1940 to 1949 Development of penicillin as a drug
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin’s antibacterial properties as penicillium mould had contaminated one of his culture dishes and he noticed that bacteria around the mould had been killed. He named the substance penicillin, after the mould he found it in. But it was not until Sir Ernst Chain and Lord Florey’s Medical Research Council (MRC) supported work during World War II that it became possible to mass produce the drug. They purified and extracted penicillin, enlisting the help of pharmaceutical companies to treat many different bacterial diseases – crucially treating wounded soldiers on the front line in World War II.
Sir Alexander, Lord Florey and Sir Ernst won the 1945 Nobel Prize for this work.
1940 to 1949 Randomised controlled trial design pioneered
MRC scientists developed what is today the gold standard for clinical trial design while testing streptomycin to treat pulmonary tuberculosis. In a 2009 British Medical Journal video, former MRC Chief Executive Professor Sir Colin Blakemore speaks to Sir John Crofton, who led the MRC streptomycin trial, about the importance of randomisation and blinding in clinical trials, and how it has helped to make medicine more evidence-based.
During our centenary year we celebrated MRC’s pioneering role in developing randomised clinical trial methods, and a substantial programme of clinical trials, with a BBC London News item, a BBC Radio 4 programme and a series of short films about clinical trials produced by MRC’s Clinical Trials Unit.
1946 First ever British cohort study begins
The MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) study has followed the lives of a group of people born in one particular week in 1946. Since then it has taught us much about the influences of growth, health and environment in early life on adult chronic disease risk.
1947 Influenza monitoring centre set up at NIMR
In 1947 an influenza monitoring centre was set up at MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) to monitor flu strains worldwide. Now part of The Francis Crick Institute, it is at the heart of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) network of influenza surveillance centres and its scientists’ work on flu vaccine composition has had a major impact on human health worldwide. Over the years, work on the virus’s structure by Sir John Skehel and Dr Steve Gamblin has led to a more detailed understanding of the flu virus and the mechanism of antiviral drugs. In 2009 the WHO Centre at NIMR formed a key part of the international effort to counter the H5N1 ‘swine flu’ epidemic.
1952 Nobel for inventing partition chromatography to separate mixtures
Dr Archer Martin at MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), along with Dr Richard Synge, won the Nobel Prize in 1952 for inventing the process for separating mixtures of substances. In its simplest form of filter-paper chromatography, a drop containing a mixture of substances is placed onto a piece of filter paper. The paper soaks the mixture and the components separate according to how well they dissolve.
The fundamental analytical technique of gas chromatography – which allows scientists to separate and analyse mixtures of chemical vapours – arose from this work and was also developed at the NIMR.
1952 X-ray crystallography image of DNA taken giving first clues to its structure
Professor Raymond Gosling, then a student working under the supervision of Dr Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London, took an x-ray crystallography photograph of DNA – known as Photo 51 – which revealed crucial details of DNA’s structure.
1952 MRC scientist scales world’s sixth highest mountain to prepare for Everest
Griffith Pugh, an MRC scientist at MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research and a skilled climber, accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on his famous 1953 ascent of Everest. He was commissioned ahead of the expedition to study nutrition, acclimatisation, equipment and the effects of supplementary oxygen on climbers at high altitudes by climbing Cho Oyu the year before, and his research contributed to the success of the Everest expedition.
1952 Discovery of thyroid hormone T3
Dr Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers of MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research, discovered the thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3), earning her worldwide recognition. At the time, L-thryoxine (T4) was the only known thyroid hormone. By analysing the plasma of patients with thyroid diseases, where levels of thyroid hormone levels in the blood are disrupted, they detected the presence of T3 using radioactive iodine. T4 and T3 play an important role in the body’s control of metabolism. T3 is used to treat and diagnose thyroid diseases, such as thyroid cancer or hyperthyroidism.
