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Life Sciences 2012: Nomination Speeches

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Each heirloom recipient from 2011 has nominated a successor in 2012. In 2014, heirlooms will be passed on again. Here are the reasons why last year’s holders have chosen their new recipients.

Professor Sarah Blakemore (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL) nominates Dr Emily Holmes (Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Research Fellow, Institute of Psychiatry, University of Oxford)

"Visual flashbacks or flash-forwards can occur in bipolar and post-traumatic stress (PTSD) disorders. About 1 in every 100 adults has bipolar disorder, which often starts during or after the teenage years. PTSD – a common complication in bipolar patients – can affect people after a traumatic experience such as an accident, physical or sexual assault, combat, disaster, or after witnessing death or injury. Emily’s research aims to develop scientifically-driven clinical innovations to improve the treatment of mental health disorders. New technologies (cognitive science) can be combined with traditional talking therapies (clinical psychology). She has found that mental imagery has a more profound impact on emotion than verbal ideas. Her current work is exploring the theory that overactive mental imagery can lead to extreme emotions and mood fluctuations. She believes that we could in the future develop ‘cognitive vaccines’ to help protect against symptom development in mental health disorders and promote resilience."

Professor Mary Collins (Director of the MRC/UCL Centre for Medical Molecular Virology) nominates Dr Tracey Barrett (School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College)

“Viruses are very clever when it comes to reprogramming the genome of their host. They’re at an advantage being made from the same stuff: nucleic acid and protein. Kaposi’s Sarcoma Herpes virus, the main cause of AIDS-related cancer, and Human T-cell Leukaemia Virus (HTLV-1) are both able to mimic human proteins. This allows them to hi-jack signalling pathways inside host cells, which compromises the cell’s ability to fight off infection. This molecular sabotage plays into regulatory pathways that are central to many processes within the cell. A protein complex called NF-kappaB regulates one such pathway. It controls the decoding of genetic information into a form that can be used by the cell to make protein. Viruses can switch on NF-kappaB pathways when they should be silenced. Tracey’s group are interested in the molecular mechanisms that facilitate stimulation of these pathways. They’re working to uncover the structure of key protein players.”

Professor Dame Sally C Davies (Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Health) nominates Dr Nicole Soranzo (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute)

"Cardiovascular disease, and particularly coronary artery disease, is the leading global cause of death, killing tens of millions every year. Coronary artery disease occurs when part of the smooth, elastic lining inside a coronary artery stiffens and all sorts of ‘grunge’ accumulates. Calcium, fatty deposits and abnormal inflammatory cells gather to form plaques. By the time that heart problems are detected, the underlying cause is usually quite advanced, having progressed for decades. There is therefore increased emphasis on prevention through healthy eating, exercise and genetic screening. Nicole's team is scouring the human genome to identify new genetic risk factors for coronary heart disease and heart attack. This research aims to identify the underlying biological and molecular processes. It is hoped that screening patients in the future will help identify problems early on, so that effective treatments can be delivered before it’s too late."

Dr Helen Fisher (Research Professor at the Center for Human Evolution Studies, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA) nominates Dr Bianca Acevedo (Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York)

"Love may make the world go round, but it is a difficult phenomenon to define from a scientific perspective. Within the past few decades, with the rise of internet-dating websites, a whole new science has evolved around relationship studies, and what makes a successful match. Register with any online dating service today, and you will be required to undergo some form of psychological evaluation. Behind this online questionnaire is a field of scientific research. Bianca works in a laboratory that studies close relationships. Her work in the field of social neuroscience focuses on motivational and emotional substrates in close romantic relationships. She is exploring the up and-down regulation of romantic love, long-term romantic relationships, the neural correlates of long-term pair-bonding, and the neural underpinnings of bonding in newlyweds."

Vivienne Parry (Writer and Broadcaster) nominates Dr Elizabeth Murchison (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute)

"Cancer is the inevitable outcome of our cells to divide and adapt to their environment. It is not normally a contagious disease, but there are three known exceptions in dogs, Tasmanian devils and Syrian hamsters. Liz Murchison studies Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) and canine transmissible venereal tumour (CTVT). Both are naturally occurring and spread by means of cancer cells themselves passing between individuals. However, they have evolved independently, and affect dogs and devils in different ways. DFTD, spread by biting, has left the Australian population of Tasmanian devils at risk of extinction. CTVT is spread through sexual contact and is prevalent globally in dog populations. It is the oldest known mammalian derived lifeform. Liz hopes to prevent extinction of Tasmanian devils through studying the genetics and evolution of these two diseases. Her research may also have relevance to understanding human cancers."

