Field of Science

Growing the kidney: re-blogged from Science Bitez

Hi guys,
I've set-up a new science/education blog called Science Bitez so I'll be blogging from there from now on!
Here's my first Science Bitez post:
On 4 February 2015, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have done something amazing – they’ve grown a mouse kidney in the lab!
Courtesy of University of Edinburgh
Courtesy of University of Edinburgh
But, that’s not the amazing part… The researchers have isolated a chemical that tells these cells to form the specialised structures in the kidney, known as nephrons.

Re-Blog: June Was 6th Warmest Globally

In the UK, we've been rather lucky *touch wood* and had a rather lovely summer thus far. But, it seems that there's a darker side to this lovely weather...

I thought I'd re-blog this great blog post by Tom Yulsman, which explains more about the consequences of June being the 6th Warmest Globally via - enjoy!

Gene therapy for MND – the truth behind the headlines

An article published in the Daily Mail, and a number of other news outlets, on 11 July 2014 highlighted how scientists may have discovered a cure for a form of MND, with clinical trials beginning in 2015. Here I report on the science behind the headlines.

The main news behind this article is that the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN)  recently received an anonymous donation of £2.2 million to help translate their MND research from the lab to the clinic. This is a huge amount of money into MND research and this donation will enable the researchers to further our understanding of the disease.
Reporting the news
Although a number of news outlets reported accurately on the news (including the Scotsman), the Daily Mail article received the highest attention highlighting “scientists say that they have found a potential cure for MND”.
But why would two news outlets report the same story so differently? It’s all down to good/bad science communication.
Daily Mail: Have Scientists found a cure for Professor Stephen Hawking’s MND? Clinical trials as early as next year as potential cure is discovered
The Scotsman: Scientists believe they are close to testing a promising treatment for patients struck down with a form of MND
The facts
As a bit of background information, we know that approximately 10% of cases of MND are inherited. The rest of the cases are thought to be caused by a combination of lifestyle, environment and subtle genetic factors.

Inherited MND cases are characterised by a strong family history and the disease is caused directly by a mistake in a specific gene. Of these 10% of cases, 2% are caused by the SOD1 gene (meaning that for every 100 cases of MND, 10 cases are inherited and of these, only 2 are directly caused by the faulty SOD1 gene). To put this into context, approximately 5,000 people are living with MND in the UK, approximately 200 of these have this rare SOD1 inherited form of the disease.

Image taken from
Prof Mimoun Azzouz research at SITraN was reported in a number of news outlets, highlighting how his research is paving the way to a treatment for a rare form of MND.

His research is at a relatively early stage, where he has only just begun investigating the use of a technique known as ‘gene therapy’ in mice affected by the SOD1 inherited form of MND. If the research goes to plan, he will be able to submit a proposal for regulatory approval by August 2015. After approval has been granted, clinical trials will then start. This does not mean ‘clinical trials will start in 2015’ – submitting an application for approval and getting approval, through to starting a clinical trial are very different things that do not all happen at once!

The Scotsman rightly highlighted ‘a form of MND’. However the Daily Mail went along the lines of ‘have scientists found a cure for Professor Stephen Hawking’s MND?’ As you can see, from the Daily Mail article, they’ve used the term ‘cure’. This is dangerous as unless this is the case it can offer false hope to those living with this incurable debilitating disease. Secondly, the Daily Mail article highlights that it is ‘a cure for Professor Stephen Hawking’s disease’. These could wrongly be misinterpreted as a cure for all forms of MND, or even be misinterpreted that Stephen Hawking has this exact form of the disease and this potential treatment is solely for him – big misinterpretations of the science.
As mentioned above, this treatment is firstly being trialled in mice with the SOD1 form of disease, meaning if it makes it to humans it’s only going to be beneficial for people with the SOD1 inherited form of the disease. This is a tiny proportion of total MND cases, therefore using the word ‘cure’ is widely exaggerated. As this treatment hasn’t been tested in humans, there’s no evidence at present to suggest it will be beneficial. Therefore looking at the science, the Daily Mail’s article’s is misleading and creates false hope of a cure, whereas the Scotsman correctly says, ‘scientists believe they are close to testing a promising treatment for a form of MND’, highlighting how amazing this science is but without over exaggerating it.

What is gene therapy?
Gene therapy is a bit like a car company stopping the production of a specific type of car, huh? Well check out my blog on to find out more about gene therapy and cars!
Please note the views expressed in this blog article are entirely my own. Please note that my personal views do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, academic institute or PhD supervisors.

AMRC guest blog - the opening of the MND DNA Bank

This blog has been pretty quiet due to me passing my PhD and now working full-time at the MND Association and writing lots of blogs for them at Fear not, I'm going to try and revive it!

In the meantime here is a link to a recent guest blog I did for the AMRC on the opening of the MND DNA Bank for researchers worldwide:

The Motor Neurone Disease Association has opened up its DNA bank to researchers in the motor neurone disease (MND) community. The bank includes samples from MND patients and healthy controls. Samantha Price from the Association tells us more about the project, and what this will mean for researchers.

See more at:

Welcome to Jurassic Park?

A fictional book that became a dino blockbuster, and it was on the telly last weekend! Jurassic Park is currently the 23rd highest-grossing film of all time - that's higher than Spider-man, Twilight and Independence day!

Jurassic Park is a story about the creation of dinosaurs using fossilised DNA. The scientists at Jurassic Park then filled in the gaps of this DNA with that of a frogs, and thus made lots of baby dinosaurs. The dinosaurs then inevitably escaped from their zoo-like enclosures, caused a lot of panic and, of course, ate a few people.

