Blog posts

The Pathology Museum’s top treasures

Tucked away in Charing Cross Hospital is Imperial’s best-kept secret: The Pathology Museum. Housing a 2,500-strong collection of anatomical specimens, the Pathology Museum contains some rare and unique artefacts dating from 1888, including the first hysterectomy performed in England.

Carefully curated by the Human Anatomy Unit (HAU), the specimens are grouped together based on organ systems, creating a well-arranged display of human pathology. The museum’s primary function is to help educate medical and biomedical students to diagnose diseases. The museum also hosts a number of conference and short courses in pathology for experienced professionals.

The collection incorporates specimens from across the Faculty of Medicine’s founding medical schools, there are an astonishing 4,000 further specimens not on display. This vast archive provides a snapshot of the historical foundations of the medical school. (more…)

Understanding our achy breaky hearts

Broken heart syndrome, officially known as takotsubo syndrome, is an acute type of heart failure, where the bottom of the heart stops beating in situations of extreme stress. A condition predominantly affecting post-menopausal women, it has been dubbed broken heart syndrome owing to the frequent occurrence during bereavement after the loss of a loved one. However, this is just one example of the various circumstances in which takotsubo syndrome can occur. Indeed, any stressful event can lead to a surge in adrenaline which can result in takotsubo syndrome. This could be physical or emotional, and includes trauma such as car accidents, drug abuse, and even happy events such as weddings!

This varied list of triggers and the association with a ‘broken heart’ has attracted interest from the media. Furthermore, the specific localisation of the poorly contracting region of the heart and patient demographics are also very interesting from a research standpoint. Often when describing my PhD, the concept of a ‘broken heart’ understandably resonates with people. (more…)

World Polio Day: edging closer to eradication

Imagine you are running a marathon. You have reached the final mile of a long and arduous journey. You turn the last corner expecting to see the finish line, and instead you see a huge vertical ascent. The finish line is waiting at the top, hundreds of metres above you.

Such is the plight of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. In 1988, the year the initiative was launched, polio paralysed an estimated 350,000 people worldwide – roughly 1,000 each day. Over the last three decades, a globally coordinated vaccination campaign has fought the disease back to a few remaining refuges in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. In 2017, wild poliovirus has caused just 12 cases so far.

As we mark the fifth annual World Polio Day, the finish line of the eradication marathon is firmly in sight, but getting there will be a tough climb.

Why has polio proven so hard to vanquish? First and foremost, the disease’s final strongholds are regions of immense political unrest, and news of deadly attacks against vaccination workers are all too familiar. Every step towards polio’s eradication is one that requires those at the front line to put their lives at risk. (more…)

World Osteoporosis Day: love your bones!

As a young girl I spent many long afternoons in piano lessons.

Years later, I remember very little from the lessons – but I do vividly remember the teacher. She was very strict, had hair like candy floss and a severe hunch. She always made the lessons run long, but she would give me a chocolate bar if I helped her hang out her washing afterwards. She needed my help because she couldn’t reach the washing line anymore. One day I asked my mum why she had a hunched back and she told me it was because she had osteoporosis. At the time I didn’t really comprehend what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. One day she fell and broke her hip, and sadly, not long after that she passed away.  As you read my story, I am sure it sounds familiar to a lot of you. Maybe not with a piano teacher, but with a relative, family friend or neighbour. The reason I say that is due to the rising prevalence of osteoporosis – one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50 are affected. (more…)

Think peach: the true symbol of breast cancer awareness

It’s that time of year once again: Instagram and Twitter will adopt a light shade of pink, companies will adorn their products with the ubiquitous pink ribbon, all to remind us of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To a breast cancer scientist such as myself, October always brings out ambiguous emotions. On one side, it serves as a reminder of all the great research and results that we have achieved. Statistics show that things are getting better for many women, as mortality rates have halved in the last 20 years. October also prompts many of us to remember that there is nothing better than prevention when talking about breast cancer. Early screening measures have revolutionised outcomes for women; it’s very likely that almost 50% of the lives that were saved depended on catching the cancer earlier.

The other major breakthrough was the development of targeted therapies for the most common molecular subtype of breast cancer (luminal subtypes) accounting for 70% of all new breast cancers. Years of rigorous clinical trials with these drugs have helped reduce the number of women that develop secondary disease (metastatic) – the consequence of the primary breast cancer cells spreading to other organs. This is where my ambivalence stems from; far too many women still have their breast cancer relapse. Outside of the beautiful pink narrative which Samantha King – author of Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy – called “the tyranny of cheerfulness”, breast cancer remains the second largest cause of cancer-related deaths in women. (more…)

One small step in wearable tech: one giant leap in osteoarthritis detection and management

When deciding what to do in life, it was clear that I wanted to help people live better, however becoming a doctor wasn’t for me. I found my way through studying biomedical engineering, which developed my passion for the biomechanics of human movement. I see this as a means to understanding the underlying mechanisms of musculoskeletal disease. Through detailed assessment of patients’ movement function we can understand the implications of disease progression and propose solutions to mitigate the developing disorders. To a curious mind like mine, this is a fascinating way to achieve my aspirations. The idea of being able to find explanations as to why things happen to our bodies is amazing and the fact that it can improve people’s quality of life makes it all the more satisfying.