Dr Sohaila Rastan (CSO, RNIB) nominates Professor Edith Heard (Institut Curie, Paris, France)

"Men and women are genetically distinct. Men characteristically have an X and a Y chromosome within their body cells, whereas women inherit an X chromosome from each parent. Nature accommodates for the discrepancy by silencing one of the X chromosomes within the body cells of female mammals. This generates a mosaic, discernable, for example, in the fur coats of tortoiseshell cats (which are all female). Roughly half the cells in a woman’s body express their father’s X, and the other half are characterized by those inherited from their mother. Edith works on the molecular mechanisms that switch off X chromosomes. A molecule encoded by DNA from the Xist gene (on the X chromosome) is a key player. Molecular tags on histone proteins, around which DNA wraps itself inside the nucleus, influence the accessibility of gene sequences to the machinery that translates genetic information into the functional architecture of the cell."

Professor Liz Robertson (Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow and Professor of Developmental Biology, University of Oxford) nominates Marysia Placzek (Professor in Developmental Neurobiology and Director MRC Centre for Developmental and Biomedical Genetics, University of Sheffield)

"Deep within the human brain sits a structure roughly the shape and size of an almond. The hypothalamus controls body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and circadian rhythms. It is the bridge between our nervous and hormonal systems, making brain hormones such as oxytocin and regulating others made by the adjacent pituitary gland. The hypothalamus plays a balancing role facilitated by its sensitivity to external and internal signals. Marysia is interested in how this brain region develops in the embryo. Her research team is exploring how it sends and receives the signals that help it to regulate so many aspects of our biology. She explores how the mechanisms that control the developing hypothalamus are shared with those that direct development of spinal cord. Her work helps us understand how stem cells in the hypothalamus mature into the different cell types that underlie the functions of the hypothalamus."

Janet Thornton (Director, European Bioinformatics Institute, Hinxton) nominates Dr Sarah Tiechmann (Programme Leader in Genome evolution at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge)

"Our body is made up of billions of cells, and researchers have discovered that there are more ‘conversations’ taking place between these cells than we could ever imagine. Scientists have developed computer models to help them elucidate the components of this dialogue and the consequences, for example in immunity. Sarah’s team wants to understand not only how cells work, but how they have evolved over time into what they are today. She analyses gene and protein sequences to learn about their function and their role in cellular conversations. Most of her work uses complex maths to analyse genomic data sets, including protein structures. She’s interested in the bits of proteins that characterize their ability to do something or say something to other molecules, with a view to mapping out how families of proteins have evolved in relation to others, in terms of structure and function."

Professor Fiona Watt (Deputy Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, Cambridge) nominates Christiana Ruhrberg (Professor of Neuronal and Vascular Biology at the Institute of Ophthalmology, Bath)

"Diabetes can seriously compromise our ability to see, and in severe cases cause blindness. The problem starts with damage to the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the cells in the retina, the light-sensitive cell layer at the back of the eye. The molecular mechanisms that direct blood vessel formation during development and in adult life play a part in disease progression. Pathways that regulate normal blood vessel development in utero also direct wound healing, pregnancy and exercise-induced blood vessel growth in adults. Christiana is researching one such pathway, headed up by a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which affects normal blood vessel growth and plays some part in diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration. She also wants to know how VEGF affects nerve cells in the brain, retina and limbs. Elucidating the way it works will inform its potential use as a molecular tool for regenerative medicine."

Brenda Maddox (Biographer) nominates Georgina Ferry (Science Writer and Biographer)

"The communication of science is as important as its practice. Scientists are often so busy investigating how things work that little time remains to spread the word about their findings. Science communication has become a professional practice in its own right, and many diverse approaches are now evident in the field of public engagement. Georgina Ferry is a science writer a broadcaster, who has worked for New Scientist, presented on BBC Radio 4, and has more recently become interested in the lives of scientists and their interactions with society. Her first biography entitled Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, pays tribute to Britain’s only female Nobel-prize winning scientist. Following the success of this work, Georgina was commissioned to produce a 40-minute one-woman show by Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Hidden Glory: Dorothy Hodgkin celebrated Dorothy’s centenary in 2010."

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