Local school students were introduced to research in the School of Life Sciences in a series of Royal Society of Edinburgh Start-up Science Masterclasses. In the final class, the students became wonderfully enthusiastic forensic scientists. Displaying impressive laboratory technique, they used DNA fingerprinting to identify the guilty PhD student whose hair was clutched in the hand of the murdered Professor Sir Philip Cohen.
Thanks to PhD students and staff from the MRC Unit for playing bit-parts in the murder mystery:-
Dr Carol MacKintosh (call me 'Ma'am'), Rob Cartlidge (alias 'Rob the Job'), Barry Wong (alias 'Bazz the Bizz'), Julie Diplexcito (alias 'Judge Julie'), Mirela Delibegovic (alias ' Mirela the Moll'), Mrs Monica Wilson (alias 'Mad Monica') , Mrs Marilyn Hardie (forensic scientist), Dr Bob MacKintosh ('Dr Bob' forensic scientist), Dr Nick Helps (forensic photographer).
....with guest appearance by 'murder victim' Professor Sir Philip Cohen.
The MRC Council has increased the Unit's funding by £3 million bringing its budget for 5 years to almost £7.5 million. The Unit's Director, Sir Philip Cohen, said: "This is excellent news which acknowledges the Unit's pre-eminence in this field worldwide and enables us to enhance a cutting-edge research programme which has implications for improving health."
The cash boost came on the back of the Unit's five yearly review, which also awarded all the Unit's programmes the highest alpha- plus rating. Over the last five years the Unit has made a major contribution to the elucidation of one of the major biochemical pathways by which insulin exerts its effects. The failure of insulin to transport blood glucose into glycogen - its storage form in muscle and liver - is the cause of Type II diabetes, which affects 3-5% of the population of Britain, and over 150 million world-wide. But due to its long-term side effects, such as increased risk of heart attack, kidney failure and blindness, it accounts for more than 10% of all health care expenditure. The incidence of type II diabetes is expected to double over the next 20 years.
The Unit's research has suggested new opportunities for the development of improved drugs to treat diabetes and has assisted GlaxoSmithKline in the development of compounds that mimic the ability of insulin to convert glucose to glycogen by switching off an enzyme called GSK3 that the Unit discovered some years ago. The latest award will bring the number of scientists working in the MRC Unit to almost 100.
The Unit's work also has implications for understanding cancers and chronic inflammatory diseases and led to five pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Novo Nordisk and Pfizer investing £7.6million in July 1998 to set up the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy (DSTT). At Bio 1999, the major annual conference of the Biotechnology Industry, Pfizer described the DSTT as their most important academic collaboration world-wide and awarded Sir Philip their Innovation Prize for Europe.
One of the Unit's Team Leaders, Dario Alessi, was awarded the Colworth Medal of the British Biochemical Society, the premier research award for young scientists under the age of 36. Dario was also named European Young Investigator of the Year by the German company, Eppendorf.
Dario Alessi has been shortlisted for the first Young European Prize for Invention and Discovery. Dario and two other finalists selected from 20 entrants who applied from all over the world, will present their ideas to the judges on October 21st (the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's birth). Dario was shortlisted for his discovery of PDK1, the "missing link" in insulin signalling. If successful, this £30,000 award will add to the Colworth Medal in Biochemistry (1999) and the Eppendorf Award (2000) already gained by Dario.
Believe it or not, Tricia and Philip Cohen arrived in Dundee on October 9th 1971, after completing postdoctoral work at the University of Washington, Seattle.
They recall driving from London in a mini van laden with all their worldy possessions and spending their first night at Peter Garland's house in Perth (Peter was the first Chairman of Biochemistry in Dundee). They thought they had made a terrible mistake when the temperature dipped to 9°F that night, but fortunately it proved to be far and away the coldest night for the next 10 years. Tricia had brought three mice with her that lacked muscle phosphorylase kinase (the first protein kinase to be identified) in order to study the molecular basis for the deficiency. However, as Peter Garland turned out to be allergic to rodents, they had to be kept in the garage. The next day, having fortunately survived the arctic conditions, it was hoped that they could be used to start a breeding colony, but a few hours later the bad news came that they were all males!!
