Dr Bruno Vaz, from the Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, presented his research on the 3rd May 2018 at the University of Sheffield on a newly discovered gene thought to be involved in cancer and ageing.
The gene was identified in three teenage boys all of whom died of liver cancer. This is unusual as this form of cancer is normally only found in over 40s, and triggered as a result of heavy alcohol use. The patients all also exhibited signs of early ageing; muscle wastage, cataracts and joint pains. Suspecting a genetic link, Dr Vaz and his colleagues probed the genetic code of the patients. They identified a gene, SPARTAN (SPRTN) which was defective in all three boys.
Further studies revealed SPRTN is involved in repairing DNA damage. Specifically, it removes proteins that have become stuck to DNA that distort its helical-shape thereby creating a bulky obstacle for important DNA processes. Disruption of these processes means the integrity of the DNA code becomes unstable, and therefore can be easily changed and mutated. In healthy individuals, these protein lesions are rapidly dealt with and mutations are kept in check. However for Dr Vaz’s SPRTN-deficient patients, mutations can build up leading to cancers that could be up to forty years premature.
These protein-DNA deposits arise naturally in the body but they can also be triggered by external stimuli like UV light or chemotherapeutic drugs. It is the link with chemotherapy that makes the discovery of SPRTN exciting for cancer therapy. If cancer drugs owe some of their toxicity to inducing DNA-protein links, then a second drug inhibiting the SPRTN repair pathway of these lesions could significantly improve chemotherapy potency.
Furthermore, even in the absence of chemotherapy, cancer cells are more likely to house more protein-bound DNA than normal cells. This is because of their inherent nature to divide much faster than the average cell. This means that their DNA is more likely to become tangled up in proteins that facilitate the required DNA replication for this process. Targeting cells with more protein-bound DNA using a SPRTN-inhibiting drug may therefore be a way to make cancer therapies more specific, and reduce the well-known side effects of chemotherapy.
Ruby is a Molecular Biology Masters student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the effect of antibiotics and how we may be able to overcome the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance. Ruby has a particular interest in science communication and outreach, and has been volunteering with the BSA since November.
Over 120 different languages are said to be spoken in Sheffield – a fact that reflects the diverse mix of cultures and communities that makes up our city. This can make it challenging to develop a scientific culture that feels inclusive for everyone. As Estrella Luna-Diez, BSA Sheffield volunteer and president of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK, explained: “It is known that children who are educated in a second language are four times less likely to pick up science modules in secondary school and therefore end up having a scientific career.” With this in mind, and inspired by watching her son grow up in a bilingual household, she developed the idea for ‘The Science of Multilingualism’. The aim was to celebrate the linguistic diversity of Sheffield whilst exploring the latest research into how speaking foreign tongues develops our brains.
The venue, appropriately, was Weston Park Museum, whose exhibits already showcase Sheffield’s rich cultural tapestry. As soon as visiting families arrived through the door, we gave them a crossword quiz designed by BSA volunteer Shauni McGregor. The answers (all foreign language words such as the Malay word for ‘statue’) had been hidden next to artefacts that described the word and the kids were very enthusiastic in finding them all. Once they had completed the quiz, they then headed upstairs to claim their prizes – only to find even more fun things to do!
We had taken over both of the museum’s upstairs Discovery Rooms and packed them with activities. Our visitors could take part in a real scientific experiment led by Dr Adnane Ez-zizi from the Out of Our Minds group at the University of Sheffield’s School of Languages and Cultures. “We asked people to do a memory task twice, rehearsing a list of items in their second language the first time and the second time in their native language” he said. “The idea was to show them that working memory performance depends on language since they tend to memorise things better when rehearsing with their first language.” For this task, both native English and native non-English speakers tend to score 90-95% correct answers in their native tongue. Curiously though, when rehearsing the items in their second language, the scores drop to 60% for native English speakers but only 90% in native non-English speakers. “This is probably because most of our non-English participants use English, their second language, on a daily basis. Whereas the native English participants have fewer opportunities to practice their second language, and hence are less fluent than non-English participants in their second language” Adnane explained.