But.. this film was one of the first things that got me interested in science, which is a great thing. I wanted to be a dino-fighting palaeontologist! However, after realising palaeontology wasn't quite as exciting as Jurassic Park made out, I turned to microbiology.

I did however notice a Telegraph headline on my feed this afternoon that immediately grabbed my attention and reminded me of my dino-fighting palaeontologist dream!

Image: Velociraptors in Jurassic Park 3 and Sam Neil keeping it cool Universal Studios

"Jurassic Park 'extremely unlikely', scientists conclude."

Extremely unlikely. Improbable. These were the words used. The linking of the research to Jurassic Park was a great hook, however the research was on one of their cousins.. A bird known as a Moa. This looked very similar to today's Emu.

Basically the researchers from the Western Australian Murdoch University looked at the 'half-life' of DNA (this is the time it takes for half of the fossilised DNA to decay). They found that at an ideal temperature of -5 degrees Celsius it took 521 years for half of the DNA to disappear, and that after 6.8 million years there would be no DNA left.

This means that dinosaurs, which have been extinct for 65 million years, would have no fossilised DNA left. However, the time for DNA to fully decay is actually longer than was previously predicted (450-800,000 years), meaning that fossilised DNA from creatures that became extinct during this 6.8 million year window could possibly be obtained.

However, it's not that easy. The researchers said that environmental conditions such as temperature, microbial 'attack' and oxygenation can affect the DNA decay time, as well as the time and place the animal died and soil composition.

So, like the Telegraph says, it's 'improbable' that we could recreate 'Jurassic Park'
They didn't say 'impossible' tho..


The Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper
Murdoch University news story
The Telegraph news story
Highest grossing films list
Jurassic Park first official trailer
Jurassic Park official website

Some impressive facts about the internet!

Gamers solving an AIDS protein problem in 15 days, there are more devices connected to the internet than people on Earth! This is some impressive information/numbers about the internet and the power it has at communicating! Thought I'd share this with my Blog/Twitter followers!Power To The Online People

Provided by:

Kissing bug - the real vampire of Latin America

A recent story in the New York Times yesterday not only grabbed my attention, but my Twitter followers too. What have been termed 'neglected tropical diseases' (diseases we usually associate with developing countries) have been seen increasingly in high poverty areas in the US.

To name but a few; Dengue fever (a viral infection transmitted by mosquitos), cysticercosis (epilepys and seizures caused by a tapeworm), toxocariasis (a parasitic infection that causes asthma and neurological problems, murine typhus (a bacterial infection passed by fleas from rodents).

These all sound incredibly horrible on their own, but the worst by far is Chagas disease. This is another parasitic disease transmitted from what is known as the 'kissing bug' - a cockroach-like creature that feeds on human blood! (move over Edward, you and your vampire mates are about to be replaced!).
This is the real 'vampire' of Latin America, however the first death was reported in the US last month.

Poverty is a major risk factor for the parasite that causes the disease, known as Trypanosoma cruzi, which is related to the parasite that causes 'sleeping sickness' in Africa. The disease starts of as a general feeling of unwell, a swollen bite mark and a fever, after which up to 20 years the parasite hides in the heart and digestive tissue - which can end up leading to heart failure and sudden death!

This will probably give me nightmares! The 'kissing bug' taken from:

''The new AIDS of Americas'': Experts warn of deadly insect-borne disease that can cause victims' hearts to explode.

This was the daily mail's take on this back in May with, of course, a very dramatic headline. This was in response to an article published in the PLOS neglected tropical diseases journal which also labels Chagas disease to AIDS which, in my opinion, was so that the authors got some publicity with their 'catchy/sexy' named article. The article however does not even mention 'exploding hearts', only 'heart failure'.
There are some similarities, however, between AIDS and Chagas in the fact that they both have long periods with no symptoms, however Chagas disease is treatable if diagnosed early. So an article saying 'Chagas is the new AIDS' was highly dramatised and irresponsible by the authors as the article was highly interesting and did not need such an extravagant title.

Articles in the Lancet and NATURE back in 2010 indicated that Chagas disease is a worldwide challenge and an emerging health problem in non-epidemic countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also recognised the importance of these neglected tropical diseases at the World Health assembly in May this year.

But why has there been an increase in major poverty areas of the US? Well, no air conditioning creating humid environments, poor street drainage, sanitation, garbage and neglected swimming pools all create lovely conditions for these diseases to thrive. Not only this, these 'forgotten diseases' hit 'forgotten people', who do not often have access to healthcare, creating an even bigger and under-reported problem.

So, the risk to me and you? Incredibly low, however if you live in areas of poverty in America where this 'kissing bug' can thrive then you are at an increased risk, so it is important that you recognise the early symptoms of the disease (see the WHO fact sheet) and seek treatment.

1. The New York Time's article: (accessed 19/08/12)
2. The Daily Mail article: (accessed 19/08/12)
3. Hotez PJ, Dumonteil E, Woc-Colburn L et al. (2012) Chagas Disease: "The new HIV/AIDS of the Americas". PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 6 (5): e1498 (
4. Rassi A and Marin-Neto JA (2010) Chagas Disease. The Lancet. 375 (9723) 1388-1402 (
5. Coura JR, Vinas PA (2010) Chagas disease: a new worldwide challenge. Nature. 465 (S6-S7) (