Two more students from the Unit have successfully passed their PhD vivas.
Yvonne Woods (a student with Philip Cohen) presented a seminar entitled "Identification of novel substrates for DYRK isoforms" on the 24th of August 2001 and was then examined by internal examiner Dr David Meek (Ninewells Medical School, Dundee) and external examiner Dr Peter Roach (University of Indiana, USA). Yvonne has now started a post-doctoral position with Sir David Lane in Ninewells Hospital.
Graeme Carnegie (a student with Tricia Cohen) presented a seminar entitled "Protein phosphatase 4; function and regulatory subunits" on the 10th of September 2001, which was then followed by the viva examination. His internal examiner was Dr Will Whitfield (School of Life Sciences, University of Dundee) and his external examiner was Dr Joquin Arino (University of Barcelona, Spain). Graeme has just departed to start a post-doctoral position with Dr John Scott at the Vollum Institute, Portland, Oregon, USA.
We wish both Yvonne and Graeme all the best with their future scientific careers.
The Namibian Desert Hike in aid of Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres is a 130 km hike across the spectacular Namibian Desert in Southern Africa's National Park. Money raised from the 10 day hike will make a world of difference to cancer sufferers back home by enabling Maggie's to pioneer a network of Cancer Caring Centres across Scotland and the rest of the UK. The need for Maggie's Centres is huge; with 1 in 3 people affected by cancer, we will all need access to a Maggie's Centre at some point in our lives, be it as a patient, relative or friend. Based next to major cancer treatment centres, (the Dundee Maggie's Centre will be built at Ninewells Hospital and has been designed by the world famous architect Frank Gehry), they will each offer free information, psychological support, anxiety reduction and stress management.
Nimesh Mody is currently working towards his PhD in the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit, researching into the mechanisms of cell regulation involved in human disease, under the supervision of Sir Philip Cohen. Abnormal cell regulation is a cause or consequence of major diseases such as cancer while defects in genes that encode proteins involved in cell regulation underlie a number of inherited disorders, including a variety of leukaemias and lymphomas. The research undertaken now by Nimesh and his colleagues may be of benefit to cancer sufferers in 20 years time. Nimesh has chosen to participate in this fundraising hike to allow Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres to help people affected by cancer much sooner.
NOTE: See news item 24 July 2002 for update
August 2001 was a good month for Unit scientists, with no less than four papers co-authored by Unit scientists being published in the prestigious EMBO Journal. The papers are (* indicates Unit scientists):
Wang, X., Paulin, F.E.M., Campbell, L.E., Gomez, E., O'Brien, K., Morrice*, N. and Proud, C.G. EMBO J. 2001, 20, 4349-59.
Knebel*, A., Morrice*, N. and Cohen*, P. EMBO J. 2001, 20, 4360-4369.
Biondi*, R.M., Kieloch*, A., Currie, R.A., Deak*, M. and Alessi*, D.R.
EMBO J. 2001, 20, 4380-4390.
Wang, X., Li, W., Williams*, M., Terada, N., Alessi*. D.R. and Proud, C.G.
EMBO J. 2001, 20, 4370-9.
Dario Alessi and two PhD students from the Unit, Nimesh Mody and Gopal Sapkota, recently attended the FASEB meeting on protein kinases held in Snowmass, Colorado. Dario was presenting a seminar at the meeting, whilst Nimesh and Gopal presented posters and attempted to identify potential postdoc supervisors after they finish their studies in the Unit.
Part of the attraction of attending this meeting is the opportunity it affords delegates to explore the spectacular scenery of the area. Our intrepid lab members overcame any reservations they may have had and took the plunge (literally) by embarking on a white water rafting trip down a section of the Colorado river near Aspen on the 16th August. As can be seen from the picture, a thoroughly exciting time was enjoyed by them all.
Unit PhD Student Simon Dowler is teaming up with David Marr of the Wellcome Trust Biocentre to undertake a gruelling 267 mile cycle ride from Dundee to Leeds in order to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The idea for the trip came from David who is a veteran of such events, having previously completed a number of long distance cycle rides in aid of the charity. The event has been planned for some time, but Dave was unable to find a cycling companion to accompany him on the trip half way along the length of the UK. When Simon heard of the event he offered to team up with Dave to give him company and support on the trip.
