AGM and flu lecture
10 October 2017
Guest speaker Professor Wendy Barclay (Imperial College) gave a wonderful insight into the influenza virus and the next flu pandemic at our AGM at the University of Reading.
There have been four pandemics recorded worldwide: the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed more young healthy people than recorded in the First World War; Asian flu in 1957, Hong Kong flu in 1968, and the ‘swine flu’ pandemic in 2009.
Avian species are seen to be crucial to the viruses’ survival and thus create a potential reservoir for human transmission of a new pathogenic strain. Three conditions have to be met for a new pandemic to be realised - high levels of antigenicity, efficient viral replication and effective transmission within the human population.
Thankfully, flu viruses are fragile, being both temperature sensitive and pH dependant. The main transmission triggers to humans is via aerosol (sneezing) and touch, since the virus can survive on inert surfaces for up to three hours. Vaccinating primary school children with a nasal vaccine comprising four different flu attenuated viruses has been found to reduce adult infection and mortality.
In summary, Professor Barclay stated that two major criteria had to be overcome by the virus to cause the next pandemic. Firstly, it must be able to effectively bind to mammalian cell walls. Secondly, it must mutate to allow activation of a new virulent strain within human cells.
The sobering prediction is that there will almost certainly be another flu pandemic based on ANP32A. We were all reminded that the very helpful BBC Pandemic App provides an opportunity to be part of a unique experiment that could save lives and track the spread of a deadly flu outbreak across the UK.
John Haspineall CBiol FRSB
Young Biologists Forum at Reading University
2 March 2017
In March Thames Valley branch held its first Young Biologist Forum. The aim of the event was to provide students with information about potential career routes and how to make the first steps.
Jenny Atkins, a postgraduate student at Reading University, was responsible for the bulk of the organisation of the event, in collaboration with Reading's Biological Student Society and members of the School of Biological Sciences. An RSB grant was awarded to run this event at the University of Reading, allowing for provision of travel expenses and food for the speakers.
The afternoon was split into two sections; the first half of the afternoon focused on short talks from speakers, while the second consisted of a poster session. The speakers represented various aspects of biology, allowing for good coverage of potential careers.
The speakers all gave excellent 15 minute talks, providing an overview of their interest and graduate entry routes. Most also covered personal advice about how to meet the needs of employers and how to impress them. To prevent information overload, after two short talks, there was a brief break where students typically went to chat to speakers and peruse posters.
Overall, 103 bookings onto the Forum were recorded, with an estimated 60 students attending, including a handful from Oxford. Following the success, we are planning a second run, with improvements following feedback from this first event.
To offer to speak or request information on the 2018 event, please email Jenny: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Kerry Broom CBiol FRSB
Report from Hannah Goldwag, attendee and student affiliate member
Whether your path as a young biologist has already begun or if you undecided about your future goals, the Young Biologists Forum at Reading University was an informative and eye-opening event. Attendees ranged from secondary school students to post-graduate students. I found it particularly interesting to talk to post-graduate students about their PhD research – this alone helped me envisage the variety of routes that my own education, career and research could take.
Previously, when I have considered different careers in biology, roles like a medical writer (with Porterhouse Medical) or a clinical research assistant (for Premier research) had never crossed my mind – mostly because I didn't know such roles existed!
I also didn't know that such roles could be undertaken as internships available for graduates, or how useful biology is in industry and the public sector, for example in the study of water quality as Nick Hill from Water Quality London demonstrated.
When the talks were not taking place, there was the opportunity to talk directly to the representatives from the different organisations. This meant that any questions raised throughout the forum could be discussed in depth which provided a more enriching experience. I felt that advice given was tailored to suit the attendees' current qualifications and aspirations.
I think it is very important to inform young people of all the career opportunities open to them in an appealing way so that they can make informed decisions about their lives. This was fulfilled by the Young Biologists Forum.
I look forward to attending again and hope to see a wider range of organisations represented at future events.
AGM at Wellington College
14 October 2015
The branch Annual General Meeting was hosted by Wellington College, Crowthorne. Members, their guests, teachers and students enjoyed pre-meeting drinks and a buffet generously provided by the Biology Department. We enjoyed an informal net-working opportunity along with our guest speaker, Mr Vaughan Tanner (below left), senior ophthalmic surgeon from the Royal Berkshire Hospital Reading.
Mr Tanner gave a fascinating talk, along with excellent graphics, showing details of recent surgical advances and techniques in eye surgery. His highly experienced team provides the Vitreo-Retinal surgical service in Berkshire along with a sub-specialist age related macular degeneration service; a micro incision cataract service and general ophthalmic care for acute and routine eye conditions.
The advance of sub-2mm micro-incision cataract extraction with multifocal and toric lens implants was described where this new technique significantly reduces spectacle dependence following cataract surgery.
