundancy can scar an individual’s trust in others. This has important implications not just for the person involved but for society as a whole as trust can have significant benefits, from health and happiness, to social cohesion, efficient democratic governance and economic development.”

New insights turning cancer treatment on its head:

5198316042_8f10ef9433_zEveryone makes mistakes and scientists are no exception – indeed, there are often times when new evidence arrises which can totally alter our understanding of how things work. Just such a revelation has occurred recently in Manchester, as scientists working to understand cancer have discovered that a molecule, long thought to promote tumour growth, in fact suppresses growth. This work suggests that interventions aimed at increasing activity of this molecule may have therapeutic benefit.

Protein kinase C (PKC), a family of enzymes facilitating a range of cellular processes, has long been thought to induce the development of tumours. Indeed, PKCs were shown to be activated by cancer-causing phorbol esters. However, therapeutics aimed at blocking activity of these kinases have had little success. A recent study exploring the effect of mutations in PKC on tumour growth has shed light on why this might be the case.

Dr John Brognard, from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute at The University of Manchester – part of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre – said: “Despite phorbol esters being known to cause cancers, we’ve seen frustratingly little progress when targeting PKCs to stop tumour growth.”

The Manchester group, in collaboration with scientists from the University of California, studied mutations in the PKC in human cancer cells. They discovered that most these mutations caused the enzyme to loose its function, making it less active within the cell. With this knowledge, they attempted to correct these mutations in bowel cancer cells and found a reduction in tumour growth.

“Clinical trials have so far been working on the incorrect assumption that PKC enzymes cause cancer growth. This new insight from our studies has turned current thinking on its head. Looking ahead, instead of blocking PKC activity, new therapies should instead be targeting mechanisms to restore its activity,” added Dr Brognard.

Manchester’s week in science: 1st-8th March

‘The dress’ explained by manchester vision scientist:

So, unless you’ve had your head in a hole for the last week (or you are an active research scientist – sigh), you’ve probably formed an opinion about the colour of ‘that dress’. Blue and black or white and gold, which camp did you fall into?

Although we now know that the dress was, in fact, blue and black – clinical vision scientist from the University of Manchester, Dr Neil Parry, can explain why so many people were fooled:

Parry explains that the picture of the dress is something scientists refers to as a ‘bistable image’. This means that the picture is ambiguous and can easily be interpreted in more than one way (other examples of bistable images include: the duck and the rabbit and face/vase illusion).

dressThe ambiguity surrounding the dress actually comes from its background and not from the dress itself – try cropping the image to just part of the dress and viewing it alone on a white background, your opinion of its colour may change.

Neil goes on to explain that The washed out background of the image gives the impression that it was taken outside on a particularly bright day.  On such a day, white reflects the ambient light and so, when we are outside, white materials can actually appear quite blue. Therefore, many people jump to the conclusion that this is a white dress viewed in bright natural light. This brainy trick is caused by a phenomenon known as colour constancy and it ensures that we can compensate for ambient light levels, meaning that, no matter what the light level, we always perceive colours correctly. However, if a picture lacks context – in this example our brains are unable to work out whether the picture of the dress is over-exposed or taken on a very bright day – we can easily be fooled.

So there we have it….Still, I wonder if Mancunians were harder to fool with this image than others, since we often forget what naturally bright days look like….perhaps another question to pose Dr. Parry.

Tips for staying mobile and avoiding trips and falls:

3162950165_de31784caa_zTrips and falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries in the elderly and fear of experiencing a fall means that many older people can become prisoners in their own homes. However, research from the University of Manchester shows that many of these accidents can be avoided.

As part of an EC funded project called FARSEEING, researchers from Manchester, in collaboration with partners across Europe, are working to find ways of reducing trips and falls in the elderly – ultimately meaning more older people are confident to stay in their own homes and experience higher overall mobility.

Dr Helen Hawley-Hague from the University said: “The mental and physical health benefits of being independent in the home are enormous, yet a fear of falling can prevent many people from carrying out activities.

Living with a fear of falling can create a lot of worry to family members, friends and to us – resulting in a great deal of distress. A fear of falling can also lead to us dropping out of activities and staying at home more. This can result in a loss of confidence and feelings of boredom, frustration and loneliness.”

As part of this research Dr. Hawley-Hague and her team have released 9 tips (below) for staying mobile and preventing falls alongside five films documenting simple exercises which can be done in the home and which could increase strength and balance: videos can be found here:

Dr Hawley-Hague’s advice to prevent falls:

1) Stay active and improve your strength and balance by attending a specific class run by your local authorities and health services

2) Did you know that you can be taught techniques for getting down to the floor and back up again? This will increase your confidence and is included in some strength and balance classes.

3) If you are concerned about your balance see your GP to get a referral to physiotherapy for a prescribed exercise plan

4) You can also see you GP or local authority to get a risk assessment done on your home

5) Keep moving around.  Research suggests that you should do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week, in bouts of 10 minutes. But check with your GP if you have any existing conditions.

6) Good sturdy shoes will help you keep you balance and tucking in loose clothes prevents them catching on things.

7) Get your eyes tested regularly.  This will help you keep your balance and spot trip hazards.

8) Some medications can increase your risk of falling.  Check with your GP or discuss these issues with your pharmacist.

9) If you have fractured a limb recently and you have not had your bone health assessed, go to your GP to discuss your risk of Osteoporosis (fragile bones).

If you would like to know more about how you can be involved in developing technology which could help you to remain active or prevent falls, then get in touch with us (or your nearest university).

Exploring the entrepreneurial mindset:

5939055612_9312bc2cab_zResearch compiled by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for Enterprise (CfE) is exploring the mind of the entrepreneur, in an attempt to uncover just what factors influence their success. This work provides key insights into factors necessary to mould business minds whilst also attempting to understand whether such abilities are learned or innate.

Dr Tamara McNeill, Research Associate at the CfE, said: “People have long been fascinated by what makes an entrepreneur. Around the middle of the twentieth century there was a quest for the definitive ‘entrepreneurial personality’ but we have seen a shift away from that and researchers have mostly moved on to consider different questions, for example, about how entrepreneurs think, learn and are motivated.

“The Mindset of High Growth study demonstrates the importance of learnt cognitive processes in the ‘high-growth mindset’ such as development of expertise in growing businesses, development of growth intention and the ability to self-regulate decision-making processes.”

This work has uncovered six high growth elements important in shaping an entrepreneurial mind:

1) Market Expertise is defined as the cognitive processes in growth entrepreneurs being geared towards making sales and marketing – the leading factor from the report.

2) Business Vision is when business leaders have a clear strategy and the ability to visualise and plan

3) Active Decision-making is the ability to adapt thought to minimise risk, and draw on the influence of other people and formal processes

4) Growth Drive is classed as having the distinct aspiration of wanting to grow a business

5) Sales Drive is a strong drive and passion to achieve sales – often considered a ‘given’ for many entrepreneurs

6) Innovation Drive is being able to sense new opportunities, markets, products and services.

The aim of the report is to foster a greater understanding of the personal factors associated with achieving business growth. Visit the Mindset of High Growth website for more information.

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: