Timeline of MRC research and discoveries

A snapshot of some of the most influential and life changing discoveries made by the Medical Research Council.

View a text version of the timeline.


MRC set up to tackle TB

In June 1913 a fledgling Medical Research Committee held its first meeting, to oversee a new national scheme for health insurance which would provide sanatorium treatment for tuberculosis (TB) and carry out research comparing TB in animals and humans. The committee evolved into the Medical Research Council, overseeing a national fund for medical research amounting to £57,000 per year, equivalent to £4 million today.


Rickets caused by lack of Vitamin D

X-rays showing effect of rickets

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Sir Edward Mellanby discovered that rickets, a painful and deforming bone disease, is caused by lack of vitamin D and can be treated with cod liver oil. Sir Edward later went on to become Secretary of MRC. These findings were confirmed by one of the founders of MRC, Dame Hariette Chick, whose research showed that children who were either given cod liver oil or allowed to play outside in the sunshine could be cured of rickets (the body produces Vitamin D in response to sunlight).


Early studies of rare diseases

Sir Archibald Garrod

Credit: Wikipedia

Sir Archibald Garrod, a member of MRC Council from 1923 to 1928, was a pioneer in the field of metabolic diseases. In 1902 he discovered the rare genetic disorder alkaptonuria. This disorder causes bones to turn black and brittle, leading to early joint degeneration. Whereas alkaptonuria affects around 80 people in the UK, it is actually a severe form of osteoarthritis, which affects 8 million. His first book, The Incidence of Alkaptonuria: a Study in Chemical Individuality (1902), was the first published account of a case of recessive inheritance in humans. In 1923, his studies on alkaptonuria and other rare diseases were published in a book, Inborn Errors of Metabolism.


Nobel for discovering the importance of vitamins

Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins

Studying the diet of rats, Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins found that they would only grow well if he supplemented their diet with milk, which led him to discover essential nutrients for growth and health, now known as vitamins. Before this research, many believed that diet-linked illnesses, such as scurvy in sailors, were caused by a toxic substance in foods rather than a deficiency in the diet. Sir Frederick won a Nobel Prize for his discovery.

1930 to 1949

Clinical trials to treat bacterial and viral diseases

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s MRC scientists carried out pioneering clinical trials to find new treatments for several illnesses caused by infection, including meningitis, pneumonia, septicaemia and hepatitis.


Discovery of the influenza virus


MRC scientists proved that influenza is caused by a virus rather than a bacterium, after studying ferrets in their laboratory which had caught the illness from researchers.


Discovery of 2 types of diabetes

Sir Harold Himsworth

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Harold Himsworth (MRC Secretary between 1949 and 1968) showed that there are 2 types of diabetes, a disease caused by lack of a hormone called insulin. Type 1 diabetes, or ‘insulin-sensitive’, develops when insulin-producing cells have been destroyed. ‘Insulin-insensitive’, or type 2 diabetes, develops when the body is unable to produce enough insulin, or when the hormone not work properly (known as insulin resistance). In 1936, Sir Harold published a paper describing a test to distinguish between these 2 types. A special edition of Diabetic Medicine was dedicated to him in 2011, 75 years on from his discovery.


Nerve impulses are transmitted by chemicals

Sir Henry Dale's Nobel award

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Professor Otto Loewi and Sir Henry Dale, Director of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) 1928 to 1932, showed that nerve impulses are transmitted by chemical signals and identified and isolated the first neurotransmitter; acetylcholine. When 2 nerve cells meet end-to-end, there is a gap between them called a synapse. Neurotransmitters, released from the end of one nerve, flow across this gap to the other nerve. This is how one nerve cell communicates with another, and is the basis of how nerve cells are connected in networks in the body. The pair won a Nobel Prize for this work.


Safety of rationing confirmed

Dr Elsie Widdowson

As the threat of world war loomed in 1937, MRC-funded scientists Dr Elsie Widdowson and Professor Robert McCance carried out self-experimentation to test the safety of food rationing. Found to be in good health at the end of 3 months of living on strictly rationed food, their study results were secretly passed to the War Cabinet who were reassured that rationing would be safe, should it be required. Dr Widdowson made many important contributions to nutrition research over her career, including a detailed study on the constituents of common foods carried out during world war 2, which is still used by nutrition researchers today.

1940 to 1949

Development of penicillin as a drug

Historic medical notes

In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin’s antibacterial properties as penicillium mould had contaminated one of his culture dishes and he noticed that bacteria around the mould had been killed. He named the substance penicillin, after the mould he found it in. But it was not until Sir Ernst Chain and Lord Florey’s Medical Research Council (MRC) supported work during World War II that it became possible to mass produce the drug. They purified and extracted penicillin, enlisting the help of pharmaceutical companies to treat many different bacterial diseases, crucially treating wounded soldiers on the front line in World War II. Sir Alexander, Lord Florey and Sir Ernst won the 1945 Nobel Prize for this work.

1940 to 1949

Randomised controlled trial design pioneered

MRC scientists developed what is today the gold standard for clinical trial design while testing streptomycin to treat pulmonary tuberculosis. In a 2009 British Medical Journal video, former MRC Chief Executive Professor Sir Colin Blakemore speaks to Sir John Crofton, who led the MRC streptomycin trial, about the importance of randomisation and blinding in clinical trials, and how it has helped to make medicine more evidence-based.


