Two new linked projects at the University of Sheffield aim to provide both the technology and the multi-stranded research expertise needed to help address some of the key challenges of infectious diseases.
The Florey Institute for Host-Pathogen Interactions – named after the late Sir Howard Florey, the Sheffield professor of pathology who carried out the first clinical trials of penicillin – now focuses on the devastating impact of two bacteria in particular.
Staphylococcus aureus, notably in its methicillin-resistant form MRSA, is responsible for thousands of community and hospital-acquired infections every year. An even more significant threat, Streptococcus pneumoniae, is the most common cause of pneumonia, which still accounts for millions of deaths worldwide. With growing concerns about the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, new thinking about ways to combat them is urgently required.
The Florey has already drawn on extensive existing expertise within Sheffield. But it ramped things up a gear, even before its formal launch earlier this year, by issuing a call for PhD students to switch to working in this field. It is committed to a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together microbiologists, physical scientists, engineers and mathematicians, and also bridges the gap between academic researchers and clinicians working in Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, incorporating one of the largest regional infectious disease units in the UK.
Although the researchers are currently distributed across the campus, in the longer term the Florey would like to “put them in contiguous spaces”, said co-director David Dockrell, professor of infectious diseases. He also hopes to develop the institute into “a leading international hub”, building on a network of universities in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Bonn, Boston and Nebraska that already offer programmes to co-host graduate students.
The Florey has adopted a three-pronged approach to combating infectious diseases. Researchers devote their efforts to finding new (or repurposed) antimicrobials and possible new vaccines; none currently exists for S. aureus. They will also give an unusual degree of attention to the host side, looking at how healthy people generally avoid contracting diseases and how the immune system can be boosted.
New microscopy tools offer hope
Yet since “our understanding of pathogens and their hosts is to some extent limited by technology”, explained Professor Dockrell, this approach also requires the support of the university’s parallel Imagine: Imaging Life project, which also launched this year and “offers the tools to help us ask the next generation of questions”.
Imagine’s co-director Simon Foster, professor of molecular microbiology, agreed that recent developments in microscopy provide “about 10-fold better resolution than before” and so “open up a whole new realm of biology previously hidden behind the resolution”. Separation between cells can now be clearly visualised, rather than guessed at through “a fuzzy penumbra”. Interactions can thus be studied at a much finer level of detail, where findings “often don’t match what we’ve been trained to think”, Professor Foster said.
So the potential for new insights to feed into the Florey research programme is immense. Yet commercially available systems of super-resolution microscopy are not always well adapted to the specific needs of biologists.
To get around this problem, Imagine has secured funding of more than £6 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Wolfson Foundation and the university itself to purchase cutting-edge equipment, most recently two new super-resolution fluorescent microscopes. These require very careful instalment on bedrock to avoid even the slightest vibrations. More significantly, however, they require a multidisciplinary team to take best advantage of what they have to offer.
“The questions are set by biologists,” explained Professor Foster, “and they provide the framework for technological development”. It is physicists who “adapt and develop the base technologies – they have to be quite bespoke for our needs”. Finally, as they begin to observe structures that have never been seen before, “chemists have to create new probes to label them”.
The new imaging facilities will enable Sheffield researchers not only “to ask questions we couldn’t ask before” but also to set a benchmark for others to emulate, since “now everybody will have to adopt this sort of technology as otherwise they will be using outdated data”. With that will come major new opportunities to fight the terrible diseases that cause such immense suffering across the globe.
£6m funding for Imagine: Imaging Life, which will work in tandem with the new Florey Institute
University of Huddersfield
A lecturer has set up a mental health social enterprise. Andrew Clifton, senior lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Huddersfield, set up the Chatterbox Café – which will be accommodated on a pilot basis within the university – to provide a space for those with mental health issues to chat with like-minded people. “But everyone is welcome, whether it be family members, friends, carers, service users, the general public or students,” he said.
Manchester Metropolitan University
A university is to take over a sports facility from Manchester City FC. The football club has passed management of the Platt Lane Complex in Fallowfield to Manchester Metropolitan University as it relocates its training facilities to the City Football Academy at the Etihad Campus. The deal, part of a collaboration agreement between the three parties, will see MMU maintain the same sports and fitness offerings currently provided at Platt Lane, while its students will be able to begin using the complex from January.
University of Bristol
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University of Winchester
Research has suggested that young children can identify when someone is pretending to be a fictional person such as Father Christmas, but continue to believe that the character is real. Louise Bunce, senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Winchester, worked with a Harvard University peer on the study, which interviewed adults and children aged three to five. While three-quarters of the children could identify an impersonator, two-thirds of the three- and four-year-olds continued to believe that the fantasy character was real.
University College Birmingham
Specialist hair and media make-up students held a creative showcase at a Birmingham theatre to showcase their skills in front of a live audience. The University College Birmingham event at the Crescent Theatre saw students present four hair and make-up themes, including “Twisted Fairy Tales”. Steve Underhill, specialist hair and media make-up lecturer, said: “Working with such a large group – nearly 80 students – I watched them overcome lots of obstacles to stage a fantastic showcase for themselves as make-up artists.”
A former vice-chancellor of Cranfield University has encouraged engineers to emphasise their creative side. Speaking at the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s annual IET Mountbatten Memorial Lecture last month, Sir John O’Reilly, director-general of knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, praised his former institution’s Centre for Competitive Creative Design as a prime example of how the arts can influence engineering innovation. “Engineering and technology is an increasingly diverse and creative domain,” he said.
The Open University
Scientists from the Space Instrumentation Group at The Open University have teamed up with aerospace company BAE Systems and the Ministry of Defence to develop a piece of safety equipment for Royal Navy submarines. An atmosphere monitoring device, based on a shoebox-sized instrument developed by OU scientists for the European Space Agency’s recent Rosetta mission, will be used on Navy vessels in future.
University of Surrey
Comedian Ruby Wax described her battle with depression at a recent ceremony in which a university joined a nationwide campaign to tackle the stigma attached to mental illness. The University of Surrey signed a pledge with the Time to Change programme, run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. At the event Ms Wax spoke to Jim Al-Khalili, professor of public engagement in science, about the value of techniques such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.