Dayuuuum we had a great response to our “Share your science stories” competition! You guys are awesome. We had so many scientists taking their research, which was obviously pretty complex at times, and getting it down in not only around a mere 200 words but in a manner accessible to the public. Here at Tipbox HQ we had a pretty great time ourselves going through them and picking out our favorites. There were tales of medicine, ecology, cell biology, physiology…

“Shut up, Bill! Give us the stories!”

Yeah, sorry, here you go, the top science shorts. Enjoy!

 

Jessica Verpeut

The development of the brain is complex and still very mysterious. Many genetic and environmental factors are responsible for proper development. Changes to this developmental trajectory may lead to disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder have a wide range of difficulties, including struggling with social situations, communication, and coping with change. One brain region that we believe is critical for this development is the cerebellum. The cerebellum may be small and tucked away behind the forebrain, but it packs some of the largest cells in the brain. Previously thought to only be important for motor movements, we now believe that the cerebellum is important for social and cognitive tasks. In this way, the cerebellum may be constantly correcting and perfecting our actions in an attempt to create the best predictions as we move about our world. This would be similar to how the cerebellum allows us to perform smooth movements with extreme precision and accuracy. Without the cerebellum, reacting to normal social cues or situations would be extremely difficult. We have recently found that specific regions of the cerebellum can alter behavior and now I would like to find the exact time period during development and the mechanism by which the cerebellum modulates these behaviors.

You can see Jessica’s site here.

 

Andreia Albuquerque-Wendt

“Sweet parasites and their proteins: towards novel vaccines”

Sugars and proteins are not only good in cake and milk-shakes! They also decorate the surface of our cells and help them shake hands with each other and give long walks on the beach hand-in-hand. In the science world, we call that “cell-cell interaction” or “cell-cell communication”. Several microbes that cause disease in humans also have these “sweet” proteins in their surface. And each microbe has its own collection of “sweet” proteins. One example of a “sweet” microbe that causes a very nasty disease is Plasmodium, which causes Malaria. But since this one is really hard to play in the laboratory, scientists use its cousin called Toxoplasma, which also cause disease in human – Toxoplasmosis. This one is very easy to play in the laboratory.  My work, the last 4 years was to make a mutant of Toxoplasma that no longer can cause disease. After taking one protein and a few sugars from this parasite, I saw that it was still able to infect laboratory cells, but much less than normal Toxoplasmas. This discovery will make possible for other scientists to design better vaccines to protect people from diseases of the family of Toxoplasma and Plasmodium, called Apicomplexa.

You can see Andreia’s site here.

 

Jennifer Davies

Who: Jennifer Davies, final year PhD student.

What: The interaction between RSV and NK cells. “RSV? NK cells? You’ve lost me!” But wait! Don’t go yet! Did you know that YOU’VE been infected with RSV? In fact, we all have by the time with are around 2 years old. RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus and causes symptoms such as wheezing, fever, and cough. However, for some infants and the elderly, it causes hospitalization and sadly, death. RSV infects the cells that line our airways and these cells raise the alarm to activate immune cells, such as NK cells. NK cells are a bit like ninjas, waiting patiently until BAM – virus attack! Airway cells and NK cells communicate (the part I’m researching) to bring about an enhanced immune response and thus eliminate RSV.

Where: The Institute in the park, just next door to Alder Hey’s Children’s Hospital.

Why: Our immune system is amazing. Tumor surveillance, virus zapping, and bacteria smushing. However, sometimes our immune system can go askew or needs a boost! That’s when it’s our turn as researchers to step in. We join in the immune battle with the aim to create a better quality of life for everyone!

You can find a short video of Jennifer’s Institute, which is aimed at the general public to promote our research groups and encourage scientific interest here.

