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Fishing for results

It’s the time of year when we ask MRC-funded researchers to sit down at their keyboards and fill out their submissions to our Researchfish data-gathering system. But why are we asking for the number of patents researchers have filed, or how many times they’ve given a public lecture? Ellen Charman from our evaluation team explains.

Evaluating the impact of our research has never been more important. The Government’s spending review of 2010 protected the MRC budget in real terms and provided a ring-fenced budget for science, a move which was welcomed by research councils, universities, learned societies, charities and the private sector. This was the hard-fought-for result of a united campaign that demonstrated that investment in medical research is critical not only for society, but the UK economy too.

However, as we approach a further four-year spending review, there is continued pressure on the MRC and all of the research councils to provide better estimates of our return on investment. We intend to build on our existing evidence with the numbers on how MRC-funded research is making an impact, as well as telling persuasive stories about where our research is making a difference. Read more

Saving the brain from itself

Scott Armstrong

Scott Armstrong

Scott Armstrong, winner of the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2013, tells us about his efforts to use xenon to combat the brain damage caused by head injuries.

Close your eyes and picture a high-speed car crash. An elderly relative taking a tumble down the stairs. Muhammad Ali flooring Sonny Liston, or just another late night punch-up on the streets of Soho. The common feature here is a traumatic injury to the head, resulting ultimately in damage to the brain. Such incidents are collected together under the medical definition of ‘traumatic brain injury’ – a silent epidemic responsible for close to a million visits to A&E each year, and the leading cause of death and disability in under 45’s in the developed world. An epidemic which represents a major unmet clinical need, given that there are currently no drugs available to arrest the injury processes particular to this type of brain damage.

The fascinating thing about the sort of brain damage observed in a traumatic injury is that the damage caused by the initial, physical blow to the head comprises a relatively small proportion of the total damage the brain will eventually suffer. What actually happens is that in the minutes, hours, and even days following that blow, damage spreads across and into the brain, as a rot spreads through an apple. It is this damage that occurs after the physical insult that is responsible for the major burden of injury and the majority of deaths associated with brain trauma – reflected in the fact that a large percentage of trauma deaths occur weeks after the event. Read more

What does a chromosome really look like?

An image of a chromosome generated by Peter’s 3D modeling technique. (Image credit: Drs Tim Stevens and Takashi Nagano, Babraham Institute)

An image of a chromosome generated by Peter’s 3D modelling technique. (Image copyright: Drs Tim Stevens and Takashi Nagano, Babraham Institute)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that all chromosomes are X-shaped bundles. But new research MRC-funded research has shown that they spend most of their time looking more like a tangled mass of string, as Peter Fraser, a researcher at the Babraham Institute, explains. 

The image of a chromosome as an X-shaped blob is familiar to many. But perhaps not everyone knows that this microscopic portrait of a chromosome shows a structure that occurs only transiently in cells, at a point when they are just about to divide by undergoing a process called mitosis.

The vast majority of cells in an organism have finished dividing and their chromosomes don’t look anything like the familiar X-shape. Even cells that are still in the business of dividing, such as blood and skin cells, spend most of their time in a kind of ‘resting’ non-mitotic state. But what do chromosomes in these cells look like?

So far it has been impossible to create accurate pictures of these chromosomes — existing techniques can only determine the average structure of chromosomes from millions of cells. But it’s important that we know what they look like because, far from resting, it’s in this non-mitotic state that all of the important functions of the genome are operating and controlled. Read more