Influenza monitoring centre set up at NIMR

Flu researchers pipetting by mouth

In 1947 an influenza monitoring centre was set up at MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) to monitor flu strains worldwide. Now part of The Francis Crick Institute, it is at the heart of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) network of influenza surveillance centres and its scientists' work on flu vaccine composition has had a major impact on human health worldwide. Over the years, work on the virus's structure by Sir John Skehel and Dr Steve Gamblin has led to a more detailed understanding of the flu virus and the mechanism of antiviral drugs. In 2009 the WHO Centre at NIMR formed a key part of the international effort to counter the H5N1 'swine flu' epidemic.


Nobel for inventing partition chromatography to separate mixtures

Scientists at work

Dr Archer Martin at MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), along with Dr Richard Synge, won the Nobel Prize in 1952 for inventing the process for separating mixtures of substances. In its simplest form of filter-paper chromatography, a drop containing a mixture of substances is placed onto a piece of filter paper. The paper soaks the mixture and the components separate according to how well they dissolve. The fundamental analytical technique of gas chromatography, which allows scientists to separate and analyse mixtures of chemical vapours, arose from this work and was also developed at the NIMR.


X-ray crystallography image of DNA taken giving first clues to its structure

X-ray image of DNA

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Professor Raymond Gosling, then a student working under the supervision of Dr Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London, took an x-ray crystallography photograph of DNA, known as Photo 51, which revealed crucial details of DNA’s structure.


MRC scientist scales world's sixth highest mountain to prepare for Everest

MRC scientists on mountain expedition

Credit: Royal Geographical Survey

Griffith Pugh, an MRC scientist at MRC's National Institute for Medical Research and a skilled climber, accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on his famous 1953 ascent of Everest. He was commissioned ahead of the expedition to study nutrition, acclimatisation, equipment and the effects of supplementary oxygen on climbers at high altitudes by climbing Cho Oyu the year before, and his research contributed to the success of the Everest expedition.


Discovery of thyroid hormone T3

Dr Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers

Dr Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers of MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research, discovered the thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3), earning her worldwide recognition. At the time, L-thryoxine (T4) was the only known thyroid hormone. By analysing the plasma of patients with thyroid diseases, where levels of thyroid hormone levels in the blood are disrupted, they detected the presence of T3 using radioactive iodine. T4 and T3 play an important role in the body’s control of metabolism. T3 is used to treat and diagnose thyroid diseases, such as thyroid cancer or hyperthyroidism.


Structure of DNA unravelled

First model of DNA

Work by Dr James Watson, Professor Francis Crick, Professor Maurice Wilkins and Dr Rosalind Franklin revealed that the molecular structure of DNA is a double helix. Professor Crick and Dr Watson of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Professor Wilkins of the MRC Biophysics Research Unit won the 1962 Nobel Prize for this work, considered one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century. DNA encodes genetic information. DNA is a large chain molecule made up of many building blocks that interact to form a long, spiralling molecule with a double 'backbone'. Nitrogen-containing compounds, called bases, protrude from the 2 halves of the backbone and link together in pairs so that the whole molecule is like a zip.


Physical activity cuts the risk of heart disease

After the war, cases of heart disease were rising but no one knew why. By comparing the records of heart disease from people in different jobs, Professor Jerry Morris demonstrated that people with less active jobs were more likely to suffer heart problems. In particular, he found that bus drivers had a higher risk of having a heart attack than the conductors working alongside them, despite being from similar backgrounds. The difference was down to their working behaviour: bus conductors tended to walk hundreds of steps every day, whereas the drivers would be sitting in their seats for hours at a time.


Nobel for discovery of the citric acid cycle

Sir Hans Krebs

Sir Hans Krebs, who was Director of MRC's Cell Metabolism Research Unit from 1945 to 1967, received a 1953 Nobel Prize for uncovering the series of chemical reactions that take place inside most plants, animals, fungi and some bacteria. The citric acid cycle reactions involve the breakdown of proteins, fats and carbohydrates into much smaller molecules that can be used as building materials for the cell.


Smoking causes cancer

No smoking sign

Sir Richard Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill studied 40,000 British doctors and showed that the death rate from lung cancer among heavy smokers was 20 times the rate in non-smokers, providing definitive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.


Discovery of interferon

Dr Alick Isaacs

Dr Alick Isaacs and Dr Jean Lindenmann from MRC's National Institute for Medical Research noticed that heat-inactivated flu viruses interfered with the growth of live flu viruses. They discovered that this effect was caused by the release of a protein, which they named interferon. The pair gained worldwide recognition for their discovery. Today, interferon proteins are used to treat hepatitis, cancer and multiple sclerosis.


Determining the building blocks that make up insulin

Dr Frederick Sanger

Dr Frederick Sanger determined the entire sequence of the 51 building blocks, called amino acids, in the protein insulin, and showed how they are linked together. Insulin is an important hormone needed to control blood sugar levels. But Dr Sanger's methods are applicable to all proteins and his work showed that they have specific structures. His method involved separating the different fragments of the protein on filter paper and moving them with an electric current according to their electrical charge. This created a unique pattern on the paper which Dr Sanger called a 'fingerprint'. Dr Sanger won his first Nobel Prize for this work.


First protein structure identified

Dr Max Perutz and Sir John Kendrew

Myoglobin was the first protein to have its 3D structure determined, closely followed by haemoglobin, the blood's main oxygen transporter. In 1962, Dr Max Perutz and Sir John Kendrew at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology were awarded a Nobel Prize for their 25 years' work to determine the structures of these proteins as well as other proteins like the immunoglobulins (antibodies). The scientists used the way that different proteins cause X-rays to change direction to produce unique patterns that indicated their structures. MRC runs an annual science writing competition named after Max Perutz, who was a keen and talented communicator, inspiring students to use everyday language to share their research with the people whose lives are improved by their work.


