#WearingWhite: Cancer immunotherapy

#WearingWhite: Cancer immunotherapy

This Sunday is World Cancer Day. Staff here at the University of Southampton have been wearing white in order to raise awareness of the life-saving research being performed behind the laboratory doors. In fact, today the University of Southampton are celebrating hitting the £25m target for the UK’s first dedicated Centre for Cancer Immunology!

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Why white?!

We have a lot of different cells in our body, in fact there’s thought to be approximately 200 different types of cells, but today I’m talking about our white blood cells. White bloods cells are the superhero cells, their role is to protect us from infection, disease and foreign invaders to keep us healthy. Here in Southampton, these white blood cells are being used in laboratory research to develop new therapies to fight cancer. The research is being applied into the clinic, and results from clinical trials is showing a lot of promise!

Wearing White

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We are the cure

Immunology is a pretty complex field, and so I’m not going to go into the details (you’d be sat here reading for hours trying to get a grip on a lot of different molecules), but basically, researchers have found that our immune system could actually be used to cure cancer. That’s pretty neat right?!

A type of treatment called immunotherapy harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells (see video below). Cancer cells have the ability to switch off or confuse our killer T cells which then enable the cancer cells to grow. Cancer cells are very hard to defeat! Immunotherapy switches these killer T cells back on and so those useful killer T cells become back in action. They are then able to detect the invasive cancer cells (and potentially any hidden cancer cells!) and destroy them, providing long lasting action to protect against cancer growth. There are different types of immunotherapy including the use of monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, cytokines and adoptive cell transfer and you can read more about these here! They’re all about enhancing the ability of the T cells to recognise the cancer cells. Immunotherapy has the potential to provide us with a lifetime immunity to cancer.

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Successes

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, but the results from cancer immunology clinical trials suggest great hope for controlling and curing most cancers.

Immunotherapy clinical trial patients in Southampton:

  • As many as half of the patients with difficult and terminal cancers (often just given months to live) are showing dramatic improvements.
  • 20% patients are cancer free.
  • Drugs for advanced and terminal cancers, such as lung, skin (melanoma), blood (lymphoma), head and neck cancers and childhood cancer (neuroblastoma) are showing outstanding results.

“The cure for Cancer? You’re it.”

– University of Southampton

To read the stories of patients, researchers, fundraisers and donors click here and scroll down the page.

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For extra info click the following links: Cancer Research UK & Cancer Research Institute.

If you are interested in taking part in an immunotherapy clinical trial please contact your GP or cancer specialist.

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If you want to learn some more interesting science then check out my previous science blog posts here.

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One year of blogging

One year of blogging

A year ago today I announced the start of “In a Science World” and published my very first blog post! Where has the last year gone?! It’s been an incredible journey and I didn’t quite expect it to take me places it has done!

I started my blog as a way to figure out whether science communication was a career route I’d like to pursue. Let’s just say I haven’t had the most seamless PhD journey and about half way through I came to the realisation that a life in academia is not for me. With plenty of thinking time and self-reflection, I realised I LOVE the science and I love teaching others about it, but I do not enjoy the process of making the science! Weird right?!

Writing my blog has opened up many opportunities that I never imagined a year ago. It’s led me to being publicist for Pint of Science, completing a science communication internship, jumping out of my comfort zone and performing my very first science comedy set and being very kindly awarded the Versatile Blogger Award…. How crazy?!

When I set out on this journey I didn’t know whether people would care about what I wrote or would be interested in what I have to say but I want to say a massive thank you to YOU!! Thank you for reading this post, for taking time out of your day to read the words I write and for following my blog (if you don’t you totally should!). Thank you for following my science journey through Instagram, expressing your support through ‘likes’ and comments and sending words of encouragement. Thank you for listening to what I have to say. I whole-heartedly appreciate all of your support.

Thank you to YOU!

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The last year has taught me a lot. Here’s what I’ve learnt over the past year (yes you know I love a bit of self-reflection) and the other awesome blogs I value, which if you also don’t follow already you really should!….

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What my first year of blogging has taught me:

  • People do actually want to hear what I have to say and value it – that makes my heart feel warm and fuzzy.
  • 1000+ word blog posts are not ideal. I’ve cut them down – minus a few!
  • Posting once a week is the most I can commit to whilst doing a PhD. That’s a Thursday by the way.
  • There is an amazing and very supportive online scientific community – especially on Instagram.
  • Instagram is such a powerful tool – I can reach out to so many people.
  • As an aspiring science communicator never shy away from ‘scary’ opportunities. They will only enhance you and lead to more awesomeness!
  • Twitter is hard for me to stay on top of – I need to work on my Twitter presence!
  • I learn so much from other scientists on social media.
  • Social media analytics are interesting in order to see what posts generate more engagement BUT I cba to analyse them for hours. I want to carry on posting what comes naturally to me and what I genuinely want to say. A scientist ignoring stats?!
  • For someone who wants to always improve, there is not enough scicomm training in the UK. But… 2018 is coming and I’m involved in some cool stuff to tackle this 😉
  • You can (and should) do other ‘science-y’ things around your PhD. Maximise those opportunities! You’ll never know where they may take you.
  • Many PhD students don’t have an easy ride. You are NEVER alone and there are always people who can relate. My PhD SOS is my most popular feature… didn’t actually expect that.
  • It is SO hard for me to say no to exciting opportunities. Anything seems more fun than writing this thesis.
  • Hmm… I seem to have learnt a lot!