Debilitating disease

I joined Imperial as a research associate in the Musculoskeletal Medical Engineering Centre. As a postdoc researcher in the centre, my goals are to tackle ways that could improve symptoms as well as gain a better understanding of knee osteoarthritis development. Osteoarthritis (OA) – the most common form of joint disease – is a disabling musculoskeletal disorder that can affect our joint function. OA progression is slow and if measures are not taken, joint replacement will eventually be necessary. Joint replacements are costly, invasive and have a limited lifespan that may not last for the duration of patients’ lifetime. Moreover, patients’ satisfaction after surgery is poor, calling for early management strategies. (more…)

Vaccines are vital


Originally published on the MRC Insight blog and reproduced under CC BY 4.0, here Peter Openshaw, Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial and President of the British Society for Immunology, says we cannot afford to be complacent about vaccines.

As a clinician working in research, I want to improve peoples’ health. The NHS was set up to focus on treating people with disease. But how much better would it be if we could prevent people from getting sick in the first place?

This is where vaccines come in. As vaccinologists, we use our scientific knowledge to design new or improved vaccines to stimulate the immune system. This creates natural protection against infections and prevents disease.

New and improved vaccines

The current vaccines we have are excellent and safe but many could be better. There are also new ways to use vaccines and lots of diseases which do not yet have effective vaccines.

The science of vaccinology advances monthly. There are hundreds of new vaccines at different stages of testing, many of which could lead to improved human health and wellbeing. In response to this fast-changing landscape, the MRC and BBSRC have recently funded five collaborative networks to drive UK vaccinology forward for the benefit of global health. (more…)

World Heart Day: Building new hearts at the BHF Regenerative Medicine Centre

We are excited by the news that our BHF Regenerative Medicine Centre has been renewed for another four-year term from 1 October 2017! At Imperial we have been concentrating on the big challenge of producing new muscle for the damaged heart, along with our partners in the Universities of Nottingham, Glasgow, Hamburg and Westminster.

The heart has a very limited capacity to repair itself after a heart attack, or during the more insidious damage from high blood pressure, diabetes or chemotherapy. We have been looking at various kinds of stem cells to explore their power to become new cardiac muscle cells – one of the big successes of the current Centre. Pluripotent stem cells – those which have the capability of turning into any cell type in the body – can now be turned very efficiently into beating heart muscle in the laboratory dish, and made into strips of engineered heart tissue. Our partner, Professor Chris Denning, at the University of Nottingham has automated the process of making the cells and Professor Thomas Eschenhagen in Hamburg has contributed his technology for converting this into muscle. (more…)

World Rabies Day: Why vaccinating man’s best friend is man’s best hope

A vet from the Indian Army gives a rabies vaccination to a family dog during a veterinarian civil-assistance program. By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bryan M. Ilyankoff [Public domain]
Today is World Rabies Day. The goal of this global day is enhanced awareness spurring further efforts to prevent rabies, a viral disease that kills tens of thousands of people each year mainly in Asia and Africa. Two years ago, international organisations – including the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health – agreed to an ambitious, but achievable common goal: to end human deaths due to canine rabies by 2030. In fact, ‘Rabies: Zero by 30’ is the theme of the 2017 World Rabies Day.

Why today? 28 September 2017 is the 122nd anniversary of Louis Pasteur’s death. It was he who developed the first vaccines for both rabies and anthrax. All mammals can become infected with the rabies virus, and rabies is present on every continent except Antarctica. This can sound overwhelming. However, up to 99% of human rabies cases result from human dog bites. So what can be done to keep ‘man’s best friend’ from transmitting this fatal virus? Vaccination! (more…)

Blood Cancer Awareness Month: all roads lead to EVI1

For the last 10 years I have been a clinical scientist in genetics working across various London NHS Trusts. Whilst I loved diagnostics, last year I left my job to complete my PhD. I worked in a part of life sciences called cytogenetics. This meant when a patient was diagnosed with blood cancer, I would analyse their chromosomes – the structures into which DNA is organised – from their blood or bone marrow to look for specific abnormalities. For some patients, this can lead to a definitive diagnosis. For others a refined prognosis, and in some, it’s simply a way of monitoring how well the patient’s leukaemia is responding to their treatment.

Histopathology of chronic myeloid leukaemia

Blood cancer can be very straightforward to diagnose and it was perfectly possible to provide genetic confirmation of a blood cancer diagnosis in a matter of hours. For example, in patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), I would find a particular abnormality called a Philadelphia translocation between chromosomes 9 and 22. Finding this translocation means a patient will benefit from a targeted therapy – called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) – which reverses the effect of the translocation with relatively few side effects. TKIs are a tablet taken once or twice a day at home. Compared to chemotherapy, TKIs have revolutionised the treatment and outcomes of CML, which has been life-changing for CML patients. It was always satisfying to call the referring clinician and let them know their patient had a Philadelphia translocation because I knew that would set the wheels in motion for a TKI to be prescribed. Ultimately I knew I had made a difference to a patient on those days. (more…)