Nobel for skin graft breakthrough

Sir Peter Medawar

A Nobel Prize was awarded to the MRC National Institute for Medical Research's Sir Peter Medawar for his discovery of the ability of a living thing to overcome its normal tendency to reject another individual's organs or tissue, acquired immune tolerance. Sir Peter's finding came from his studies of skin grafting to treat soldiers with burns in World War II. Using rabbits, he showed that the rejection of skin grafts was an immune response. He proved that this response could be avoided if, early on in life, animals were exposed to the tissue that would later be grafted. The work gave surgeons the confidence that the problem of rejection of organs and tissue could be solved by tackling the immune response.

1960 to 1969

Discovery of cryobiology

Audrey Smith

Described as the 'mother of cryobiology', Audrey Smith discovered how to store biological material at low temperature, pioneering techniques for the freezing of sperm, blood, bone marrow, corneas and many other tissues. Freezing of sperm, eggs and embryos is now a key part of many IVF programmes.

1960 to 1969

Clinical trials of radiotherapy for cancer

Early radiotherapy treatment

MRC scientists began extensive trials in the 1960s to test radiotherapy as a treatment for a number of cancers. Today around 4 in 10 cancer patients have radiotherapy.


Discovery of X-inactivation

Dr Mary Lyon

While studying the effects of radiation on DNA in the early 1960s, Dr Mary Lyon discovered that 1 of 2 copies of the X-chromosome in women can be inactivated. This explained the absence of symptoms in female carriers of inherited diseases associated with this chromosome such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and colour-blindness, which affect mainly men. MRC's world-renowned centre for mouse genetics at Harwell was named the Mary Lyon Centre in recognition of her important contributions to research in mammalian genetics.


High blood pressure causes heart disease and strokes

MRC scientists carried out 2 major studies during the 1970s and early 1980s into mild hypertension (high blood pressure). The studies confirmed that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and that treating it substantially reduces this risk.

1970 to 1979

Clinical trials of chemotherapy for leukaemia

Methotrexate tablets

MRC research into leukaemia began in the 1950s and led to extensive clinical trials in the 1970s. The success of these studies was particularly dramatic in children, increasing the survival rate from around 1 in 5 to around 4 in 5.


MRI invented

First MRI machine with its creators

Sir Peter Mansfield devised a way to harness cells' natural magnetic properties to produce images of soft tissues in humans, leading to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Today, all major UK hospitals have whole-body MRI scanners and the technique is used to diagnose and monitor many diseases. Sir Peter won MRC's Millennium Medal for this research in 2009.


Monoclonal antibodies developed

Atomic structure of a monoclonal antibody

In 1975, Dr Cesar Milstein and Dr Georges Kohler at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology worked out a way to isolate and produce unlimited numbers of individual, or monoclonal, antibodies. The ability of antibodies to bind specifically to substances is a powerful tool in medical research and today it’s used for everything from tissue typing for organ transplants to home pregnancy tests. Dr Milstein and Dr Kohler won a Nobel Prize in 1984 for their work.


DNA sequencing invented

Dr Frederick Sanger studying a DNA sequence

The instructions in DNA exist as a coded sequence of 4 chemical building blocks, known as bases. This sequence specifies the genetic blueprint for all living organisms. At the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Dr Frederick Sanger developed a way to work out the exact sequences of bases in DNA. He used it to work out the genetic sequence of a virus, which was the first fully sequenced genome. Dr Sanger's method was used to determine the sequence of human DNA, and was the most widely used analysis method in the early 1980s. It was key to the Human Genome Project, which has increased the understanding of many genetically based diseases and cancer. In 1980, Dr Sanger was awarded his second Nobel Prize for this work.


Discovery of how the brain stores memories long term

Professor Tim Bliss

Professor Tim Bliss at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research and colleague Dr Terje Lomo published the first detailed account of a process called synaptic long-term potentiation. This is now known to be one of the main mechanisms of learning and memory, and this discovery has enhanced brain research for the last 30 years.


Vaccinating babies cuts pneumococcus deaths

African doctor examining a small child

In the 1980s, MRC scientists worked to find an effective vaccine against pneumococcus in The Gambia. Pneumococcus bacteria are responsible for around 1 million deaths every year among children in developing countries, infecting the lungs, blood and brain and spinal cord and causing pneumonia and meningitis. Between 2000 and 2003 the scientists vaccinated nearly 9,000 Gambian children and compared them with children who received a dummy vaccine. Tracking the children for 4 years revealed that the vaccine was 77% effective at preventing infection and resulted in a 16% reduction in the number of deaths and a 37% reduction in cases of pneumonia.

1980 to 1989

Humanised monoclonal antibodies developed

Sir Greg Winter

Following on from the discovery of monoclonal antibodies in the 1970s, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology scientist Sir Greg Winter devised a way to 'humanise' these monoclonal antibodies, making them better suited to medical use. The work has generated a multi-billion pound biotechnology industry; monoclonal antibodies now form the basis of many biotechnology products in clinical development. Sir Greg was honoured with the 2013 MRC Millennium Medal for his contributions to UK wealth creation and human health.


