Timeline of MRC: text version


MRC timeline 1970 to 1999

1970 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

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.

1973 MRI invented

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.

Watch our video about his discovery of MRI.

1975 Monoclonal antibodies developed

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. Learn more about the discovery of monoclonal antibodies in A healthcare revolution in the making.

1977 DNA sequencing invented

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.

1979 Discovery of how the brain stores memories long term

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.

1980 to 1989 Humanised monoclonal antibodies developed

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.

Read a profile about Sir Greg and his groundbreaking research.

1980 Vaccinating babies cuts pneumococcus deaths

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.

Learn more about our research on infections in Africa.

1981 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.

Watch a BBC video about flu research at NIMR.

1982 Nobel for technique which captured the first detailed structure of proteins that interact with DNA

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.

1983 Link proven between asbestos and cancer

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.

1984 DNA fingerprinting invented

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.

Watch our video about Sir Ed Southern’s discovery.

1986 Common chronic diseases result from poor nutrition in the womb

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.

Find a summary of Barker’s paper, which was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

1986 Bed nets protect against malaria

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.

Discover more about our research on mosquito bed nets for preventing malaria.

1986 Welsh coal miner study establishes evidence-based 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.

Learn more about Professor Cochrane’s research.

1989 Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy gene discovered

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. The MRC annual review ‘7 ages’ includes the case of 2 boys with DMD who took part in an MRC-funded trial. You can also hear about Dame Kay’s work in a film produced to celebrate MRC’s centenary in 2013.

1990 Aspirin and warfarin reduce heart disease

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.

1990 Sex determination gene discovered

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.

1991 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.

Learn more about MRC and folic acid.

1995 Deep brain stimulation treatment for Parkinson’s disease

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.

Read more about deep brain stimulation.

1996 Discovery of cells which organise the body’s overall form

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.

1997 Nobel for structure of the cell’s major energy source

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.

1998 Division of Signal Transduction Therapy established

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.

Learn more about Sir Philip’s research.

Last updated: 16 January 2023

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