The two intrepid cyclists start their marathon ride on Wednesday the 1st of August at 10am from the Wellcome Trust Biocentre. Their route on the first day takes them through Fife to Kirkcaldy, over the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh, then down through the east of Scotland to Jedburgh. This first leg of the journey is some 128 miles long and is the longest part of the trip. After a well deserved overnight rest, the two set off for the second stage of the ride down through the north east of England and past Newcastle Upon Tyne. After another overnight stop somewhere south of Newcastle, the final leg of the journey will take place on Friday. This will hopefully see the pair arrive in Leeds by early afternoon.
The trip back to Dundee should be much easier on the two saddle-sore cyclists, since they will achieve it in the support vehicle that accompanies them throughout the journey. Dave has been training hard for this event with several trips to Edinburgh (a round trip of some 100 miles). Simon has also been on his bike and has recently finished a cycling holiday round Scotland.
Dave has already secured significant support for the fund-raising event through sponsorship by individuals and organisations. He is especially indebted to the following, without who's assistance, the trip could not take place. Enterprise Europe Car Hire (Dundee) for the hire of a support van for the trip, Roche Diagnostics (UK) for paying the specially discounted hire fee for the van, Nicholsons Cycling Centre (Dundee) for sponsorship and additional support and Dave's Uncle who will be driving the support vehicle during the trip.
The money raised from the trip will go towards supporting the local RNLI lifeboat station in Broughty Ferry, near Dundee. If you would like to find out more about the RNLI, including fundraising ideas and events in your own area, please visit the RNLI website.
Several scientists from overseas are spending the summer of 2001 working in the Unit. Susana Alemany and Raquel Hernando have joined us from Madrid for nine weeks, Dorthe Villadsen has come from Copenhagen and is spending 12 weeks here and Esther Delfó Capella is here from Barcelona for 10 weeks. Susana Alemany is rediscovering Dundee; she spent two years here as a postdoc with Philip Cohen from 1983 to 1985.
Several of the Programme Leaders in the Unit also have summer students working with them, including Christopher Lipina (with Dario Alessi), Greg Findlay (with Tricia Cohen) and Steven Liness (with Calum Sutherland). We wish them all a pleasant and productive stay in the Unit.
The Unit has successfully secured one of the new and highly prestigious Pre-doctoral Fellowships offered by the Medical Research Council (MRC). Ed MacManus will join Dario Alessi in October 2001. Ed has just graduated from Trinity College Dublin with the best first class Biochemistry degree of his year.
The Pre-doctoral Fellowship scheme is a new £1M initiative from the MRC, launched in October 2000, introducing salaried stipends to PhD students in MRC Units and Institutes. Only 13 Pre-doctoral Fellowships were available this year in the whole of the UK.
Six PhD students from the Unit graduated on July 12th at the University of Dundee degree ceremony held in the Caird Hall.
The six new doctors are (supervisors in brackets): Anudharan Balendran (Dario Alessi), Gareth Browne (Tricia Cohen), Matilde Caivano (Philip Cohen), Yvonne Fleming (Philip Cohen), Sarah Meek (Carol MacKintosh) and Fiona Milne (Carol MacKintosh).
Philip Cohen gave the keynote lecture at the EMBO European Meeting on Protein Phosphorylation and Protein Phosphatases on 11th July 2001 in Marburg, Germany. To introduce Philip, the organisers arranged for a special "mystery guest" to attend the conference. Nobody knew who the mystery guest was and Philip was most surprised when it turned out to be none other than Tricia Cohen (his wife!). Philip commented that "Tricia did a very good job of keeping this a secret from me; I had no idea at all".
Remarkably, 15 of the 43 speakers at the conference were either past or present members of the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit in Dundee, including Tricia Cohen.
Members of the Unit undertook quite a challenge on Sunday 10th July when they decided to walk from the laboratory in Dundee to Tentsmuir beach in Fife (some 15 miles away). Starting off early in the morning, they arrived on the beach in time for a barbeque lunch followed by a well deserved rest. Some (obviously well-rested) members of the group then walked all the way back again! The weather was kind and the sun accompanied them all the way there and back.