The lecture covered the development of sutureless small incision vitrectomy techniques for the repair of retinal detachment, macular hole and other vitreoretinal diseases. We also heard how the introduction of many new retinal drug treatments, including Lucentiis and Eylea injections, Ozurdex steroid implants and Jetrea have significantly improved vision for many patients suffering from age related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, retinal vein occlusion and other retinal problems.
Our thanks go to Wellington College and Mr Tanner for the wonderful opportunity to learn more of recent developments in ophthalmology.
Dr John Haspineall CBiol FRSB
Behind the scenes at RHS Wisley
5 May 2015
We were informed that the glasshouses of Wisley gardens are able to withstand winds of more than ninety miles an hour. This was reassuring to the Thames Valley branch visitors on a visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in Surrey on a very windy Tuesday in May.
Our guide conducted the group through the tropical, temperate and arid glasshouses. Planting is not organised on a continent basis as it is at Kew, but the plants are mixed to give artistic displays. Specimens can be moved and containers added so that the viewing is always attractive. We enjoyed the tremendous variety and range of size – Wisley offers both the largest waterlily in the world and the smallest, the latter extremely rare and teetering on the brink of extinction.
We learned about the automatic control systems for the glasshouses which regulate temperature, sunlight moisture and wind. In a side room, past the spectacular orchids, we edged round the tanks and machines that supply the glasshouses with water. Some of this is sourced from reservoirs, some from the local river. The water used for the orchids requires removal of mineral salts in order for the plants to be able to absorb nutrients.
After a lunch break and a wander around the gardens we regrouped to learn of the work of the herbarium. The collection of beautifully preserved specimens, some extremely old, others being added as we watched, is fascinating. There is a need to stay one step ahead of the pests poised to 'lunch' on these valuable records of plants. As well as sealing and storing them in dry conditions, each specimen is frozen once a year to kill any successful invaders. The herbarium is in the process of digitising records of their thousands of plants (see plants.jstor.org).
We then moved to the library. At present this is situated in the old building designed in the style of Lutyens and Webb, using reclaimed tiles and beams. Amongst the fascinating collection is a complete series of planting and care notes by George Fergusson Wilson. Wilson was a newly retired industrial chemist who, in 1878, bought 60 acres of farmland at Wisley. He wanted to create a privately owned experimental garden, and chose the site as it has varying microclimates and different soil types all in a small area. He received plants from amateur-plant-hunters from all over the world which he tried in different conditions to see where they flourished.
The visit was hugely enjoyed by the guests who appreciated the time given and enthusiasm of the guides.
Tessa Parkes AMRSB
Drug Development: the Unexpected Role of Plants
15 October 2014
This year, after our AGM at Magdalen College, Oxford, the Thames Valley branch were delighted to host Dr Alison Foster's introductory talk on how plants have been used for drug development. Alison covered a multitude of subjects, introducing the audience to different plots found in the Oxford Botanic Gardens and the different ways in which plants have enabled drug development.
Aside from the direct use of a plant extract, some structures have been inspiration for the development of a novel substance. For example, back before our new technologies, structures were determined and compared by synthesising a structure and physically comparing to the natural form. In some cases, this involved a taste test; clearly before the days of health & safety! In this way, new structures are developed from the natural forms, with novel properties.
In some instances plant products are also used to assist with the formulation of drug substances for example a derivative of castor oil (from the castor oil plant) is used to solubilise paclitaxel, the anti-cancer drug originally found in the pacific yew tree.
Another method by which plants assist in drug research, is using them for 'pharming'. This involves genetic engineering of plants to grow vaccines and produce proteins such as insulin. In doing so, these treatments could potentially be more readily available and accessible and production costs would be greatly reduced.
Alison's fascinating lecture gave the audience tremendous insight into how plants play a pivotal role in past, present and future medicines.
Jenny Atkins AMSB
Greys Court Gardens Visit
14 September 2014
Some 30 members and guests enjoyed a sunny afternoon at Greys Court, a Tudor country house edged by medieval parkland with delightful views over the surrounding countryside near Henley-on-Thames.
We gathered on the lawn in front of the mansion for an introduction to the long history of the estate - which is mentioned in the Domesday Book - by volunteer guide Sue Dickenson. When the last private owners, the late Sir Felix and Lady Elizabeth Brunner, took up residence in 1937, the gardens were virtually derelict but Lady Brunner transformed them into a haven of tranquillity for visitors to share.
Gardener-in-charge Rachel Edwards then led a tour of the gardens, where each self-contained, intimate area of which comes into its own at different times of the year. We progressed through the aptly named White Garden, the still fragrant Rose Garden (which traces the history of the rose) and along the gnarled Wisteria Walk, originally planted in the 1890s.
