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The road to cancer: as simple as ATG…

Holly Callaghan

Holly Callaghan

In her shortlisted article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2012, Holly Callaghan, a PhD student at Imperial College London, explains why learning about what goes wrong in the genetic ‘spell checkers’ of cells can help to develop anti-cancer treatments. 

Spelling mistakes — we all make them. Usually a result of carelessness, a ‘g’ might become a ‘c’, an ‘a’ might become a ‘t’. If you’re writing a letter maybe you’ll correct or cross out the offending word, or even scrunch up your paper, throw it away, and start again.

Our cells have a remarkably similar distaste for misspellings. The genetic alphabet is made up of only four letters: A, T, G and C. Cells must diligently copy their DNA, all six billion letters of it, in a precise order so that they can replicate. Some cells, such as skin cells, replicate every half hour, while others, for example brain cells, divide once then never again. Think for a moment about your colon. The surface of this impressive 7.5 metre long digestive organ completely renews every four days — that’s a lot of dividing cells! Read more

Seeking out the Six-Day Sample

The box of 'research goodies' the surviving participants have been receiving (Copyright: CCACE)

The box of ‘research goodies’ the surviving participants have been receiving (Copyright: CCACE)

Ian Deary, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, is on the trail of a specific group of 76-year-olds. Here he tells us what’s so interesting about these people, and why a new MRC-administered study means they’re receiving an early Christmas parcel to help them provide extremely valuable information.

Back in 1947, Scottish researchers did something unusual. Instead of randomly selecting a group of children and testing them to get a picture of overall intelligence, they decided to test every child born in 1936. On the Wednesday 4 June 1947, more than 70,000 11-year-olds sat down to complete the Scottish Mental Survey.

But, as if that were not enough, the researchers also went one step further. They stayed in contact with the 1,208 children born on 1 February, April, June, August, October and December in 1936, visiting them at home and collecting information on their mental abilities, personality, home circumstances, health, education, occupations and interests almost yearly until they were 27. These people are known as the Six-Day Sample, or ‘Scotland in Miniature’. Read more

Profile: Wiebke Arlt

Wiebke Arlt

Wiebke Arlt

University of Birmingham researcher Wiebke Arlt received many bouquets of flowers for establishing that male hormones affect women’s libidos. Now she’s developing a urine test for adrenal cancer, as she told Sarah Harrop in the fourth of a series of profiles taken from our Annual Review 2011/12.

Cancer of the adrenal glands is hard to detect because the glands are hidden deep inside the body and the disease can be symptomless in its early stages — so new diagnostic tests are urgently needed.

In 2011, with MRC funding, Professor Wiebke Arlt developed the first urine test for adrenal cancer which could replace expensive CT scans and avoid the need for surgery in suspected cases that turn out to be benign. Wiebke is fascinated by hormones — in fact she’s built her career around studying them.

Early on in her career, as a young doctor in Germany, she was the first to establish that male hormones (androgens) affect libido and feelings of wellbeing in women. During a trial to restore these hormones in women with androgen deficiency she began to receive thank-you gifts of flowers and wine from their husbands, which she says “was an early sign of what was going on”. Read more