 

Gavin Fullstone

I study the way cells commit suicide, an important process in maintaining a healthy body and in preventing cancer. Normally, cells sense when something has gone wrong and kill themselves, in a controlled manner, as to prevent potential harm. Moreover, the body’s natural protection, the immune system, detects harmful cells and triggers them to die. When these processes fail, cancer can occur. Cancer cells from different patients or even different cancer cells from the same patient can react differently to the same treatments, so understanding and predicting why certain cells live and others die is complex. I use an approach called systems biology, a mix of biology and computational techniques to study the processes that control cell death decisions. The aim being to simulate what is happening in individual cells on supercomputers. By using this technique, I hope to improve our understanding of why these responses are so variable. These simulations could be used in the future to predict treatment responses in patients and even be used to develop personalized treatment plans for each individual patient. My work also affords me the opportunity to work with scientists, mathematicians, and doctors in a highly invigorating, international and diverse working environment.

 

Elaine Emmerson

My father was diagnosed with head and neck cancer when I was 22. Prior to starting radiotherapy, he underwent some extensive dental work. At the time I didn’t understand why, but curiosity led me to discover that the biggest side-effect of radiotherapy to treat head and neck cancer is damage to other organs in the head. This includes the salivary glands, the organs that produce saliva and keep the mouth and teeth healthy and lubricated. Can you imagine spending the rest of your life with no saliva? It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Well, this is what head and neck cancer patients face following treatment. There is no cure and patients rely on using synthetic saliva or constantly sipping water. As medicine has progressed the idea of regenerating damaged organs from stem cells, unspecialized cells that can develop into mature cells following injury has become increasingly promising. However, these cells require specialized signals from their environment, which are often lost when the organ is damaged. My research aims to return these signals to the salivary gland which would enable the stem cells within to regenerate functional cells and in turn allow the glands to produce saliva again. This would greatly improve the quality of life and oral health for thousands of cancer patients.

Follow Elaine on twitter @doctoremmerson.

 

Bethan G Rogoyski

Life of Sci

Life of Pi describes the odyssey of a man and his tiger trying to get home after capsizing at sea. Perhaps the parallels between this and the mission of obtaining a PhD are not immediately obvious. Yet many of us struggle to keep our heads above water having plunged headlong into the lifelong-companion-cum-daunting-monster that is a postgraduate research degree.

Both stories begin on a long mission to a better place. My personal mission was to prevent the asbestos-related cancer ‘mesothelioma’, which currently has no cure and dismal survival prospects, by re-purposing affordable existing drugs. I began by testing hundreds of drugs, from aspirin to zinc, trying to identify one which obstructed mesothelioma growth, without inducing any unforeseen side-effects. Developing a new drug might have seemed the easier option, but even with the best technology can take up to 15 years and a billion-dollar budget.

Unexpected challenges quickly presented themselves. Long periods of repetitive nothingness – the calm before the storm, and of course that all-pervasive fear you’ll be forever lost in a sea of high-impact data. However, at the first glimpse of something on the horizon and you willingly double your efforts. As positive results slowly start to accumulate, and I become closer to identifying a drug that could be safely translated to the clinic, I again share my sentiments with Pi; there is hope that my efforts may yet reach civilization.

Follow Bethan on twitter @phdoodles and @brogoyski.

 

Tsemay Tse

Alzheimer’s Disease would make you forgetting things bit by bit and eventually loses your identity by disconnecting you from the outside world.  Our body, including the brain, metabolizes to produce energy for daily routine and generate waste along the way.  The trash is not a problem as long as the body clean up after that, in other words, you are in trouble if the body forgot to take out the trash.  Accumulation of the waste would lead to nerve damage and failure of the nervous system.  My current research is to investigate which gene messed up the cleanup system and the mechanism behind it.

I am fascinated by science since very young and eventually discovered that my love of life is the basis of my love of science.  I started studying life and made it my career.  But not until I lost two of my beloved family, I realized that my version of the meaning of life lays in “memory”. Memory connects lives and leaves marks on each other, making the organic mass unique and give it the “soul”.  I dedicate my life to researching memory and memory-related diseases.

 

Sara Ferri

“I am an ice-skater and a PhD student in Bioengineering and, believe it or not, the two things are connected. Some years ago I broke my knee while skating, the recovery was long and, from that moment, I’ve become more and more interested in bones and fractures. I became a Biomedical Engineer and now my PhD is focused on the development of a new treatment to heal fractures.

