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Students listen to Professor Hal Drakesmith talk about his work on the hormone hepcidin
Students listen to Professor Hal Drakesmith talk about his work on the hormone hepcidin

A group of undergraduate students studying human biosciences at Petroc, a further education college in north Devon, were invited to visit the WIMM for a day. In the fourth blog from our series of posts by students who undertake work placements at the WIMM, they share their impressions of the experience.

In mid-January this year, the FdSc Human Bioscience Team headed off for a day trip to the world-renowned Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM). The Institute, located next to the John Radcliffe hospital, is a hotbed of cutting edge research in the fields of inherited and acquired human diseases. Our host was Dr Peter Canning, a member of Professor Terry Rabbitts’ research group. He had organised a full day of activities, packed with eye opening experiences for students and staff alike.

Following a safety briefing we met with Prof. Rabbitts’ international team of scientists. Over coffee they shared their journeys towards becoming researchers in Oxford and asked us questions about our own studies. Next was a talk by Steve Taylor about Bioinformatics, explaining how software development at WIMM (such as PivotViewer and Zegami) has helped scientists understand the data they obtain from their research. He particularly highlighted the important role of computation in handling the enormous amounts of data generated in modern medical research. We then went to Prof. Rabbitts’ lab to hear about their research into how antibodies could be used as healthcare tools, such as in treatments for cancer whereby an antibody could silence a specific protein that is essential for a cancer to develop. “Getting an antibody into a cell is tricky” admitted Dr Canning, with viruses and nanoparticles being used as possible vehicles to accomplish this. He went on to explain how bacteria can be engineered to produce specific proteins of interest and demonstrated the techniques and equipment used by members of the lab to isolate those proteins for study. After lunch we listened to an informative seminar given by Professor Ian Tomlinson from the Wellcome Trust Centre of Human Genetics on inherited forms of colorectal cancer. The next stop was Professor Hal Drakesmith’s lab where the role of iron in human immunity is being studied. Pathogens require iron from the host, and so Prof. Drakesmith’s team are investigating whether manipulating iron transport could lead to new strategies to combat infections. We had a Q&A session with scientists working on the hormone hepcidin, which controls iron levels in the blood. We also learnt about research into regenerative medicine involving studies using zebrafish as a model organism. Unlike humans, zebrafish are able to regenerate some of their heart muscle. Human hearts contain the same genes as those found in zebrafish, so studying these little creatures may help the scientists work out how human hearts could be regenerated after a heart attack. Using microscopes, we were able to watch the blood circulating in anaesthetised zebrafish, as well as see the pumping of their hearts.

Chris Lagerholm, manager of the Wolfson Imaging Centre, demonstrates one of the powerful super-resolution microscopes within the CentreChris Lagerholm, manager of the Wolfson Imaging Centre, demonstrates one of the powerful super-resolution microscopes within the Centre

We spent the afternoon in the Wolfson Imaging Centre, a facility containing a diverse range of high-tech microscopes, including super-resolution STED microscopes which are so powerful they can produce images of molecules. We were able to watch live action of lipid molecules dancing around and we observed DNA within cells undergoing division. Finally, the Flow Cytometry facility which houses cell sorting and cell separating machines allowed students see how specific cell populations can be separated out from a sample. These cells are not damaged and can be used in further experiments. Both the staff and students appreciated the opportunity to see equipment that isn’t available in a classroom, as well as to gain an insight into the work of WIMM scientists. One second year student, Kerry, said: “The day has been inspirational – so many things to think about.” The entire group are extremely grateful to our host Dr Canning and to the WIMM for a fantastic day. Post edited by Peter Canning and Bryony Graham.