Structure solved of the proteins flu uses to stick to cells

Sir John Skehel's studies at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research revealed the 3D structure of a key protein in the flu virus called haemagglutinin, allowing influenza to stick to cells and infect them. This opened new perspectives for the design of antiviral drugs.


Nobel for technique which captured the first detailed structure of proteins that interact with DNA

Sir Aaron Klug

Sir Aaron Klug of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) won a Nobel Prize in 1982 for developing a technique called crystallographic electron microscopy, which allows biological structures to be seen in 3D. Using this technique, Sir Aaron produced a detailed picture of the structure of chromatin, a large protein that holds DNA together in chromosomes. Chromatin affects how the genetic code is read, so investigating its structure is crucial for understanding cancer, where genetic material loses control of the growth and division of cells. In 1985 Sir Aaron discovered zinc-fingered proteins which have been trialled for diseases including HIV, pain and macular degeneration.


Link proven between asbestos and cancer

Asbestos warning sign

Sir Donald Acheson's research, carried out while he was Director of the MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit (now the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit), used a series of long-term studies to look at the impact of industrial materials on workers' health and discovered that asbestos caused cancer. This led to the banning of asbestos imports and introduction of new safety standards.


DNA fingerprinting invented

The first DNA fingerprint

DNA fingerprinting, invented by Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester, can reveal highly distinctive patterns of DNA fragments that are unique in everyone apart from identical twins. The technique is now used in many ways, including medicine, forensic science, paternity testing and environmental studies. The technique which led to the development of DNA fingerprinting was invented by another MRC scientist, Sir Ed Southern, who won the MRC Millennium medal for this work in 2011.


Common chronic diseases result from poor nutrition in the womb

Professor David Barker

Professor David Barker discovered the relationship between birth weight and the lifetime risk of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes, often called the 'Barker hypothesis'. His ideas stimulated worldwide research into how nutrition and growth during development are linked to adult disease. Barker was Director of the MRC's Environmental Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton (1984-2003). His first paper proposing the link between poor early nutrition and adult chronic disease was published in 1986 in the Lancet. In 1992, he went on to describe how poor early nutrition affects development of the pancreas, increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.


Bed nets protect against malaria

African woman and child with bed net

A trial carried out by the MRC The Gambia Unit showed that bed nets treated with safe, biodegradable pyrethroid insecticides protect people from malaria by reducing malaria-infected mosquito bites. A study 3 years later showed that the use of such bed nets resulted in a 63% reduction in deaths from all causes in children under 5.


Welsh coal miner study establishes evidence-based medicine

Welsh coal miners

Credit: The Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine

By studying the lifelong effects of inhaling coal dust on the health of Welsh miners, Professor Archie Cochrane helped to establish evidence-based medicine. Professor Cochrane was Director of the MRC Epidemiology Unit in South Wales. Over forty years, he carried out follow-up X-ray studies of Welsh miners in the Rhondda Fach deep coal mining valley and established a long-term link between breathing in coal dust and developing 'black lung', or pneumoconiosis. He thought widely about the effectiveness and efficiency of modern medical practice and sought a more scientific approach to medical research. He encouraged the use of randomised controlled trials and his call for medicine to be evidence-based was the inspiration for the establishment of The Cochrane Collaboration in 1993.


Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy gene discovered

Dame Professor Kay Davies

In the 1980s Dame Professor Kay Davies, Director of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit, developed the first test for screening pregnant women to find out the risk of the baby inheriting the muscle wasting disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). In 1989 she went on to discover the gene which codes for utrophin, a molecule which is missing in DMD patients and which could point the way to treatments for the disease.


Aspirin and warfarin reduce heart disease

Bottle of aspirin

MRC research in the 1980s and 1990s showed that low doses of blood-thinning drugs, such as aspirin and warfarin, significantly reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes suffered by patients at risk of these diseases.


Sex determination gene discovered

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge showed that SRY, a gene contained on the Y chromosome, is necessary for development as a male. SRY is critical for beginning and maintaining the development of testes in the growing foetus, but when this process goes wrong it can lead to disorders of sexual development. This can have devastating physiological and social consequences for these patients.


Folic acid cuts risk of neural tube defects and spina bifida

A 9-year-long MRC clinical trial showed that giving pregnant women folic acid reduces the risk of major brain and spine birth defects. Flour fortification with folic acid is now mandatory in over 70 countries.


Deep brain stimulation treatment for Parkinson's disease

X-rays showing deep brain stimulation

Deep brain stimulation involves electrically stimulating specific parts of the brain, and is able to help Parkinson's disease patients who do not respond to drug treatments. The technique was invented by MRC-funded Professor Tipu Aziz who identified a new target for Parkinson's disease in the brains of primates, called the pedunculopontine nucleus. When this target was stimulated, symptoms were alleviated, even in patients who were not responsive to drugs. The Deep Brain Stimulation device, made by US medical technology company Medtronic Inc, was approved in Europe in 1995 for treating tremor in Parkinson’s disease and is now used worldwide.


Discovery of cells which organise the body's overall form

Dr Rosa Beddington

Dr Rosa Beddington, an embryologist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, combined classical embryology and molecular biology research to discover a group of cells in the mouse embryo that do not form part of the foetus itself, but which define the head-to-tail axis. These cells are known as the anterior visceral endoderm. Dr Beddington and colleagues went on to identify genes involved in the beginning of head formation in mouse embryos, mutations in which cause embryos to be headless. Naturally occurring mutations in one of these genes cause comparable defects in human embryos.