Our idea is to create microbubbles (think of the thickness of a filament of a spider web), to load them with drug and to deliver them to a fracture. Then, we want to stimulate them from the outside of the body with ultrasound (a sound so high that can’t be heard by the human ear) to make them break releasing the drug where and when needed. This painless localized treatment is thought to enhance the bone fracture repair process.

At the moment, I am working on the production process of microbubbles. For safety reasons, they should be small, stable and compliant enough to release the drug upon external stimulation. At the same time, a colleague and friend of mine are checking if microbubbles are compatible with our body.”

Follow Sara on twitter @saraferri92.

 

Kirsten Lees

Bogs are wet. That’s a fact which becomes very obvious when you try to walk across one, kitted out in green wellies, squelching through a surface which wobbles like the sponge crust on a trifle. But it’s summer and the cotton grass is flowering, each little puff of fluff dancing and bobbing in the wind. Bog myrtle and heather scent the air with herbs and honey, and the sphagnum mosses pattern the ground in green and crimson. This is what I’m here to measure: the summer green-up when the vegetation recovers from the long winter and starts once again to create energy from sunlight. I measure it down here, amongst the beetles and deer droppings, using a large clear plastic chamber which traps the gases exchanged by the plants. And high above my head, way out in space, satellites circling the earth are measuring this green-up too. That’s my research, matching up what the satellites see with what I record down here on earth. Bogs are precious ecosystems, the layers of peat storing some of the carbon which we pump out of cars and factories. My work is used to check that these bogs are healthy.

Follow Kirsten on twitter @K_J_Lees.

 

Beth Kenkel

Viruses are sneaky, often hiding in hard-to-find places. I study a particularly sneaky virus: HIV. HIV inserts its DNA into the DNA of T-cells, the cells that help fight infections. Then HIV goes into stealth-mode to avoid detection by the body’s immune system or kills the T-cell it infiltrated. While current treatments keep the virus in check, they don’t destroy its DNA. My research focuses on using an ‘assassin’ protein called Cas9 to seeks out and destroy HIV’s DNA. When given a ‘mugshot’ of HIV’s DNA, Cas9 hunts down and cuts this DNA, but it must be an accurate depiction so that Cas9 only cuts HIV’s DNA. To help deploy Cas9 to all of HIV’s hideouts, Cas9 is put inside of an adeno-associated virus (AAV). It’s odd to use one virus against another, but unlike HIV, AAV doesn’t make people sick and is good at delivering proteins to cells. AAV, however, can miss its target sometimes, but changing the outside of AAV can increase its accuracy at finding T-cells. Hopefully, this ‘trojan-horse’ method will contribute to a cure for HIV.

Follow Beth on twitter @elizabethkenkel and Instagram @molbiobeth.

 

Mary McMillan

At some point, we, or someone we love, will likely suffer from depression. It’s a serious disease, often with devastating consequences. But better methods of diagnosis and treatment could help change the statistics around depression – and I think the answer may be in our blood.

Changes in our brain can change our blood chemistry, altering levels of hormones, proteins and signaling molecules – all things we can measure in a blood sample. If someone is depressed the levels of these biomarkers might change – and we could use these changes to diagnose depression. Blood chemistry could also be used for personalizing treatment. By looking at changes in levels of specific biomarkers we could get an idea about which treatment might be the most effective.

We can also get DNA from a blood sample. Our susceptibility to developing depression is partly determined by our genes. Our genes may also dictate how we respond to treatment. From a blood test, we can look at DNA and figure out if someone is susceptible to depression, but also which treatment might be the most useful.

We already use blood samples to diagnose other diseases – I just want to extend that to diagnosing mental health conditions.

Follow Mary on twitter @maryemcmillan and Instagram @theaccidentalscientist.

 


What a collection! Watch this space because we’re going to be doing something awesome with these stories as we want to get them out to as wide an audience as possible!

 


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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