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Posts from the ‘Profiles’ Category

Remembering Mary Lyon and her impact on mouse genetics

Dr Mary Lyon, an important figure in the field of mouse genetics, died in December. Here Katherine Nightingale looks back on her career, from a ‘titular’ degree to her impact on generations of scientists, via a discovery in the early 1960s which explained a fundamental difference between men and women in the inheritance of disease.

A portrait of Mary Lyon by artist Dr Lizzie Burns

A portrait of Mary Lyon by artist Dr Lizzie Burns (Image copyright: Dr Lizzie Burns)

It’s not often that the MRC names a building after a scientist, even with our roll-call of scientific greats. But at MRC Harwell in Oxfordshire, the MRC Mary Lyon Centre teems with life — murine life that is. Opened in 2004, the centre is a national facility for mouse genetics where genetically modified mice are produced, cared for and studied.

Mary Lyon, who died on Christmas day 2014 aged 89, worked with mice throughout her scientific career, becoming one of the foremost geneticists of the 20th century through her research on mice with mutated genes. She made her most famous discovery, named ‘lyonisation’ in her honour, during her time at MRC Harwell.   Read more

Pete Coffey: Driving stem cells to the clinic

Pete Coffey*

Pete Coffey (Image copyright: UCL)

Professor Pete Coffey, Professor of Cellular Therapies at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London, is an MRC-funded researcher who is developing a stem cell therapy for a degenerative eye condition that is the leading cause of blindness in UK adults. He spoke to Katherine Nightingale about the long road to the clinic.

Researchers seldom like to predict how long it might be before their discoveries are tested in patients. “At least five years” is a typical response, but one that should usually be taken with a pinch of salt. Research is complex, there are many obstacles to overcome, and some promising ideas never get anywhere near a clinic.

All the more surprising then that Pete Coffey gave himself and his team five years from 2007 to ready a stem cell therapy for a degenerative eye condition for clinical trials. And perhaps more surprising still — he’s done it.

The condition in question is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Most people with AMD have the ‘dry’ form, which occurs when a carpet of cells behind the retina start to die. These retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells nourish the ‘seeing’ cells of the retina, as well as removing dead cells that would otherwise build up and cause damage. People with AMD gradually lose sight from a part of the retina called the macula, which is responsible for sharpness of vision in the centre of the visual field — the vision needed for reading, driving and recognising faces. There is no treatment for dry AMD.

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Andrew Jackson: Listening to brain cells

Andrew Jackson is a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow in the Newcastle University Institute of Neuroscience. He told Katherine Nightingale about research, part-funded by the MRC, which aims to decipher the brain patterns that control arm and hand function to help paralysed people.

Like many researchers who run their own lab, Andrew Jackson doesn’t spend as much time at the bench as he’d like. But he does get to spend the odd hour or two doing one of his favourite things — listening to brain cells.

“They become like old friends,” he says. “We’ve been able to track the same neuron over days, weeks and months and you start to get to know them quite well.”

There are important reasons for getting to know neurons. Andrew and his colleagues are hoping to use the knowledge they gain from listening in on the brain to allow paralysed people to control external devices such as prosthetic arms using just their thoughts. Read more