Three PhD students funded by the new Wellcome Trust four year PhD program who have spent the final "rotation" of their first year in the Unit have all decided to stay here for the remainder of their PhDs. Robert Cartlidge will work with Philip Cohen, Barry Collins will work with Dario Alessi and Barry Wong will work with Carol MacKintosh. This is excellent news and we wish them great success in their forthcoming three years in the Unit.
Three of the five Wellcome Trust funded PhD students in the School of Life Sciences decided to undertake their third ten week project rotation within the MRC Unit. They are pictured in front of the Yuji Saito memorial tree. We wish them every success during their stay in the Unit.
Nicholas Tonks, who leads a research team at the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, New York, USA has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for the discovery and characterisation of protein tyrosine phosphatases. Nick Tonks studied for his PhD with Philip Cohen from 1982-1985.
Nicholas is the first PhD student from the University of Dundee to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society since it became an independent University separate from St. Andrews in 1967. Nick Tonks was the first to isolate "protein tyrosine phosphatases". This achievement pioneered our understanding of the important roles of this large enzyme family which regulates many aspects of cellular behaviour, especially cell growth and immune responses. In particular he discovered PTP1B which is now known to play a key role in obesity and insulin signalling and is one of the hottest drug targets in the pharmaceutical industry.
Founded in 1660, The Royal Society is the world's oldest scientific academy at the forefront of enquiry and discovery. The Society is independent of government by virtue of its Royal Charters and throughout its history, has promoted excellence in science. The backbone of the Society is its Fellowship of the most eminent scientists of the day, elected by peer review for life and entitled to use FRS after their name
Yvonne Fleming, a PhD student in the MRC Unit successfully defended her thesis entitled "The mechanism of activation of SAPK1/JNK" on May 21st. After a 40 minute public lecture followed by questions, the formal viva was conducted by Simon Cook (external examiner from the Babraham Institute, Cambridge) and Harindar Hundal (internal examiner, Division of Molecular Physiology, School of Life Sciences, Dundee, followed by a reception and presentation. Judith Hare, one of the Unit's secretaries, won the sweep for guessing the length of the viva correctly (two hours two minutes). Yvonne now joins a distinguished list of "thirty something" students, being the 32nd student to receive a PhD under Philip Cohen's supervision. Dr Fleming has taken up a postdoctoral position with Margaret Frame at The Beatson Cancer Institute in Glasgow, Scotland.
A cherry tree has been planted outside the Wellcome Trust Biocentre at Dundee in honour of Yuji Saito, a postdoctoral scientist in the MRC Unit from 1992 to 1995. Yuji died tragically a few years after returning to Japan. Members of the Unit have contributed memories of Yuji to a book that has been written about his life.
MRC Unit postdocs have been productive outside as well as inside the laboratory. Simon Rousseau (a postdoc from Canada) and his wife Nancy, as well as Tamas Zeke (a postdoc from Hungary) and his wife Zsuzsanna Guba (a technician in the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy) both announce the birth of their first child. Nancy produced a daughter, Anne Siobhan, on 26th April 2001, and Zsuzsanna a son, Gabor, on 15th March 2001, just over a year after arriving in Dundee. Many congratulations to them all.
Congratulations to Carol MacKintosh, who has been promoted to Reader in Biochemistry within the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee. In turn, Carol thanks and congratulates her graduate students and postdocs for their hard work, imagination and skill in pursuit of their quest to understand how 14-3-3s regulate nutrient signalling and metabolism.
But Carol reads more than Science. "In the evening it's my son Ewan's turn to read to me - his Primary 1 homework about the wild adventures of Biff, Chip and Floppy the Dog - made more exciting by the challenge of fending off his wee sister Ailsa who reckons that "School books are wasted on Reading - they're for Grabbing and Eating!".
Two of the Unit's graduate students defended their PhD theses on April 6th. Sarah Meek (a graduate student working with Carol Mackintosh) gave an oral presentation entitled "Cleavage of 14-3-3 binding proteins by an Arabidopsis sugar-regulated protease" and was then examined by Professor Chris Leaver (University of Oxford) and Dr. Paul Clarke (University of Dundee).