Nobel for structure of the cell's major energy source

Computer generated cell structure

Sir John Walker of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology was awarded a 1997 Nobel Prize for his work on the structure and mechanism of ATP synthase, a complex enzyme machine with a rotary mechanism. This enzyme plays a pivotal role in obtaining energy from food by producing ATP (adenosine triphosphate) from ADP (adenosine diphosphate) in mitochondria, the 'powerhouse' of the cell. Energy stored in the ATP molecule is distributed as a fuel around the body and is crucial for biological functions, from the building of cell components to muscle contraction and the transmission of nerve signals.


Division of Signal Transduction Therapy established

Building housing MRC unit

Sir Philip Cohen established the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, a unique collaboration between researchers from the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit, the University of Dundee and 5 pharmaceutical companies which has brought in more than £50 million in funding. Sir Philip’s research has shown that a process in cells called phosphorylation is a universal cell control mechanism, and issues with this process have been discovered in many different diseases from arthritis to cancer. There are now multiple approved drugs and clinical trials based on protein phosphorylation. In 2013 Sir Philip won the MRC Millennium Medal for his considerable contributions to health and the UK economy.


Human genome sequenced

Sir John Sulston

The first draft of the complete human genome sequence was published, under the direction of Sir John Sulston at the Cambridge Sanger Centre.


Statins cut risk of strokes and heart attacks

Blood vessels

Results of the world's largest trial into the effects of statins showed that routine use of these cholesterol-lowering drugs in patients at high risk of heart disease reduced the incidence of heart attacks and strokes by a third, even in people with normal cholesterol levels.


Nobel for how processes involved in cell division are coordinated

Diagram of the cell cycle

Credit: The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute

Sir Paul Nurse and Dr Tim Hunt along with US researcher Dr Leland Hartwell, won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for identifying elements of the cell cycle. The cell cycle coordinates processes involved in cell division and growth. Dr Hunt worked on sea urchins and discovered proteins that are made and destroyed during the cell cycle. Sir Paul found the cdc2 gene, which controls cell division. These discoveries increased our understanding of cell cycle control, where defects can lead to the alterations seen in cancer cells. Their research was supported by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, now Cancer Research UK, and MRC.


Nobel for how genes regulate organ development and programmed cell death

Dr Sydney Brenner, Professor Robert Horvitz and Sir John Sulston

Credit from left to right: MRC LMB, Robert Horvitz, John Sulston

Dr Sydney Brenner, Professor Robert Horvitz and Sir John Sulston (of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology) won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work into how genes regulate organ development and how cells are programmed to die; critical knowledge for the understanding of disease. By studying the nematode worm (C. elegans) they identified key genes in development. The worm has a short lifetime and is transparent, making it possible to follow cell division directly under the microscope. The researchers induced gene mutations and linked them to specific effects on organ development, as well as finding corresponding genes in humans.


Newborn hearing screening programme put in place

Newborn baby

Researchers at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research showed that a technique developed in the 1970s could be used to screen newborn babies' hearing, leading to a national screening programme. The technique is based on detecting and analysing 'otoacoustic emissions', or noises that the ear makes in response to sounds. The NHS newborn hearing screening programme, introduced in 2002, improves the early detection of hearing impairment in babies. This enables earlier and more effective treatment for the 900 babies born each year in the UK with permanent hearing loss.


Hib disease eradicated in The Gambia

MRC research in The Gambia led to a national vaccination programme that completely wiped out Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) disease, one of the main causes of pneumonia and meningitis in children in developing countries.


Magnesium sulphate halves eclampsia risk

Doctor taking a patient's blood pressure

MRC scientists showed that magnesium sulphate halves the risk of eclampsia, a serious complication of pregnancy that is characterised by convulsions and can result in death of the mother or baby.


How Spanish flu jumped from birds to humans

Investigators at the National Institute for Medical Research used X-ray crystallography to study the structure of the Spanish flu virus and solved the 85-year-old mystery of how it caused the world’s most lethal flu outbreak. They discovered that the epidemic, which killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide, was triggered when a bird flu virus jumped the species barrier into humans.


Test for pre-leukaemic syndrome in Down's patients

Blood sample tubes

MRC research led to the recommendation that newborns with Down's syndrome should have their blood cell counts tested to screen for a condition which can lead to leukaemia. Most of the 750 babies born each year with Down’s syndrome now have this test.


Maternal vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy is linked with poor bone health in children

Full body x-ray showing skeleton

A nutritional survey of thousands of pregnant women and their offspring carried out at the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton has found that the poorer the mother's vitamin D levels during pregnancy, the lower her child’s bone mass tended to be, and the greater their risk of bone fracture in later life. Pregnant women are now routinely advised to take vitamin D supplements.


Discovery that thin people can be dangerously fat on the inside

Body scans

Research using MRI by Professor Jimmy Bell at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre revealed that many people who look outwardly slim and fit are actually carrying an unhealthy cushion of fat around their internal organs. Carrying such fat could result in serious conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, in later life and suggests that lifestyle changes to reduce disease risk should include physical activity as well as a healthy diet.


First gene variation increasing the risk of obesity discovered

Credit: Wellcome Images

MRC researchers identified the obesity-risk FTO variant gene after undertaking a genome-wide search for type 2 diabetes-susceptibility genes. The researchers found that this gene variant predisposes the carrier to diabetes through its effect on body mass index. The researchers discovered single 'letter' variations in the genetic code of the FTO gene and showed that those with 1 copy of the obesity-risk variant were on average 1.6kg heavier than those without the variant; those with 2 copies, 16% of the population, were 3kg heavier. MRC-led researchers showed in 2013 that these gene variants affected circulating levels of appetite-enhancing hormone ghrelin.