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I started this blog and my scicomm journey just as I was heading into my final year of PhD, so you could say it wasn’t an ideal time! The thesis will be handed in soon so let’s see where 2018 takes me and my blog. I love this science communication world I’ve discovered.

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On a final note my most popular blog posts are “The PhD Slump” and “PhD self-care tips“. Remember: A PhD is tough and you are not alone. There is a wealth of support out there for you and seeking help is not a weakness. Do what is right by you, do the science, be awesome and thrive! Don’t just try to survive.

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Finally, time to share the science love! Here are some other blogs to go and nose at! Just click on the pictures!

Making it Mindful
Making it Mindful
dr.ofwhat?
dr.ofwhat?
Sasha
PhDenomenalPhDemale
Conservationist Krissy
Conservationist Krissy

 

Fresh Science
Fresh Science
Bites of science
Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science
Scientific beauty
The Scientific Beauty
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Soph.talks.science
Heidi
Heidi Gardner

 

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Disease can originate from early development?!

Disease can originate from early development?!

Last week’s blog post was all about the #uosIDS 10 year celebrations here at the Institute of Developmental Sciences. We’re also the home of DOHaD (Developmental Origins of Health and Disease). But what is this? What is this hypothesis that forms the basis to the majority of research here? Well, I’ll enlighten you with some science!

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It’s well known that ‘bad genes’ and poor lifestyle choices affect our health and wellbeing in adulthood. But is it that simple? Is that all that determines our health? Professor David Barker, a Southampton based clinical epidemiologist, challenged these traditional ideas. In 1990 he proposed that poor nutrition in the womb resulted in common chronic diseases and ‘The Barker Hypothesis’ was born, which is now known as the ‘DOHaD Hypothesis’. He suggested that the environment during fetal and early life is what ‘programmes’ our health and risk of disease from infancy to adulthood. It is thought that the fetus adapts to the nutrient supply available during pregnancy. Some will have to adapt to a more restricted supply, which is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases.

Pregnancy health
Early life health. Photo: Pexels

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The science behind the hypothesis

UK lower socioeconomic areas – infant mortality rates in the early 20th century correlated with cardiovascular deaths 60-70 years later.

The Hertfordshire Study – Barker revealed that low birth weight (indicator of poor maternal environment) was associated with higher blood pressure, increased death by coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

Helsinki, India and Amsterdam – studies revealed similar relationships between maternal nutrition/childhood growth and chronic disease.

The Dutch Winter Famine (1944-1945) – people including pregnant women were restricted to only 400–800 calories per day. Famine during early pregnancy lead to larger and heavier babies with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in adulthood. However, exposure during mid-late pregnancy resulted in babies with reduced birth weight, a reduced ability to handle blood glucose levels and risk of type 2 diabetes.

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Over the past 25 years a wealth of research (both human and animal studies) has contributed to Barker’s theory. Effects of maternal stress, obesity and hypoxia (low oxygen) during pregnancy on offspring health are a few conditions being researched today. Research is still on going in Southampton as a result of Barker’s work. The Princess Ann Cohort and the Southampton Women’s Survey found a correlation between low maternal vitamin D levels and lower childhood bone mass and grip strength, respectively. These results have lead to interventional trials involving vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy.

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Human beings are like motor cars. They break down either because they are being driven on rough roads or because they were badly made in the first place. Rolls-Royce cars do not break down no matter where they are being driven. How do we build stronger people? By improving the nutrition of babies in the womb. The greatest gift we could give the next generation is to improve the nutrition and growth of girls and young women

Prof. David Barker

The power of epigenetics

For years scientists have studied single genes and how alterations in them affect our health status. Recent research suggests that there are factors (epigenetic factors) which in turn alter the function of these genes. Some epigenetic markers have been associated with the natural ageing process and some have been associated with diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

So what are epigenetic factors? Epigenetic changes modify our DNA, causing some genes to be switched on or off, and consequently causing more or less of the corresponding protein to be produced. Environmental factors such as undernutrition, overnutrition, stress and inflammation can alter our epigenetics. We know these factors experienced by the mother can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases for the child in later life. Epigenetic changes in critical developmental time frames are thought to cause long term effects and consequently increased susceptibility to disease throughout the life course.

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Human placenta. Turquoise= trophoblast (placental) cells, purple= connective tissue, pink= fetal blood vessels. Photo: Placenta Lab and Biomedical Imaging Unit, University of Southampton.

