Celebrating MRC successes
To celebrate the successes of MRC-funded research and the people behind the discoveries, today we’ve launched a timeline of MRC research and discoveries*. And in true MRC advent calendar-style, throughout December we’ll be highlighting a different discovery each day – let the countdown to Christmas begin!
*A new discovery will be revealed each day in this post. Click the image below to view the complete timeline.
1936: Nerve impulses are transmitted by chemicals
Professor Otto Loewi and Sir Henry Dale, Director of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research 1928 – 1932, showed that nerve impulses are transmitted by chemical signals and identified and isolated the first neurotransmitter; acetylcholine. When two nerve cells meet end-to-end, there is a gap between them called a synapse. Neurotransmitters, released from the end of one nerve, flow across this gap to the other nerve. This is how one nerve cell communicates with another, and is the basis of how nerve cells are connected in networks in the body. The pair won a Nobel prize for this work.
1970: High blood pressure causes heart disease and strokes
MRC scientists carried out two major studies during the 1970s and early 1980s into mild hypertension, confirming that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and that treating it substantially reduces this risk.
1953: Structure of DNA unravelled
Work by James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin revealed that the molecular structure of DNA is a double helix. Crick and Watson of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Wilkins of the MRC Biophysics Research Unit won the 1962 Nobel Prize for this work, hailed as one of the most significant landmarks of the 20th century. DNA encodes genetic information and transmits it from one generation to the next in all living things. It is a large chain molecule that is made up of many building blocks. Watson, Crick and Wilkins showed how these building blocks interact in three dimensions to form a long, spiralling molecule with a double ‘backbone’ made up of sugar and phosphate blocks. Nitrogen-containing compounds, called bases, protrude from the two halves of the backbone and link together in pairs so that the whole molecule is like a zip. There are only four types of bases in humans, represented by the letters C, A, G and T and they are the basis of the genetic code of DNA. This discovery also helped in the understanding of how DNA replicates. Find out more about the MRC and DNA research.
1940-1949: Randomised controlled trial design pioneered
MRC scientists developed what is today the gold standard for clinical trial design while testing streptomycin to treat pulmonary tuberculosis. In a 2009 British Medical Journal video, former MRC Chief Executive Professor Colin Blakemore speaks to John Crofton, who led the MRC streptomycin trial, about the importance of randomisation and blinding in clinical trials, and how it has helped to make medicine more evidence-based: Watch the video of Colin Blakemore and John Crofton.
During our Centenary year we celebrated the MRC’s pioneering role in developing randomised clinical trial methods, and a substantial programme of clinical trials, with a BBC London News item, a Radio 4 programme and a series of short films about clinical trials produced by the MRC Clinical Trials Unit. Read about an earlier MRC trial that helped to develop randomisation methods.
2010: Bowel screening test developed to save 3000 lives each year
The flexi-scope bowel cancer screening test for the over 65s was developed with MRC and CRUK funding, allowing doctors to both detect early stages of bowel cancer and remove precancerous polyps to prevent bowel cancer from developing. By nipping the disease in the bud at an early stage, this test is expected to save 3,000 lives each year in the UK.
1997: Nobel for structure of the cell’s major energy source
Sir John Walker of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology was awarded a 1997 Nobel Prize for his work on the structure and mechanism of ATP synthase, a complex enzyme machine with a rotary mechanism. This enzyme plays a pivotal role in obtaining energy from food by producing ATP (adenosine triphosphate) from ADP (adenosine diphosphate) in mitochondria, the ‘power house’ of the cell. Energy stored in the ATP molecule is distributed as a fuel around the body and is crucial for biological functions, from the building of cell components to muscle contraction and the transmission of nerve signals.
1916: Rickets caused by lack of Vitamin D
Sir Edward Mellanby discovered that rickets, a painful and deforming bone disease, is caused by lack of vitamin D and can be treated with cod liver oil. Sir Edward later went on to become Secretary of the MRC. These findings were confirmed by one of the founders of the MRC, Dame Hariette Chick, whose research showed that children who were either given cod liver oil or allowed to play outside in the sunshine could be cured of rickets (the body produces Vitamin D in response to sunlight).
2015: Screening for ovarian cancer saves lives
Results from the world’s biggest ovarian cancer screening trial suggest that screening based on an annual blood test may help reduce the number of women dying from the disease by around 20 per cent. The study showed a delayed effect on mortality between the screening and control arms, which became significant after the first seven years of the trial. This allows us to be almost certain that screening reduces the number of women dying from ovarian cancer by somewhere between zero and 40 per cent.
Read more on our website.
1956: Smoking causes cancer
Sir Richard Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill studied 40,000 British doctors and showed that the death rate from lung cancer among heavy smokers was 20 times the rate in non-smokers, providing definitive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.
1959: First protein structure identified
Myoglobin was the first protein to have its 3D structure determined, closely followed by haemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in our blood. In 1962, Dr Max Perutz and Sir John Kendrew at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology were awarded a Nobel prize for their 25 years’ work to determine the structures of these proteins as well as other globular proteins like the immunoglobulins (antibodies). The scientists used the way that different proteins cause X-rays to change direction to produce unique patterns that indicated their structures. The MRC runs an annual science writing competition named after Max, who was a keen and talented communicator who inspired students to use everyday language to share their research with the people whose lives are improved by their work. Watch a video about Max on the Guardian’s website.