Anudharan Balendran (supervised by Dario Alessi) presented his work on "The role of 3-phosphoinositide-dependent protein kinase-1 in mediating the activation of AGC kinases" and was then examined by Dr Sally Leevers (University College London) and Professor Chris Proud (University of Dundee).
This was a first for the Unit, since never before had two of its graduate students been examined on the same day. Fortunately, they both survived the experience and (equally importantly!) passed their viva examinations. Needless to say, this was justification for a considerable celebration, firstly in the Garland Cafeteria and then at a local watering hole. We are happy to announce that both Sarah and Anu (and the rest of us) also survived the celebration. Well done to both of them.
There has been much excitement over the recent discovery that Peutz Jeghers Syndrome (PJS), an inherited disorder that predisposes to a wide spectrum of benign and malignant tumours, is caused by mutation of a widely expressed protein kinase, termed LKB1, of unknown function. Dario Alessi has been awarded £112,003 from the Association of International Cancer Research to fund a 3 year postdoctoral fellowship to study the mechanism of activation and physiological function of LKB1.
The MRC is to raise its maintenance grant for all students working towards their Masters and PhDs to a flat rate of £10,000 a year (£12,500 pa in London).
Professor Sir George Radda, MRC Chief Executive, said: "This significant rise in the postgraduate student stipend is one outcome of a review of the MRC's research training policy in a bid to maintain the competitiveness of the MRC package to attract high calibre applicants."
Both current students and new starters will receive the higher rate stipend in October this year. Previously, first year students received £7,450 (£9,900 in London) rising by an additional £450/500 in years two and three. Now students will receive the enhanced grant from year one.
The higher level of grant incorporates additional funding provided to all research councils as part of the Government's 2000 spending review. "However, the MRC decided to go further than the Government's recommended minimum in order to attract current graduates contemplating a career in biomedical research to the MRC," Sir George explained.
This is a real increase in MRC's overall investment in postgraduate training, and will not be achieved by cutting numbers of studentships - the number of new research studentships this year will remain the same at 365 PhD's and around 100 Masters.
The MRC is also funding an extra 80 Masters degree studentships from 2003 in line with its support for flexible provision of the "1 & 3" programme of research training. The "1 &3" model allows the flexibility for postgraduates to spend a year researching for a Master's degree with the option to go onto a three year doctorate. High flyers can fast track onto a three year PhD. With the extra Masters' studentships MRC will be funding one research-oriented Masters studentship for every 2 PhD studentships.
The other initiative to have come from the MRC's training policy review is the introduction of salaried Pre-doctoral Fellowship appointments in MRC units, announced in October 2000. The £1m investment will enable the most talented of young researchers to launch their careers while working for the PhDs. The successful Fellows will work in MRC units or instituteson a salary of around £17,000 pa dependant upon age and experience (plus location allowance in London). The scheme will fund 15 fellowships a year for the next three years.
Sir George concluded: "Applicants of any nationality can compete for these highly prestigious awards and the first 15 Fellows will start work in October."
Congratulations to Tricia Cohen, who was appointed to an Honorary Personal Chair in Biochemistry within the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee in February 2001. This is a great honour and reflects her outstanding work in the fields of cell signalling and protein phosphatase research. Tricia would like to take this opportunity to thank "All her postdocs, graduate students and technicians for their enterprise and diligence over the years, who are essential for any success."
After three years working in the Unit as a post-doc for Dario Alessi, Michayla Williams has decided to leave Scotland and head off to Dubai. Both Michayla and her husband, David (who has been working at Ninewells Hospital) have decided to go into teaching and will become scientific instructors in Dubai. To "celebrate" Michayla and David's departure to distant shores, the lab went out for a meal at an Indian restaurant in Broughty Ferry. A testament to the popularity of Michayla and David was the turnout of over 40 people. We wish them both every success in their new endeavours.
We are very pleased to announce that another student has successfully defended her thesis. Pam Lochhead, a student with Calum Sutherland who is affiliated to the Unit, presented a seminar entitled "The molecular mechanism by which insulin regulates hepatic glucose-6-phosphatase gene expression" on January 9th 2001 and was then examined by Dr. Harinder Hundal (University of Dundee) and Professor Jeremy Tavare (University of Bristol). Pam is now working as a postdoc at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, Scotland.