Markers for early detection of cancer found

Doctor with patient

MRC Cancer Cell Unit scientists have discovered that proteins in the body called mini-chromosome maintenance proteins (MCMs) can flag up early-stage cancers or precancerous cells at risk of developing into tumours. MCM testing is now being developed for the early detection of cervical, lung and colorectal cancers. In a related development, Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald is working on an inexpensive and simple cell-sampling device and antibody test for a precursor condition for oesophageal cancer. This could soon lead to a national screening programme to pick up cancer before it's too late to save patients' lives, in 2016 the test began to be used by GPs.


Prioritising antiretroviral therapy over blood tests for HIV monitoring saves more lives

A major trial carried out in rural Africa showed that more HIV patients could be treated safely and effectively for no additional cost by focusing funding on antiretroviral therapy (ART) monitored by trained health workers rather than on expensive blood tests.


Molecular structure and function of the ribosome solved

Molecular structure of ribosome

Dr Venki Ramakrishnan at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology won a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for showing how ribosomes, the tiny protein-making factories inside cells, function at the atomic level. This research has shed light on how the ribosome decodes instructions from DNA and on how antibiotics work, by showing how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes. This information is critical for developing new antibiotics. Modern antibiotics work by blocking the function the bacterial ribosomes upon which bacteria depend upon for survival.


Screening test for abdominal aortic aneurysm introduced

Research at the MRC Biostatistics Unit provided most of the evidence for cost-effective screening programmes now in place in England, Scotland and the US for abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), a condition which affects around 80,000 older men in the UK. The test is expected to halve the number of deaths from AAA over 10 years.


Antibodies can attack viruses from inside cells

Group of MRC researchers

Possible new ways of treating viral infections like the common cold and winter vomiting bug were uncovered by Dr Leo James and team from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, following their discovery that antibodies can attack viruses from inside our cells as well as outside of them. The scientists showed that when a virus gains entry to a cell, antibodies trigger a response, led by a protein called TRIM21, which pulls the virus into a ‘waste disposal system’ used by the cell to get rid of unwanted material. Higher levels of TRIM21 appear to make this process more effective, suggesting a new target for antiviral drugs.


UK Biobank completes its recruitment of 500,000 people


Credit: Stephen McGowan

UK Biobank, established by MRC, the Wellcome Trust, the Department of Health, the Scottish Government and the Northwest Regional Development Agency is a major national health resource which aims to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses. UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people aged between 40 and 69 years between 2006 and 2010 from across the country to take part in this project. They have undergone assessments, provided blood, urine and saliva samples stored in a large freezer for future analysis, given detailed information about themselves, and agreed to have their health followed. Over many years this will build into a powerful resource to help scientists discover why some people develop particular diseases and others do not.


Bowel screening test developed to save 3,000 lives each year

Section of bowel

The flexi-scope bowel cancer screening test for the over-65s was developed with MRC and Cancer Research UK funding, allowing doctors to both detect early stages of bowel cancer and remove precancerous polyps to prevent bowel cancer from developing. By nipping the disease in the bud, this test is expected to save 3,000 lives each year in the UK.


Ground-breaking discovery in treatment of African children with shock

African children in hospital

The MRC Clinical Trials Unit's 2-year FEAST (Fluid Expansion As Supportive Therapy) trial showed that rapidly giving large quantities of fluid as a resuscitation treatment to African children suffering with shock from severe infections does not save lives and is in fact harmful. It is hoped that the trial will avert thousands of deaths a year by showing that survival rates increased when fluids were given more slowly.


Smartphone app that can diagnose eye disease

African woman holding smartphone

Credit: Dr Andrew Bastawrous

MRC-funded researcher Dr Andrew Bastawrous collaboratively developed Peek, a portable eye examination kit that uses smartphone technology to undertake eye tests and diagnose vision problems in remote locations in low-income countries. 90% of the world's 39 million blind people live in low-income countries where there is little or no access to ophthalmologists. The kit is being trialled alongside an MRC study of 5,000 people in Kenya during 2013-14. Dr Bastawrous won the MRC's Max Perutz Science Writing Award in 2012 with an article about his research.


Nitric oxide studies give clues for sepsis treatment

Nitric oxide staining in the brain

Credit: Wellcome Images

Nitric oxide is an important cellular signalling molecule involved in many physiological and pathological processes. MRC scientists have undertaken research on the role of nitric oxide in various diseases such as stroke, Alzheimer's disease and cancer. During blood poisoning, sepsis, the body makes vast quantities of nitric oxide, causing a rapid decline in blood pressure and subsequent failure of vital organs. Researchers at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre discovered a molecule that selectively reduces nitric oxide in the blood vessels in cases of sepsis. The current survival rate for sepsis is approximately 50% and has not significantly progressed in decades; the identification of a candidate drug for its treatment may be the first steps in improving these odds.


Nobel for devising computer simulations to understand chemical processes

Professor Michael Levitt

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Professor Michael Levitt Professor Martin Karplus Professor Arieh Warshel, all 3 of whom spent time at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. They devised computer simulations to understand chemical processes, laying the foundations for new kinds of drugs. Today, scientists routinely use modelling to understand how different biological molecules interact, to probe the mechanisms of disease and to design new drugs.