Because context-based learning can be a very effective way of learning foreign languages, we had a range of activity stands where participants could try simple science experiments conducted either in Spanish, Bulgarian, Chinese or Arabic. So when Adnane was not testing people’s memories, he was on the Arabic stand performing simple demonstrations of physics using household items such as oranges, water bottles and balloons. We were also fortunate to be joined by volunteers from the Sheffield Confucius Institute whose activities explored the development of the Chinese printing industry and the engineering principles that allow us to build large structures such as overseas bridges.
At the Spanish activity stand, Margarita Segovia Roldán, who at the time of the event was working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), had brought along some of the subjects of her own research. “We decided to use neuroscience as a topic to teach Spanish – after all, Professor Ramon y Cajal, the ‘father of neuroscience’, was the first Spanish scientist to win a Nobel Prize” she said. “Our visitors viewed brain cell samples under the microscope and learnt how to name them in Spanish. Many people were very impressed by the fact that most of the words are written very similar in English and Spanish!” There were more microscopes at the Bulgarian activity stand too, overseen by Svet Tzokov (who manages the Electron Microscopy Facility at the University of Sheffield). “At the Bulgarian stand we were observing the cells in an onion peel” he said. “The aim was to encourage children to try and look in a more scientific way at things at home, and at the same time for them to learn a little bit about the living cell and its structure. Some of the kids were really fascinated and wouldn’t go away!”
Because learning languages can be hard work, we had also laid out a spread of international delicacies hailing from the native countries of our featured languages. From Chinese spicy bean curd to Spanish chorizo and Bulgarian cheeses – everyone found something new to try!
With so much going on, it had the potential for organised chaos but it all came together thanks to Estrella’s vision and organisational mastery. “I believe the event was a complete success and met all our objectives” she said. “We taught people about the benefits of learning a second language including how your brain benefits from it. It was brilliant to see children from different countries and backgrounds engaging with scientists and having so much fun while learning!” The feedback forms confirmed this, with 100% of the respondents finding the event either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. The event may have only lasted a day, but we hope we inspired many people to have a lifelong love of languages.
With thanks to all the volunteers who helped on the day: Estrella Luna-Diez, Antonio de la Vega de Leon, Margarita Segovia Roldán, Svet Tzokov, Nadeja Tzokova, Villy Hristeva, Shauni McGregor, Rebecca Hollely, Ellen Bradley, Alex Wolfe, Caroline Wood, Xinqun Hu,Feng Ju, Lizhe Wang, Junmin Xiao, Xi Liu, Adnane Ez-zizi, Ahmed MAA Elsheikh and Ahmed MME Azab.
To view more photographs from this event, check out the photo gallery on our Facebook page here.
About the Author
Caroline Wood is a PhD student studying the interactions between parasitic weeds and their hosts at the University of Sheffield. She first became involved with BSA Sheffield when she went along to the launch meeting ‘out of curiosity’ and has been involved in a number of events since. When she isn’t busy with her PhD or the BSA she is trying to learn French – partly inspired by the clear benefits languages have for the brain! She blogs at http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/ and you can also follow her on Twitter @sciencedestiny
What do a live kangaroo, mammoth teeth and otter poo have in common? They could all be found at ‘Nature Detectives’: our last outreach event held at Weston Park Museum on Saturday 24th February 2018!
A couple of months ago, we were approached by Weston Park Museum who wanted to increase the science content of their programme of family-friendly activities. Knowing how popular and well-loved the museum is, we leapt at the chance to get involved. During a ‘behind the scenes tour’, we discovered a treasure trove hidden away in the cupboards: bones, teeth, skulls and incredibly lifelike taxidermy. This gave us the idea for our event – using the museum’s collections we would show how scientists can use the ‘clues’ animals leave behind to learn more about their lives and habits.
The museum staff were very accommodating, giving us the use of both their upstairs and downstairs activity rooms. This allowed us to plan a ‘detective trail’ of different activities. After completing each activity, the children would be given a ‘clue’ about a mystery animal. Once they had all the clues, they could then use our identification key to work out the animal and claim a free goody bag. The idea proved a popular one. Barely a few minutes after opening, the museum was filled with parents and children eagerly filling in their clue sheets.
