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From tadpole guts to Nobel Prize: John Gurdon’s UCL Prize Lecture in Clinical Science

ucyow3c19 November 2015

Written by James Arrich and Isobel Weinberg, both UCL PhD students

Do all the cells of the body possess the same set of genes? This was the question facing a young John Gurdon as he embarked upon his PhD 60 years ago. His research has transformed the way we understand biology in a way that holds promise for the treatment of many common diseases. He received the Nobel Prize in 2012 and on 10 November he visited UCL to give the UCL Prize Lecture in Clinical Science and receive the accompanying medal.

John Gurdon made an unpromising start to his scientific career: at school, he was ranked last out of 250 students for Biology, and was required to give up science and study Classics. Nevertheless, he later chose to switch his degree from Classics to Zoology and then embark on a PhD in cell development.

Professor Sir John Gurdon, UCL Nobel Prize winner

Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir John Gurdon

Ground-breaking work soon followed. His PhD centred upon the technique of nuclear transplantation.

That is, he would transplant the nucleus of one cell into an egg cell whose own nucleus had been removed (it had been ‘enucleated’) and then watch to see how this egg (with its transplanted nucleus) developed.

In a famous set of experiments, he took a specialised gut cell from a tadpole and transplanted the cell’s nucleus into an enucleated egg. Astonishingly, he demonstrated that such eggs (with their transplanted ‘gut’ nuclei) could develop into healthy frogs. That is, the nucleus of a gut cell that was wholly specialised to absorb nutrients still possessed all the genes required to make an entire new frog.

The implications were huge. Not only did all the cells of an organism possess the same genes, but clearly some factors in the egg cell could revert an adult, specialised cell into a stem cell capable of generating any other cell type. The phenomenon was termed nuclear reprogramming and Gurdon has spent the rest of his career unravelling the mechanisms that underlie it.

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Who attends foodbanks in the UK and why? The impact of food poverty on health and wellbeing

ucyow3c3 August 2015

pencil-icon Written by Edwina Prayogo, UCL Centre for Behavioural Medicine PhD student

(from l–r) Dr Angel Chater, Dr Mary Barker, Edwina Prayogo and Dr George Grimble

(from l–r) Dr Angel Chater, Dr Mary Barker,
Edwina Prayogo and Dr George Grimble

UK foodbank use has unmasked food poverty – a condition that leads to poorer health and reduced wellbeing in millions of British people. I have been involved in interdisciplinary research that combines health psychology and clinical nutrition, with the aim of uncovering who attends London foodbanks and why.

Alongside members of our UCL Grand Challenges-supported research group, as well as other experts, I was privileged to present our research to an audience of academics, health professionals and people working in NGOs at an event on 20 July.

To start, Dr Angel Chater (UCL Life Sciences) described how the research arose from my MSc project at UCL. For this, I investigated fruit and vegetable consumption and the psychological wellbeing of London foodbank clients, and this developed into my current PhD project.

Then, Dr George Grimble (UCL Medical Sciences) explained how his interest in the area of food poverty was piqued by his involvement as advisor to Channel 4’s The Food Hospital, during which he assisted in a ‘fibre challenge’ smartphone app experiment. He went on to replicate the experiment for an MSc project with foodbank clients, and in doing so exposed the very poor diet of many participants.

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