The placenta is the interface between mother and baby, and the source of all the baby’s nutrients during pregnancy. Transfer of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) via amino acid transporters are vital for fetal growth. A suboptimal placenta can therefore cause problems for the baby in later life. Research here at the IDS is currently investigating how epigenetic changes impact the placenta and these amino acid transporters. Studies are also looking into the epigenetic modifications leading to changes in gene expression associated with the risk of obesity and metabolic disease in later life, which is very relevant to our current population.

 

The hypothesis can lead to good things!…

The DOHaD hypothesis has lead to a huge amount of research over the years exploring the reasons for and why conditions during pregnancy affect the long term health of the child. This understanding which is constantly growing can have a huge positive impact…

  • shift the focus of public health interventions – should not just be focusing on the health during childhood and adulthood, but also during pregnancy.
  • opportunity to reassess education, availability of health services and professional training.
  • Enhance education in the importance of nutrition, exercise and emotional health.
  • Enhanced support for the mother during pregnancy. Stress and emotional struggles can have a serious knock to maternal wellbeing and result in severe consequences to offspring health.
  • Research focusses – researching genetic predisposition and epigenetic monitoring would enhance our ability to target chronic diseases more effectively in the future.

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Additional nutritional intervention studies are vital in order to further our understanding of chronic disease risk factors and the epigenetics which play a role in exacerbating these health complications.

David Barker and his hypothesis have really made scientists change their way of thinking. It has lead to ground breaking science and provides a foundation to improve public health services in order to enhance the health and wellbeing of future generations.

… And of course it’s formed the basis for my very own PhD research.

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Fancy reading a little more on this? Click here.

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World Diabetes Day

World Diabetes Day

Today is World Diabetes Day.

Diabetes is a condition which occurs when the body cannot regulate glucose (sugar) properly. The cells within the body are not able to respond and ‘use’ the glucose in a normal way, which leads to large amounts of glucose in the blood. It is the high blood glucose levels which can cause serious health conditions.

“Estimated 422 million people are living with diabetes in the world, 1 in 11 of the world’s adult population.”

– Word Health Organisation

So what stops these cells from utilising the glucose properly?

Let’s talk about insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. After we eat a meal we digest our food and the carbohydrates get broken down into glucose. This glucose needs to be utilised by our cells (particularly in fat tissue, the liver and skeletal muscle) in order to generate energy. Insulin is what allows the glucose to move into our cells.

Diabetes is often explained via a lock and key mechanism. Insulin being the key which enables the door of the cells to open and allow glucose to enter.

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Diabetes lock and key

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This lock and key mechanism is different in those with diabetes compared to those without it. This mechanism is also impaired in different way in the two main types of diabetes:

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Type 1 diabetes:

Insulin just isn’t produced by the pancreas so there’s no key to open the lock on the cells.

Type 1 diabetes affects 10% of diabetic patients in the UK. It’s what we call an autoimmune condition. The insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed which means that insulin is not produced by the body.

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Type 2 diabetes:

Insulin (the key) may not be able to unlock the door to the cells optimally, or it could be that it’s readily available but the lock isn’t working properly.

Type 2 diabetes is often associated with being overweight and affects 90% of UK diabetic patients.

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There’s also something called pre-diabetes. This is when someone has blood sugar levels above the normal range but not enough to be diagnosed as diabetic. Having pre-diabetes increases the risk of developing diabetes.

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What’s the treatment?

Sadly there is currently no cure for diabetes. HOWEVER, amazing scientific advancements has lead to the discovery of insulin (lowers blood glucose levels) and it’s use as a treatment (particularly for type 1), and the development of other medication and devices which are vital in managing diabetes. If diabetes is not managed and high blood glucose levels persist, it can lead to a plethora of health disorders such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, nerve damage, chronic kidney disease, foot ulcers and visual impairment.

Diabetes management

As I said, type 2 diabetes (most common form of diabetes) is often associated with being overweight. So eating healthily, exercising regularly and monitoring blood glucose levels is important…

Adults should do 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week. Muscle strengthening activity should also be included twice a week.

– recommended by The Department of Health

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… so hello #150mins campaign.

The lovely Krishana (@beyond.the.ivory.tower) over on Instagram has set up an inspiring campaign to raise awareness of diabetes throughout the month of November. Her campaign is to encourage others to work towards 150 minutes of exercise a week and to share their efforts on social media to inspire others. Here’s what she shared with the IG world:

150mins campaign

I’ve been sharing my workouts on my IG stories along with many others, so head over and join us by using the hashtags #150mins and #diabetesawareness! Krishana has also been doing fun daily diabetes-related Q&As, so give her a follow and learn something new!

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If you’d like to seek help with managing diabetes please talk to your doctor or visit the following websites:

http://www.diabetes.co.uk

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/diabetes/

http://www.diabetes.org.uk/home

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