The truth about HTLV-1: unravelling 30 years of misconceptions

HTLV-1

As the human T-cell leukaemia virus is discussed on the world stage, Professor Graham Taylor addresses the misconceptions surrounding HTLV-1.


Based on the number of articles published in mainstream media, and the number of interview requests I have received in the last week, it seems that everyone wants to know about HTLV-1, the human T-cell leukaemia virus, after 30 years of turning a blind eye. Why the sudden interest in a virus that few outside my field of human retrovirology have heard of? (more…)

From friend to foe: what drives MS to turn our immune systems against us?

For MS Awareness Week, researchers from our Division of Brain Sciences explain how their efforts in understanding the mechanism behind MS is driving the search for new drug targets. 


I have always been fascinated by how the immune system protects our body by identifying attackers and fighting them off. It’s a remarkable undertaking: it must recognise and protect us from any number of harmful molecules produced by a huge array of invading organisms. Sometimes, however, this system can go wrong. For instance, in the case of multiple sclerosis (MS), the immune system erroneously attacks the myelin – a fatty covering that protects our nerves – in our own central nervous system. This produces the chronic accumulation of demyelinated MS lesions that lead to the clinical symptoms of the disease. (more…)

Working together, protected together: addressing the challenges of vaccine research

Working together, protected together: addressing the challenges of vaccines researchAs the Imperial Network for Vaccine Research launches, Dr Chris Chiu tells us why he’s in pursuit of a collaborative approach for developing new vaccines. 


Vaccines have been very much in the public eye for a while now, with strong feelings expressed particularly on the side of those who are suspicious of them. As health and scientific professionals, we often try to provide a carefully balanced view but, in this case, it is vitally important that we remember and highlight the massive amount of good that vaccines have done for human health. Once devastating diseases such as smallpox and polio are now gone or almost gone. Vaccines have truly been one of the great triumphs of modern medicine. (more…)

Banking on brains: the quest for new methods of treatment for Parkinson’s

Parkinson's

For World Parkinson’s Day, Ben Tilley highlights how brain tissue donated to Imperial’s Tissue Bank is instrumental in finding new methods of treatment for Parkinson’s. 


My personal journey with Parkinson’s disease (PD) research started six years ago. It was the summer of 2012, and while enjoying the London Olympics and preparing myself to start Medical School at Imperial College London, my father was developing symptoms of PD. When the diagnosis was made I knew what my career goal would be; I had to study this disease and I had no ambitions other than to become a neurologist in the future. (more…)

Updating parents on neonatal units: “You can also log in to the app!”

parents with babies in neonatal care

Dr Susanna Sakonidou writes on how the BUDS project is improving the experience for parents of babies in neonatal care with an app.


Alarms going off, doctors and nurses rushing across the ward, parents desperately trying to catch someone’s eye to get an update. The reality of having babies in neonatal care is undoubtedly traumatic for parents. As high as 35% of them can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (1), which can in turn interfere with the process of baby-parent bonding (2).

Having a baby that requires neonatal care is more common than one might think. One in eight babies born in the UK are admitted to a neonatal unit and surveys show that parents struggle to adjust to this unfamiliar environment. Getting verbal updates about their babies is difficult, given how busy staff is dealing with emergencies on the unit. As a result, parents frequently feel excluded from their babies’ care. (more…)

Making the leap from PhD to postdoc

Following the annual Rising Scientist Day, Drs Myrsini Kaforou, Alex Thompson and Claire Byrne recount their experiences of becoming fully-fledged early career researchers and share their best advice for prospective postdocs.


The annual Rising Scientist Day at Imperial’s Hammersmith Campus offers PhD students the chance to share their research both with their peers, and a more general audience. In addition to poster presentations and networking opportunities, the showcase featured talks from those who had successfully made the transition from PhD to postdoc. (more…)

Encephalitis: the rare disease with a million implications

 

22 February is World Encephalitis Day. Founded by The Encephalitis Society four years ago, it aims to help raise awareness of the disease on an international scale.


In a nutshell, encephalitis refers to the inflammation of the brain. Up until recently, it was thought that encephalitis was simply either a viral or bacterial infection. However, in 2005, research described a new version of the disease: auto-immune or ‘anti-NMDAR encephalitis’, which is caused by antibodies that attack the brain tissue. In all its forms, encephalitis is incredibly rare: herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE), for instance, affects approximately one in 1,000,000 children. Although there are clear treatment routes available, viral encephalitis is incredibly destructive. The virus can cause irreversible damage in the brain, which will continue to impact upon a patient’s quality of life well after their short-term recovery from the disease itself. (more…)

Leprosy in 2018: an ancient disease that remains a public health problem today

World Leprosy Day. Image courtest of Wellcome Collection.