Downstairs the big question was ‘Who dung it?’ where we had invited Dr Deborah Dawson and her team from the Sheffield Otter Project as special guests they had brought a plethora of poo samples from all sorts of animals, and demonstrated how these ‘remains’ contain hidden information about animal diets, and how they can even be sources of DNA. Next to them, the children had great fun getting very messy on our footprints stand, where they were busy making animal tracks using pipe cleaner feet and paint.
Upstairs the fun continued with lots of opportunities to handle and closely inspect the museum’s artefacts, including our ‘What can we learn about teeth?’ activity led by Rebecca Hollely, one of our BSA volunteers. “The children really enjoyed being able to hold different kinds of skulls and teeth to guess the species and its diet. We had a range of animals, from the skull of the well-known goat, to a swordfish bill, and even a weighty mammoth molar which impressed children and parents alike!” she said.
Meanwhile, our ‘Spot the Moth’ activity used the case of the peppered moth to show how animals evolve to become better adapted to their environment. Some of the moths were so well camouflaged that we stopped using them because they were simply too difficult to find! In our final activity, birds were the star of the show: using the museum’s complete taxidermy collection of British birds, we showed how key features can help us to tell different species apart. “We had a stall teaching kids how to use identification keys to find out the names of taxidermy animals. Both the kids and parents really enjoyed being able to see and examine the taxidermy animals, and many said they had learnt a lot” said Weilin Wu, another one of our volunteers.
Throughout the day, we had a constant stream of visitors which left us all exhausted at the end, even those who didn’t dress as a kangaroo to add further amusement! But it was so rewarding to see our visitors really engage with the activities and ask so many questions. The mystery animal quiz was so popular that we had to run and print more copies, and we only just about had enough goody bags to last to the very end. Judging by the smiling faces and feedback, the kids felt a real sense of achievement from the activities. As Rebecca summed it up, “The day was filled with laughter, gasps of exclamation and it would be harder to say who had the most fun… the children or the volunteers!”
We had great fun and we are very grateful to Weston Park museum for making us feel so welcome. We are already looking forward to holding our next event there, “The Science of Multilingualism”, where we will explore what happens in the brain as we learn and speak different languages. This will take place on Saturday 14th April 2018 – keep an eye on our events page, Twitter account and Facebook page for more details!
And of course, a big thank you to our amazing BSA Sheffield volunteers who made this event happen: Weilin Wu, Caitlin Higgott, Olivia Rhoden, Lynette Hodges, Rebecca Hollely, Shauni McGregor, Ruby Kell, Daniella Sasaki, Antonio del la Vega de Leon, Chloe McCole, Jingyi Huang, Ellie Marshall, Tilly Dixon, Matthew Keedy, Francesca Dawson and Helen Alford.
About the Author
Caroline Wood is a PhD student studying the interactions between parasitic weeds and their hosts at the University of Sheffield. She first became involved with BSA Sheffield when she went along to the launch meeting ‘out of curiosity’. Since then, she has been involved in a number of events for BSA Sheffield, including an activity stand at the Sheffield Food Festival on crop diseases; a Fun Palace on the theme of the five senses and ‘The Science of Wellness’, a collaboration with Sheffield Flourish, a local mental health charity. She blogs at http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/ and you can also follow her on Twitter
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating disease considered the most common adult onset motor neuronal disorder. Sadly, this disease affects many patients around the world (1 to 3 patients per 100,000 people). These patients develop muscle weakness due to the progressive death of motor neurons (the cells responsible to connect muscles and central nervous system). In addition to the escalating failure of the neuromuscular system, the disease also may alter cognitive function and personality features. All these symptoms finally lead into the paralysis of several systems in the human body and, eventually, to death.
It is very hard to see how ALS can affect people from young age, typically from 30 or even younger ones. That was exactly the case of Jason Becker, an extraordinary guitarist diagnosed with ALS at the age of 19. He is the main character -or rather the hero- of Jason Becker: not dead yet), the documentary we watched in the III CineScience event held in October 2017 in Sheffield (South Yorkshire) . I use here the word “hero” because he had the proper behaviour of one. To the hard diagnosis, add the lack of information about the disease (in the 90’s). However, despite all the adversities, he found the way to transform his own life as an ALS-patient in a battle to raise awareness about the disease; an absolute triumph. [Read more on the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK website]
By Dr Margarita Segovia Roldán, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield. SRUK Yorkshire Constituency.