3D structure of stress receptor identified

3D model of stress receptor

Heptares Therapeutics was formed in 2007 to develop pioneering research involving G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) from the MRC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology and National Institute of Medical Research. GPCRs provide an almost universal mechanism for transmitting signals into and out of cells. A large proportion - around 25 to 30% - of drugs marketed across all conditions act on GPCRs, making these probably the most important known drug targets. In 2013 the company identified the 3-dimensional structure of CRF1, the protein receptor in the brain which controls our response to stress. This will help scientists develop drugs for the treatment of depression and anxiety.


3D structure of primitive brain tissue grown in lab

Brain scan

Credit: Patrick Hales, UCL

An international team, including researchers at the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh used stem cells to grow a 3-dimensional structure in the lab resembling primitive human brain tissue. This provides a unique new laboratory tool for studying human-specific features of brain development and neurological disorders in a way that has not been possible using animal models. Model systems like these are likely to become increasingly important for early testing of new therapies before they progress to human trials.


Preventing neurodegeneration

Credit: Wellcome Images

Researchers at the MRC Toxicology Unit, who in 2012 identified a major cellular process leading to brain cell death in mice, showed that an orally administered drug-like compound can block this process and prevent neurodegeneration in mice. The team, led by Professor Giovanna Mallucci, showed that the build-up of misfolded proteins in the brains of mice with prion disease over-activates a natural defence mechanism in cells. The production of new proteins, including those essential for nerve cell survival, gets switched off, causing brain cell death. In 2017, the team discovered 2 repurposed drugs that block this ‘off’ switch, restoring protein production and stopping brain cell death.


Discovery of gene regulating alcohol consumption

Pint of beer

Credit: Wellcome Images

At the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit, a team led by Professor Howard Thomas from Imperial College London discovered a gene that regulates alcohol consumption and that when faulty, can cause excessive drinking. The researchers showed that mice with 1 of 2 single base-pair point mutations to the Gabrb1 gene overwhelmingly preferred drinking alcohol over water, choosing to consume almost 85% of their daily fluid as alcohol. Despite the complexity of alcohol addiction, the results of this long-running project suggest that a genetic component might be involved.


Fully functional immune organ grown from lab-created cells

Animal cells

Scientists grow a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting lab-created cells. The advance could aid future development of 'lab-grown' replacement organs. Researchers from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine took cells called fibroblasts from a mouse embryo and ‘reprogrammed’ them into an unrelated type of cell – specialised thymus cells. The thymus is a vital immune system organ. Mixed with other thymus cell types and transplanted into mice, these cells formed a replacement organ of the same structure and function as a healthy adult thymus.


Spinal cord tissue grown in a dish

Scientists grow a 'seed' of spinal cord tissue in a dish which could pave the way for future treatment of degenerative conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy and other neuromuscular conditions. A team at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research and the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine coaxed mouse and human embryonic stem cells to grow into specialised cells that go on to form spinal cord, muscle and bone tissue in the growing embryo. The method offers a powerful tool to study in a dish how diseases progress in the body.


World's first production of artificial enzymes

Scissors snipping DNA strand

Credit: Leo Hillier, LMB

Researchers from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology created the world's first artificial enzymes using synthetic biology, which could provide a starting point for a new generation of drugs and diagnostics. DNA and RNA are the building blocks of life, storing all of our genetic information and passing it on to future generations. But in 2012 the group created alternative molecules, called XNAs, that can also store genetic information and evolve through natural selection. They used these molecules to build 4 different types of synthetic enzymes, 'XNAzymes' capable of optimising simple reactions.


Nobel for discovering brain's 'inner GPS'

Nobel Prize winners

Credit: The Nobel Foundation

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Professor John O'Keefe, along with Professor May-Britt Moser and Professor Edvard I Moser, for their discovery of cells which make up a positioning system, or the brain's 'inner GPS'. By combining Professor O’Keefe’s MRC-funded discovery in 1971 of 'place cells', with the work of his former postdoc students in 2005, they succeeded in linking cellular information to cognitive processing. They discovered cells that organise into a specific mathematical arrangement and generate a coordinate system. This behaviour helps explain how individual brain cells create a map of space and help us navigate the environment around us.


Study sheds new light on how brain develops

Newborn baby

By observing 'resting state' networks in the brains of babies born between 29 and 43 weeks using MRI scans, researchers from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre found that these networks were at the equivalent level of an adult by the time the babies were ready to be born. These 'resting state networks' are connected systems of nerve cells in the brain that are constantly active, even during sleep. That they have been found developed in newborns means they may provide a foundation for conscious introspection, and has challenged previous theories about brain development and activity.


Genetic links to autistic traits discovered

Twins celebrating A-level results

Credit: Twins Early Development Study, King's College, London

Researchers have used an MRC-funded Twins Development Study to find that both autism spectrum disorder and milder autistic traits are caused largely by genetic factors. The study included twins who had not yet been diagnosed but with higher levels of autism traits, low-risk twins, and those with diagnosed autism spectrum disorder. The study found that associations between identical twins were higher than in non-identical twins, resulting in heritability estimates of 56-95%. The study found very little evidence for shared environmental effects.


Screening for ovarian cancer save lives

Results from the world's biggest ovarian cancer screening trial suggest that screening based on an annual blood test may help reduce the number of women dying from the disease by around 20%. The study showed a reduction in deaths from ovarian cancer between participants that were screened and those that were not tested, which became significant after the first 7 years of the trial. This allows us to be almost certain that screening reduces the number of women dying from ovarian cancer by up to 40%.


