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Every year, scientists from all corners of the WIMM emerge from their laboratories, throw off their lab coats and meet over coffee, mini quiches and potentially a glass of wine to discuss the exciting new discoveries that have been made at the institute during the past 12 months. From new cancer biomarkers to novel diagnostic strategies for anaemia, the breadth of translational research emerging from labs at the WIMM was evident from the minute the microphone was turned on. Bryony Graham, a postdoctoral research scientist in Doug Higgs’ lab, sums up the highlights from the day.

WIMM Day 2014 kicked off with an inspiring talk by Steve Twigg, whose work in Andrew Wilkie’s lab focuses on understanding why one in every 40 babies are born with an abnormality which develops during pregnancy. Using new DNA sequencing techniques they are able to identify mistakes in genes associated with the severe malformation of the skull and limbs, helping to improve diagnosis of these debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases.

Following on from this, James Davies (a DPhil student with Doug Higgs and Jim Hughes) introduced a novel technique developed in the WIMM called CaptureC which could be used to find out whether disease-causing mutations which fall in junk DNA’ impact the arrangement of DNA inside a cell (explained in greater detail in this blog post). The MRC Human Immunology Unit was represented by Mariolina Salio from Vincenzo Cerundolo’s lab and Ricardo Fernandes from Simon Davis’ lab. Mariolina reported her findings that another cell type in the immune system digests lipids (fats) to activate an immune response whilst Ricardo reported exactly how cells in the immune system reach out and touch each other – another critical step in the body’s response to an infection or injury.

Over lunch, attendees had the chance to browse the 47 high quality posters from members of the WIMM and associated faculty, with the coveted prize for best poster going to Katsiaryna Belaya from David Beeson’s lab in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience.

Keeping us from a postprandial snooze Anne Goriely from the Clinical Genetics Unit in the WIMM, delivered a thought-provoking talk on what exactly is a ‘normal’ genome, and how mutations occurring in sperm cells can be particularly deadly.

Karin Hellner from Ahmed Ahmed’s group gave an impressive account of their lab’s work on dissecting out tiny pieces of ovarian tumours that persist after chemotherapy – the cells that cause cancers to return after treatment, often even more aggressively than before. The lab has used cutting edge techniques to find new genes that are mutated in this tiny population of cancer-causing cells, and may help to develop new treatments for the disease.

The final session of the day was headed up by Andy Armitage from Hal Drakesmith’s lab, whose work on finding new strategies to detect different forms of anaemia has taken him far from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford to the MRC Unit in the Gambia.

Adam Mead from the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit explained how changes to the DNA in key genes involved in blood development can cause leukaemia, and how important it is to work out which cells the mutation affects in order to direct therapies correctly. Claus Nerlov, also from the Molecular Haematology Unit, described his group’s recent findings that platelet-producing blood cells could be a novel cancer therapy (see recent blog on this paper here).

People having lunch. Image credit: Kevin Clark

Interspersed throughout the day were talks by final year Dphil students. Fittingly, given her pioneering work in immunology, the first Ita Askonas Medal for best student presentation was awarded to Dan Puleston, a DPhil student in Katja Simon’s labHis work explores how cells of the immune system appear to have their own internal digestive system, and the importance of this phenomenon for maintaining an immune system into old age. The runners up, Lisa Clausen (from David Beeson’s lab) and Tim Rajakumar from Tudor Fulga’s group, both gave excellent presentations on their DPhil projects. Lisa is investigating how a specific drug treatment is helping children born with severe mobility problems begin to walk again and Tim is developing clever biological sensors that could be used to manipulate cell behavior.

The keynote lecture for WIMM Day 2014 was given by Professor Stuart Orkin from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US – a leading figure in the field of molecular haematology, a key research theme at the WIMM. Professor Orkin talked about his work in developing treatments for an inherited form of anaemia by understanding how blood cells turn genes on and off. Decades of work have resulted in the beginnings of clinical trials to attempt to find novel treatments for this deadly disease.

Professor Weatherall, after whom the institute is named, is widely regarded as one of the founders of ‘molecular medicine’ (see blog post here) and therefore it was particularly fitting that he should follow Professor Orkin’s talk to sum up 25 years of the WIMM. Prof. Weatherall thanked all staff at the institute for their continuing efforts into understanding and developing therapeutic strategies for such a broad spectrum of life-threatening disorders. Ending with a fantastic anecdote about the initial priority for the institute being to finish its toilets to a royal standard (in anticipation of a visit from Princess Anne – she didn’t use them) Professor Weatherall left the audience in high spirits. As they exited the auditorium for a well-deserved glass of wine, attendees were left pondering what 2015 might bring, and, of course, whether they had actually ever used the Royal Lavatory…

Edited by Gemma Swiers and Raffaela Facchini.