Blog posts

There’s a whole world inside of you: a guide to microbiome research

Kate Gallagher provides an insight into microbiome research; a promising area of science that may pave the way for new treatments for a number of conditions ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to cancer.


You may be familiar with the age-old phrase, ‘you are what you eat’. Whilst I can assure readers that despite ingesting an inordinate amount of Reese’s pieces, you probably aren’t nuts, recent developments in research into the gut microbiome are beginning to tell us that the population of microbes inhabiting our gut may be much more powerful than we’ve previously given them credit for.

What is the microbiome?

The term microbiome refers to the additional set of genes arising from the diverse and unique array of microbes that have established themselves in a variety of habitats throughout our body. This is not to be confused with the term microbiota, simply referring to their names and quantities. These communities of bacteria, viruses, fungi and yeasts can be found in significant proportions in regions such as the gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts, your oral cavity, and skin. Overall, bacterial cells in our body match the number of human cells at a 1:1 ratio, meaning the microbiome has a significant contribution towards our genetic diversity, harnessing great potential to aid our understanding of a number of medical conditions targeted by decades of research. (more…)

Is mycoprotein an ideal food for managing blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetes?

For Diabetes Awareness Week, Anna Cherta-Murillo explains how mycoprotein, a food made of fungus, may hold the promise for managing blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetes.


If I were to ask you the first thing that comes to mind when you think of fungi, you would probably say mouldy walls, gone-off food, or athlete’s foot. The Fungi kingdom is often not viewed in a positive light. However, we owe a lot to fungi; they produce life-saving antibiotics, have allowed organ transplantations in humans and can recycle many types of waste. In the area of nutrition, some fungi also have the potential to affect human health in a beneficial way, although little research has been devoted to it compared to other foods. In the Nutrition Section of the Department of Medicine at Imperial, we are putting fungi into the limelight and studying the impact of a particular type of fungus on blood sugar levels and appetite in South Asian and European people with Type 2 Diabetes (T2D).

The problem

1 out of 20 people worldwide has T2D, with South Asians being more prone to the disease compared to Europeans (Figure 1). People with T2D have higher blood sugar levels than normal, which over time can increase the chances of developing long-term complications such as blindness, kidney disease and heart failure. It is therefore important to manage blood sugar levels in people with T2D in order to keep blood sugar in the normal range. The first-line strategy to achieve this is by improving dietary intake. Healthy, balanced diets are generally characterised as being high in dietary fibre and protein, which decrease both blood sugar levels and appetite. If blood sugar levels are reduced toward normal levels, the chances of having T2D-related complications are reduced. Likewise, if appetite is decreased, intake of energy-rich foods will likely also decrease, helping to reduce body weight, which is a key risk factor for T2D. However, an ongoing problem with healthy diets is that they are not suitable for all cultures and most of the research around them has been conducted in people of European origin, therefore not being applicable to South Asians. Furthermore, people often find it difficult to stick to these diets. (more…)

From Syria to South Kensington: Kinan’s journey to medical school

Kinan Wihba medical school

Kinan Wihba shares his inspiring story of how hard work and determination helped him achieve his dream of studying medicine, having fled Syria’s civil war as a refugee.


I am coming to the end of my first year at Imperial College School of Medicine (ICSM) and still cannot believe I made it this far. Applying for medicine, although exciting, is a challenging and stressful experience and current medical students would echo this statement. My path to medical school was a little different; I never thought it was feasible for me having arrived in the UK as a Syrian refugee with very little English and limited understanding of the application process. Nevertheless, I did my best and it was good enough.

Starting afresh

With every day I survived during the civil war, I grew more accustomed to the fact that I was facing death on a daily basis. I accepted that I might die very soon. So, I was beyond elated when I was reunited with my mother and older brother in the UK, where it was and still is considerably safer to live. However, with the luxury of feeling safe came the loss of my sense of belonging as I moved into this strange new place. Even though I was feeling safe, I did not feel secure; how was I going to communicate with people using a language I had never spoken before? Would I be able to find a school to continue my studies? What if I did not fit in? As much as I was excited, I was terrified and overwhelmed with the uncertainties of starting afresh. But amongst all these uncertainties, I enjoyed the solace of a few certainties one of which was my determination to become a doctor. (more…)

Think small: solving the global challenge of malnutrition by looking at metabolites

Dr Jonathan Swann’s research looks at thousands of small molecules called metabolites in an attempt to better understand a bigger problem of malnutrition and infection – a vicious combination.


Around the world, chronic undernutrition burdens the lives of over 150 million children. The effects of early life undernutrition can extend beyond infancy, stunting the physical and cognitive development of children. This stunting can often have wider societal effects including a decrease in the productivity and economic output of a community, restricting its overall progress. To make matters worse, chronic undernutrition is closely associated with repeated and persistent infections.