2012: Smartphone app that can diagnose eye disease
MRC-funded researcher Dr Andrew Bastawrous collaboratively developed Peek, a portable eye examination kit that uses smartphone technology to undertake eye tests and diagnose vision problems in remote locations in low-income countries. Ninety per cent of the world’s 39 million blind people live in low-income countries where there is little or no access to ophthalmologists. The kit is being trialled alongside an MRC study of 5,000 people in Kenya during 2013–14. Dr Bastawrous won the MRC’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award in 2012 with an article about his research.
11 December – World Mountain Day
1952: MRC scientist scales world’s sixth highest mountain to prepare for Everest
Griffith Pugh, an MRC scientist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research and a skilled climber, accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on his famous 1953 ascent of Everest. He was commissioned ahead of the expedition to study nutrition, acclimatisation, equipment and the effects of supplementary oxygen on climbers at high altitudes by climbing Cho Oyu the year before, and his research contributed to the success of the Everest expedition.
10 December – Human Rights Day
2016: WHO roll out of pneumococcal vaccine
An affordable new formulation of pneumococcal vaccine has been approved by the EU and pre-qualified by the WHO based on results of trials conducted at MRC Unit The Gambia. The trials tested a more cost-effective vaccine, containing four doses, rather than one; it offers a 75 per cent reduction in temperature-controlled supply chain and storage requirements. The results showed that the new formulation was as safe, tolerable and immunogenic as the already licensed single-dose syringe.
2009: Molecular structure and function of the ribosome solved
Dr Venki Ramakrishnan at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology won a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for showing how ribosomes, the tiny protein-making factories inside cells, function at the atomic level. This research has shed light on how the ribosome decodes instructions from DNA and on how antibiotics work, by showing how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes. This information is critical for developing new antibiotics. Modern antibiotics work by blocking the function the bacterial ribosomes upon which bacteria depend upon for survival.
1980-1989: Humanised monoclonal antibodies developed
Following on from Milstein and Kohler’s seminal MRC-funded discovery of monoclonal antibodies in the 1970s, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology scientist Sir Greg Winter devised a way to ‘humanise’ these monoclonal antibodies, making them better suited to medical use. The work has generated a multi-billion pound biotechnology industry; monoclonal antibodies now form the basis of a third of all biotechnology products in clinical development. Sir Greg Winter was honoured with the 2013 MRC Millennium Medal for his contributions to UK wealth creation and human health. Read a profile about Sir Greg Winter and his groundbreaking researchopens in new window.
1960s: Clinical trials of radiotherapy for cancer
MRC scientists began extensive trials in the 1960s testing radiotherapy as a treatment for a number of cancers. Today around four in ten cancer patients have radiotherapy.
1960s: X-chromosome inactivation
While studying the effects of radiation on DNA in the early 1960s, Dr Mary Lyon discovered that one of two copies of the X-chromosome in women can be inactivated. This explained the absence of symptoms in female carriers of inherited diseases associated with this chromosome such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and colour-blindness, which affect mainly men. The MRC’s world-renowned centre for mouse genetics at Harwell was named The Mary Lyon Centre in recognition of her important contributions to research in mammalian genetics.
5 December – International Volunteer Day
2016: Celebrating a long history of cohorts
The UK has an extensive history of longitudinal studies, and 2016 marked the 70th and 25th anniversary for two of the largest.
In its 70 years, the MRC National Study of Health and Development has helped shed light on the social and biological effects on ageing; from the onset of clinical disorders to the ageing brain. In 25 years, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children has aided discoveries such as the benefits of eating oily fish in pregnancy and potential causes of migraines.
Watch their film, Across Generations, to get to know the participants who are changing our understanding of human health.
1940-1949: Development of penicillin as a drug
Sir Alexander Fleming originally discovered penicillin’s antibacterial properties by accident in 1929 while studying bacteria. By chance, Penicillium mould had contaminated one of his dishes and he noticed that bacteria around the spot of mould had been killed. He named the substance penicillin, after the mould he found it in. But it was not until Sir Ernst Chain and Lord Florey’s MRC-supported work during World War II that it became possible to produce the drug in pharmaceutical quantities. They went on to purify and extract penicillin, enlisting the help of pharmaceutical companies to treat many different bacterial diseases – crucial for treating wounded soldiers on the front line in World War II. Fleming, Florey and Chain won the 1945 Nobel Prize for this work.
1933: Discovery of the influenza virus
MRC scientists proved that influenza is caused by a virus, rather than a bacterium, after studying ferrets in their laboratory which had caught the illness from researchers.
1936: Discovery of two types of diabetes
Sir Harold Himsworth (MRC Secretary between 1949 and 1968) anticipated the modern classification of diabetes and its treatment by showing that there are two types of diabetes: insulin-sensitive and insulin-insensitive. Type 1 diabetes, or insulin-sensitive, develops when the insulin-producing cells have been destroyed and the body is unable to produce insulin. Insulin-insensitive, or type 2 diabetes, develops when the body is unable to produce enough insulin, or when the insulin produced does not work properly (known as insulin resistance). In his 1936 paper, Diabetes mellitus: its differentiation into insulin sensitive and insulin insensitive types, Himsworth described a test to distinguish between these two types. A special edition of Diabetic Medicine was dedicated to Himsworth in 2011, 75 years on from his discovery.
1 December – World AIDS Day
2009: Prioritising antiretroviral therapy
A major trial carried out in rural Africa showed that more HIV patients could be treated safely and effectively for no additional cost by focusing funding on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) monitored by trained health workers rather than on expensive blood tests. Watch a short film and read more about the DART trial.