28 January 2018 is World Leprosy Day

I have always found leprosy a fascinating disease. It is an incredible example of how microbiology, immunology, and social sciences can collide and impact significantly on human health.

Leprosy has been affecting humans for at least 4000 years. It has played a huge part in teaching us about disease caused by bacteria. In 1873 when Hansen discovered Mycobacterium leprae in tissue samples from patients with leprosy, this became the first bacteria to be directly linked to causing disease in humans. Since then we have developed an understanding of the complex range of types of leprosy that occur depending on how an individual’s immune system responds to the challenge of infection with Mycobacterium leprae. We have also observed the consequences of the deformities and disability caused by the body responding to Mycobacterium leprae, which favours human nerves and skin. In turn, we have seen how the appearance of individuals with disability and disfigurement from leprosy has driven stigma, misinformation, and the discrimination of those affected by the disease.

For many people in the UK and around the world, leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is an ancient condition of our ancestors. It is something that we hear about in religious scripture or watching films like Ben-Hur or the Life of Brian.  Associated with exile from communities, deformity, and poverty. Something that no longer affects the modern world that we now live in.

Leprosy is often referred to in Sanskrit from around 1400 BC, with the term “kushtha” used to describe it. This translates to “eating away”. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

In 2000, the World Health Organisation (WHO) made an announcement that leprosy had been eliminated as a public health issue, with the global prevalence finally falling below one case per 10,000 people. This was the culmination of many years of identifying and treating patients with leprosy. This included the development of multi-drug therapy – a real game-changer in the treatment of Hansen’s disease. In total, over 16 million people affected by leprosy were treated, often free of charge. This was a great success.

And so for the elephant in the room. If we have eliminated leprosy as a public health problem, why do we still need to worry about World Leprosy Day?

(more…)

Could gut hormones help make Dry January last all year?

After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, it has become fashionable for January to be promoted as a time for reassessment and resolutions. There are promises and attempts at living a healthier lifestyle, including stopping drinking alcohol (‘Dry January’), joining that gym, stopping smoking, and eating better. However, we know how difficult it is to maintain behaviour change over the longer term. People start drinking excessively again, put back on the weight they lose, start smoking again, and their attendance at the gym wanes. For people who have hazardous levels of drinking, and those who are dependent on alcohol, this is particularly problematic.

If people manage to stop drinking alcohol, we know that there are high relapse rates. In some studies, 60% of people with alcohol dependence have started drinking alcohol again after 6 months of abstinence. This is often precipitated by exposure to social events and situations where there is drinking, and stresses with family, job, and social circumstances. What is needed are strategies to help prevent relapse into drinking. While psychological and group support can be of benefit, there is also a potential role for medications to help reduce the craving for alcohol and the response to stress.

The Division of Brain Sciences in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London are currently running a research study in this area. We are investigating the potential benefit of a completely novel therapeutic strategy to prevent relapse in alcohol dependence. This is the ‘Gut Hormone in Addiction’ (GHADD) Study, funded by the Medical Research Council. This is targeting hormones from our guts, which can act on our brain to influence eating and addictive behaviours. (more…)

Festive feasting: the good, the bad and the microbiome

As the festive season approaches, one wonders how our bodies prepare for the enormity of food that will be ingested in a relatively short space of time.  In the UK alone, the average person consumes 7000 calories on Christmas Day alone.  This is three times the recommended calorie intake per day, and most of us will have reached the recommended calorie intake before Christmas lunch has even been served. And of course, it’s not just about eating more. We are also a great deal more sedentary, with the average person in the UK spending 5.5 hours a day in front of the television over the Christmas period desperately awaiting reruns of Blackadder and yet another Christmas special!

Of course, this massive increase in consumption over the festive period inevitably means we put on weight, with research showing maximum weight gain reached within 10 days of Christmas Day, peaking around 3 January, and then falling.  However, despite this relatively rapid increase in weight in the space of a few days, approximately half of the weight gained seems to remain until the summer months or beyond.  The cumulative effects of this annual increase in weight during the holiday period likely contribute to one’s overall lifetime weight gain.

Obesity results from a mismatch between food intake and energy expenditure.  So is this festive weight gain a result of eating too much and spending too much time on the sofa?  What if it was more than just that? We now know that the gut is a crucial organ in the maintenance of energy homeostasis.  It releases a whole host of hormones such as glucagon-like peptide-1 and peptide YY that regulate appetite in response to nutrient intake.  Much of my work has focused on looking at the effect of dietary protein on appetite.  High protein diets reduce food intake and improve body composition, and if people can stick to them, they lose weight.  (more…)