Starling Survey: Not just blue skies research!

By Amanda Hardy AMSB, Schools and Colleges Officer at the Society of Biology.

Starling in NewquayHaving lived in Kent, I am familiar with the charismatic and sociable starling. I remember seeing starlings huddled in rows on rooftops in the autumn and watching as they fly down to a garden lawn to feed. They land in small groups of six to eight birds but appear in waves, so a moment later if you are lucky there are forty to fifty birds strutting across the grass picking out morsels of food as they go; each moving in their own space quietly and systematically covering the area. But when startled the small flock fly off as one in an instant. Read more »

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Art Neuro: Brain Evolution

Supatra Marsh at the Art Neuro exhibtion

Dr Supatra Marsh at the Art Neuro exhibition (Image: Eddie Andress)

By Dr Supatra Marsh, BBSRC Policy Fellow at the Society of Biology, Founder of Art Neuro, and awardee of the Society of Biology Regional Grant Scheme.

Art Neuro is a science communication project that aims to inform and excite the public about current neuroscience research through the medium of art. Over the past four months Art Neuro has brought together a collective of more than 30 neuroscientists and artists who have been collaborating to bring current neuroscience research to the public in the form of 16 original art pieces. These were displayed at the Art Neuro exhibition that took place from the 6th-9th November in East London. Over the four days we hosted a number of interactive events and workshops where visitors got the chance to learn about the brain and get involved in science and art, e.g. a memory workshop, knitting neurons, a mental health panel discussion, and screen printing the evolution of the brain. Read more »

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Gain-of-function experiments: Putting meaning back into words

Professor Simon Wain-Hobson, professor of virology at the Institut Pasteur, will be speaking at Policy Lates on Thursday 20 November: Dodging a Biological Bullet: What can we learn from the US and Europe about biosecurity?

Simon Wain-Hobson (2)The US pause and de facto moratorium on gain-of-function research on the influenza, SARS and MERS viruses provides a welcome opportunity for the virologists. It should not be wasted.

First, we must put meaning back into words. Gain-of-function (GOF) was coined to efface the negative connotations of ‘Dual Use Research of Concern’. GOF is not a run of the mill experiment. It means deliberately selecting for viral variants so that the resulting strain is more dangerous for humans. This can mean stabilizing the virus making it more infectious, increasing its pathogenicity, or changing the transmission route of the virus. For example, the bird flu virus, H7N1, has been engineered so that it is very probably transmissible between humans, and is 30 times more lethal than Spanish flu in an animal model! Read more »

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Personalised medicine gets people’s vote

Dr Laura Danielson, Post-Doctoral Training Fellow at the Institute of Cancer Research, recently took part in our Biology: Changing the World debate.

Mark Downs (left) questions the panel: Dr Michele Stanley, Professor John Lucas, Dr Laura Danielson and Dr Aldo Faisal

Dr Mark Downs (left) questions the panel: Dr Michele Stanley, Professor John Lucas, Dr Laura Danielson and Dr Aldo Faisal

As a budding biologist growing up in the northwest corner of the United States, I never imagined that I would be standing at a podium in central London in the middle of a debate about biological research.

The Biology Week debate pitted speakers against each other to convince the audience that their area of biological research will change the world. I was speaking on behalf of biomedicine, specifically my research on personalised medicine and targeted cancer therapy.

At the debate my heart was racing. We had just heard from my ‘opponents’ Professor John Lucas of Rothamsted Research, on the need for crop protection research to feed the world, and Dr Michele Stanley of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, on the importance of biofuels to meet the world’s growing demand for energy. Speaking after me was Dr Aldo Faisal of Imperial College London, on bioengineering and empowering sufferers of neurological disorders.

As I walked up to the podium I took a deep breath. I only had 10 minutes to impress upon the audience the importance of my research. I focused on how we are trying to reduce the number of deaths associated with cancer using personalised medicine. Personalised medicine is the ability to understand, on a molecular level, each individual patient’s tumour and to then apply targeted treatment. Read more »

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Can we outsmart malaria? A question of tactics

DARADara Annett is a PhD student in the Deu group in the Department of Parasitology, currently at the NIMR until the move to the Crick Institute in 2016

Malaria is one of humankind’s oldest battles. Our understanding has increased rapidly in the last century but there are still around 200 million cases reported per year and more than 600,000 deaths [1].

When I was applying for PhDs as a Chemistry graduate I had no specialist biology background, but I knew that I wanted to put my skills to use in a field that had an impact on global health and disease. My work involves identifying new drug targets in the malaria parasite. Although this is very early in the process of drug discovery, I know that it is working towards translational research. This excites me and will keep me coming in every day for 4 years.

In October, as part of annual Biology Week, the Society of Biology held a debate at the Royal Institution entitled “Malaria eradication: Can we do it? Should we do it?

I thought “Should we do it?” Well, yes obviously! Chairperson Professor Chris Whitty, DFID, was quick to clarify that of course they all agree that in a perfect world, malaria would be eradicated. The question was far more complex, “Should we TRY to do it NOW?” Read more »

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What are we pausing?

Michael J Imperiale is professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan

Professor Michael Imperiale

Professor Michael Imperiale

Gain-of-function studies, as the name implies, are experiments in which a new biological behaviour is conferred upon an existing virus e.g. the ability to be transmitted between mammals in the case of the bird flu virus, H5N1. Earlier this month, the United States (US) Government issued a statement indicating that they would implement a pause of new funding for research involving so-called gain-of-function (GOF) experiments. If research into three respiratory viruses, influenza virus, and MERS and SARS coronaviruses, could be “reasonably anticipated” to result in enhanced pathogenicity or increased transmissibility then their funding would be temporarily halted. The US also asked for a voluntary pause of ongoing projects. During the pause, the US is organising discussions aimed at determining the risks and benefits of such research. Read more »

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Evidence matters, and we can all ask for it

By guest blogger Indrayani Ghangrekar

Ask-for-EvidenceFrom all directions we are told what we should and shouldn’t do, about diets, staying healthy, fighting disease, avoiding chemicals, helping the environment. Some of the advice is based on rigorous testing and evidence, but some is not. How do you sift through the confusion and work out what to believe? Rather than wonder and grumble to yourself about whether a claim is based on fact or fiction, you can simply ask whether it is backed up with evidence.

Asking questions in whatever way we can is a conversation that society needs to start having. Some people are already doing this and organisations like Which? are helping to lead the way by scrutinising the evidence for product claims. Medical research charities and many learned societies make it their business to take on claims that hit the headlines – but this is fragile, fragmented work and can only get us so far. Imagine if everyone joined in.

But it can seem a daunting task – who to ask, what if you’re ignored, what to do with the information once you receive it? Sense about Science has launched a new interactive site dedicated to supporting people through the whole process.

Read more »

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Dual-use for Dummies

Dr Supatra Marsh, BBSRC Policy Fellow at the Society of Biology, is organising Policy Lates: Dodging a biological bullet – what can we learn from the US and Europe about Biosecurity?


Dr Supatra Marsh

During my BBSRC science policy fellowship at the Society of Biology I have been organising the next Policy Lates event focussing on dual-use research. Just in case there are any of you out there that are asking the question ‘what is dual-use research?’ I have tried to write a beginner’s guide to dual-use and biosecurity; dual-use for dummies if you will!

According to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in the United States, dual-use or dual-use research of concern (DURC) is defined as “research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, the environment or material“ 1. In other words, the scientific research being done has a dual-use; the initial purpose of it being carried out in the first place – usually to benefit the public’s health or for the advancement of science – and also an unintended use such as bioterrorism. Read more »

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