This led to the extensive walled Kitchen Garden which originated during the Second World War 'Dig for Victory' campaign. It is cultivated organically with companion plantings and many varieties of brightly coloured flowers to enhance pollination by the resident bee population. Apples, pears and vegetables were being harvested for sale at the popular annual Big Harvest Weekend, which regularly attracts some 3,000 visitors.
After a final walk through in the Cherry Garden and an Italianate area, we thanked our hosts warmly for their generosity of time and left with a reminder to return at other times of the year.
Dr John Grainger CBiol FSB
Visit to Lonza Biologics Slough
25 March 2014
Lonza is a worldwide leader supplying the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Lonza's facility in Slough is focused on the manufacture of therapeutic grade monoclonal antibodies and recombinant proteins.
The Society's Joanne Needham began with a short presentation on membership covering the Register scheme. A licence from the Science Council enables the Society to offer Registered Technician, Scientist and Chartered Scientist qualifications. Joanne also covered the requirements for the Society's own Chartered Biologist status, the training courses offered and the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programme.
Lonza senior scientist Noel Smith described the process of risk assessment of novel products prior to acceptance for development. This involves identifying problems of e.g. toxicity, ability to express the product, ability to purify it and any feature which would prevent its being incorporated into a medicinal product.
Lead scientist Michael Box covered the development programme once a DNA sequence or transformed cell line expressing the product is accepted by the company. He described the insertion of the vector into the cells, usually CHO cells, selecting the transformed cell lines expressing the highest yield of product, growing up the cells through flask cultures, 10 litre bioreactors, pilot plant scale and production scale. Michael also described the purification techniques, especially for monoclonal antibodies.
As Lonza is involved in production of finished medicinal products, Clare Arnold the section leader described the requirements for current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP). She emphasised the need for setting and testing against, specifications of raw materials, intermediate products and finished products, particularly the absence of the bacterial toxin used in the processing. Clare also mentioned other requirements such as contamination control, including clean room requirements and personnel training and conduct.
Visitors were split into groups for a tour of the non-cGMP laboratories. They were taken round the flask culture labs, the 10 litre bioreactor rooms, the pilot plant and the purification and analytical development areas.
This was a most successful meeting and the branch would like to thank all the Lonza staff who gave up their evening to make it possible.
Stephen Lewis CBiol MSB
Orchid walk at The Holies Streatley with Dr Michael Keith Lucas
16 June 2013
Following forecasts, which initially promised heavy rain for the afternoon, it was good to see a distinct improvement on the day as we gathered in the car park at The Holies. We were given fair warning that, like so many plants this year, the orchids were rather late so there was some uncertainty about how much we would see. However, Michael’s encyclopaedic knowledge of plant species more than made up for that – I for one would not have suspected just how many different varieties of grass grew in the area and how attractive many of them are.
Orchids were limited to the common spotted variety but they were there in numbers. Other distractions included a mating pair of common blue butterflies. The latter part of the walk, through very mature woodland led to some spectacular views over the Thames Valley.
All in all, a very pleasant afternoon and one which, for a number of us, provided an introduction to a particularly attractive area of the countryside and one which I am sure we will revisit.
Roger Holdsworth MSB
Mad cows and mobile phones – whose science is it anyway? Professor Colin Blakemore
16 October 2012
We were very privileged to have Professor Colin Blakemore give a lecture at the Health Protection Agency, Oxfordshire.
Professor Blakemore is an emeritus professor of neuroscience at Oxford but is now based in London at the School of Advanced Study where he is professor of neuroscience and philosophy. Prior to Oxford he was based in Cambridge and he has had held various advisory committee appointments over the years as well as being a Fellow of the Royal Society.
In his lecture Colin discussed how public understanding of science has progressed over the last couple of decades. His first example was the BSE scandal as a failure of risk communication. He described how the scientific uncertainties were insufficiently recognised and the lack of clear evidence of a public risk was taken as no risk. The public interpreted this as a failure of science and this is when the public began to lose interest in science.
He then described the rise of the public understanding movement as communication of science became a duty of scientists themselves, and how various reports to government highlighted this topic. He noted several initiatives like National Science Week and science clubs to encourage science communication.
Professor Blakemore briefly discussed the importance of trust and in whom the public place their trust i.e. doctors and clergy. He mentioned the importance of familiarity and visibility as important factors in trust.
He mentioned the pros and cons of science involvement with the pros including: authority of evidence, revealing the process of science and policing the media. Some of the disadvantages include showmanship, abuse of privilege and conflict with the normal career path.
He gave other examples of media occurrences of scientific issues, such as stem cells, and mobile phones. He also discussed animal research and the impact of public protests.
He concluded his talk by stating that science can be good for society, that there is a positive association with scientific advances and progression especially relating to human health. He noted that there is an increasing positive image of scientists as experts in their fields and that the overall trust of academics is increasing.
All in all, the lecture was extremely interesting and Professor Blakemore engaged the audience with his easy-going manner.