Such infections are common in resource-constrained settings due to inadequate water supplies and lack of access to basic healthcare. This double burden of malnutrition and infections can combine to drive inflammatory processes in the gut leading to malabsorption of nutrients and impaired immune responses, further exacerbating the malnourished state and persistence of infections. Breaking this cycle of undernutrition, infections and poverty represents a significant challenge.

(more…)

Leading from the front: what we can learn from the Army

Army leadership

Former British Army officer and current PhD student, Nadia Soliman, discusses the importance of leadership in academia and the lessons we can learn from the Army’s renowned leadership programmes. 


In my opinion the Army and academic institutions are very similar: both are organisations that work globally, across cultures and are dependent upon their people doing remarkable things to tackle some of the greatest challenges. However, one of the stark differences between the Army and academia is how the two train and equip people for the challenges they face in their job. (more…)

What is neurodiversity and why STEM organisations should embrace it

Siena with Sally Phillips at Shine a Light Awards 2019

Siena Castellon, a 16-year-old award-winning autism advocate, makes the case for why diversity should be expanded to include neurodiversity.


Most universities have embraced diversity. They recognise that having students and faculty with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives leads to increased creativity, innovation and productivity. However, most universities, focus their diversity initiatives on race, ethnicity and gender. Universities also prioritise initiatives that aim to improve social mobility, which is why many of the STEM work placements or summer school programs are only available to students from low-income families. Although it is important to address the under-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic students (BME), women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is just as important to include people who are neurodivergent – a minority group that is often forgotten. (more…)

Bringing patients together to tackle heart disease – the Heart Hive

Many researchers study a particular disease because they have a personal connection to someone who has been affected. For researcher Dr Nicky Whiffin, it happened in reverse.


I had been researching cardiomyopathies (diseases that affect the heart muscle) for a couple of years when my mum suddenly became very ill. Even walking up the stairs was a struggle, she had to pause halfway to catch her breath. Having just been through a very tough patch at work, it was put down to stress. I remember clearly what should have been an amazing trip to Paris in March 2016 to see England’s rugby team win the six nations grand slam – instead the trip was dominated by us all worrying about my mum’s illness. (more…)

Nature wants you dead – here’s how vaccines work to help keep us all alive

 

Dr John Tregoning takes us on a tour of vaccination’s greatest successes, explaining how this incredible human achievement works to keep us all safer from disease – as long as we keep vaccinating ourselves and our families.


Nature wants you dead. Not just you, but your children and unborn children and everyone you have ever met.

It wants you to cough and sneeze and poop yourself into an early grave. If it can, it wants you your blood vessels to burst and pustules to explode all over your body. Put simply, Nature is trying to kill you.

And until relatively recently, it was really good at doing this. The average life expectancy of a human in 1900 was 31 years. I should already be dead.

But then science intervened with two critical innovations, clean water and vaccines, and changed everything. Clean water has had the biggest impact, but vaccines are a close second. (more…)

Convincing my daughter that our research in malaria matters

On World Malaria Day, Dr Aubrey Cunnington’s daughter spends the day at his lab to learn how his team’s research is contributing to tackling malaria. 


25 April is a special day in my calendar this year for two reasons. First, it is World Malaria Day – a chance for malaria researchers and many others to unite to raise awareness of this dreadful disease which kills over 400,000 people every year. Second, it is “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” for my 13-year old’s school, and she has chosen to spend the day with me at Imperial College London. I’m flattered but I’m also worried, because she can be my harshest critic, and on World Malaria Day I want to convince her (and everyone else) that my research is making a difference against malaria.

So what will it take to impress my 13-year old daughter, and perhaps give her the confidence and inspiration for a career? Looking for help, I ask my research team how they would explain their work to a 13-year old. Despite worried expressions, they are all up for giving it a go. (more…)

How does coparenting influence children’s behaviour?

Ellen Grimas draws on her PhD research investigating the role of coparenting in children’s development and behaviour.


I remember a child psychiatrist saying during a keynote at a conference that the only mental health that mattered was child mental health. This made me think back to working at a mental health crisis house, where I was often struck by how many people said their symptoms first emerged in childhood or adolescence. Research tells a similar story, with recent figures suggesting that 75% of mental health problems emerge before the age of 18, and yet only 30% of people reported receiving proper and timely support.

This is worrying as there is a wealth of research suggesting that early intervention is not only beneficial for the individual and their family, but also for society as a whole. Childhood is clearly a key period in the development of our mental health, and also offers a unique opportunity to intervene. So, although it may not be the only mental health that matters, it is evidently an incredibly important component. In the context of an over-stretched NHS, the idea of low-level interventions in childhood that could help avoid the need for services in later life is a powerful one. (more…)