Alcohol consumption in pregnancy

Pregnant woman reaching for wine glass

Research by an MRC-funded PhD student changed official guidelines for pregnancy by discovering that even light drinking during pregnancy has increased risks. Dr Camilla Nykjaer used data from the Caffeine and Reproductive Health (CARE) Study, which collected questionnaires from more than 1,300 women. Assessing alcohol consumption before pregnancy and for the first 3 trimesters, she found that even light drinking in the first trimester can increase the risk of premature births. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Department of Health updated guidance for pregnant women to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy.


Liver cells grown from stem cells in a lab

Liver cells

Scientists from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine developed a new technique for growing liver cells from stem cells, paving the way for new treatments for patients with liver damage. The new technique for growing cells uses synthetic versions of a naturally occurring molecule called laminins. The team found that growing stem cells on laminins turned them into organised liver cells more efficiently than previous methods. The resulting cells were similar to liver cells freshly isolated from a donor organ. The advance could in future help the development of 'lab-grown' replacement organs.


Computer games help reduce negative emotional visual memory


Research from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit shows that playing a visually demanding computer game may reduce the occurrence of intrusive visual memories over time. Repeated intrusive visual memories is a common trait of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example someone who has been in a road accident might continue to re-experience the moment of impact. Participants who played Tetris after having reactivated memories saw significantly fewer intrusive memories over the following week than the control group. Taking part in an engaging visuospatial task after memory reactivation may create a 'cognitive blockade', which can help inform the development of psychological treatment techniques.


Animal feed antibiotic ban

Animal feed

A UK-China research collaboration has helped inform a ban on the use of the antibiotic colistin as an additive to animal feed in China. In 2015 the team identified a gene called MCR-1, allowing bacteria to survive colistin treatment in animals and humans. MCR-1 is a 'mobile gene' which can be transferred to other bacteria, making them resistant too. Following their discovery, the team worked with the Chinese Government to discuss the risks and impact on animals and humans. As of 1 November 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture banned the use of colistin as a feed additive for animals.


WHO roll out of pneumococcal vaccine

Baby being vaccinated in Africa

An affordable new formulation of pneumococcal vaccine has been approved by the EU and pre-qualified by the WHO based on results of trials conducted at MRC Unit The Gambia. The trials tested a more cost-effective vaccine, containing 4 doses, rather than 1; it offers a 75% reduction in temperature-controlled supply chain and storage requirements. The results showed that the new formulation was as safe, tolerable and immunogenic as the already licensed single-dose syringe.


Study finds over 100 new genetic links to schizophrenia

Professor Michael O’Donovan, deputy director of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, led a study and identified 128 genetic regions associated with schizophrenia; over 80 not previously linked to the condition. The strong association among genes expressed in the brain, and in tissues, can now pave the way for well-informed experiments that will unlock the biology of this condition and ultimately, new treatments.


Structure of Alzheimer's protein revealed

Computer generated tau protein

The atomic structure of tau, 1 of the 2 types of abnormal proteins found in Alzheimer's disease, was revealed by researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology using a technique called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Understanding the structures of these filaments will be key in developing drugs to prevent their formation. In the brains of Alzheimer's patients there are 2 types of abnormal 'amyloid' forms of protein. Tau forms filaments inside nerve cells and amyloid-beta forms filaments outside cells. Tau lesions appear to have a stronger correlation to the loss of cognitive ability in patients with the disease.


First genome editing in human embryos

Credit: Dr Kathy Niakan, The Francis Crick Institute

Dr Kathy Niakan and her team at The Francis Crick Institute gained the first ever licence to use a new gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 in human embryos in 2016. In 2017 they used the technique to reveal that a key gene, OCT4, is needed for correct formation of the early human embryo, known as a blastocyst, during the first few days of development. The finding will help scientists better understand the biology of our early development, including the causes of early miscarriage.


Nobel for revolutionary microscopy technique

Dr Richard Henderson

Based at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Dr Richard Henderson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, with Professor Jacques Dubochet and Dr Joachim Frank, for developing cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). The technique enables scientists to see the structure of biomolecules by firing a beam of electrons at proteins in a frozen solution. Compared to X-ray crystallography, where proteins are crystallised then hit with X-rays, cryo-EM can reveal the structure of a wider range of proteins, including those that cannot easily form into crystals.


Treating age-related macular degeneration with stem cells


Credit: Paul Anderson, Macular Society

2 patients with severe wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have regained their sight following a stem cell treatment developed by Professor Pete Coffey at UCL's Institute of Ophthalmology. Vision loss in AMD is caused by damage to support cells at the back of the eye, found behind the light sensing cells of the retina. Professor Coffey’s team created a 'patch' to replace the damaged cells, made up of embryonic stem cells. In a short operation they placed the patch over the dead cells. Within 12 months, both patients went from being unable to read, to reading with glasses.


Nobel for transforming antibodies into medicines

Professor Sir Greg Winter

Professor Sir Greg Winter shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing tools to make pharmaceutical drugs from antibodies – immune system proteins created to destroy foreign invaders. Sir Greg, of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, found ways to select and 'humanise' mouse antibodies, unlocking their potential to treat disease. Discovered by fellow MRC scientists in 1975, monoclonal (individual) antibodies bind to specific cells and disease proteins. Sir Greg added selected mouse antibody parts to human antibodies, preventing them from being destroyed by the patient’s immune system. Monoclonal antibody drugs have treated millions of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

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