1953 Structure of DNA unravelled
Work by Dr James Watson, Professor Francis Crick, Professor Maurice Wilkins and Dr Rosalind Franklin revealed that the molecular structure of DNA is a double helix. Professor Crick and Dr Watson of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Professor Wilkins of the MRC Biophysics Research Unit won the 1962 Nobel Prize for this work, considered one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century. DNA encodes genetic information. DNA is a large chain molecule made up of many building blocks that interact to form a long, spiralling molecule with a double ‘backbone’. Nitrogen-containing compounds, called bases, protrude from the two halves of the backbone and link together in pairs so that the whole molecule is like a zip.
1953 Physical activity cuts the risk of heart disease
After the war, cases of heart disease were rising but no one knew why. By comparing the records of heart disease from people in different jobs, Professor Jerry Morris demonstrated that people with less active jobs were more likely to suffer heart problems. In particular, he found that bus drivers had a higher risk of having a heart attack than the conductors working alongside them – despite being from similar backgrounds. The difference was down to their working behaviour: bus conductors tended to walk hundreds of steps every day, whereas the drivers would be sitting in their seats for hours at a time.
1953 Nobel for discovery of the citric acid cycle
Sir Hans Krebs, who was Director of MRC’s Cell Metabolism Research Unit from 1945 to 1967, received a 1953 Nobel Prize for uncovering the series of chemical reactions that take place inside most plants, animals, fungi and some bacteria. The citric acid cycle reactions involve the breakdown of proteins, fats and carbohydrates into much smaller molecules that can be used as building materials for the cell.
1956 Smoking causes cancer
Sir Richard Doll and Sir Austin Bradford Hill studied 40,000 British doctors and showed that the death rate from lung cancer among heavy smokers was 20 times the rate in non-smokers, providing definitive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.
1957 Discovery of interferon
Dr Alick Isaacs and Dr Jean Lindenmann from MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research noticed that heat-inactivated flu viruses interfered with the growth of live flu viruses. They discovered that this effect was caused by the release of a protein, which they named interferon. The pair gained worldwide recognition for their discovery. Today, interferon proteins are used to treat hepatitis, cancer and multiple sclerosis.
1958 Determining the building blocks that make up insulin
Dr Frederick Sanger determined the entire sequence of the 51 building blocks – called amino acids – in the protein insulin, and showed how they are linked together. Insulin is an important hormone needed to control blood sugar levels. But Dr Sanger’s methods are applicable to all proteins and his work showed that they have specific structures. His method involved separating the different fragments of the protein on filter paper and moving them with an electric current according to their electrical charge. This created a unique pattern on the paper which Dr Sanger called a ‘fingerprint’. Dr Sanger won his first Nobel Prize for this work.
1959 First protein structure identified
Myoglobin was the first protein to have its 3D structure determined, closely followed by haemoglobin, the blood’s main oxygen transporter. In 1962, Dr Max Perutz and Sir John Kendrew at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology were awarded a Nobel prize for their 25 years’ work to determine the structures of these proteins as well as other proteins like the immunoglobulins (antibodies). The scientists used the way that different proteins cause X-rays to change direction to produce unique patterns that indicated their structures.
MRC runs an annual science writing competition named after Max Perutz, who was a keen and talented communicator, inspiring students to use everyday language to share their research with the people whose lives are improved by their work.
1960 to 1969 Discovery of cryobiology
Described as the ‘mother of cryobiology’, Audrey Smith discovered how to store biological material at low temperature, pioneering techniques for the freezing of sperm, blood, bone marrow, corneas and many other tissues. Freezing of sperm, eggs and embryos is now a key part of many IVF programmes.
1960 to 1969 Clinical trials of radiotherapy for cancer
MRC scientists began extensive trials in the 1960s to test radiotherapy as a treatment for a number of cancers. Today around four in ten cancer patients have radiotherapy.
1960 Nobel for skin graft breakthrough
A Nobel Prize was awarded to the MRC National Institute for Medical Research’s Sir Peter Medawar for his discovery of the ability of a living thing to overcome its normal tendency to reject another individual’s organs or tissue – acquired immune tolerance. Sir Peter’s finding came from his studies of skin grafting to treat soldiers with burns in World War II. Using rabbits, he showed that the rejection of skin grafts was an immune response. He proved that this response could be avoided if, early on in life, animals were exposed to the tissue that would later be grafted.
The work gave surgeons the confidence that the problem of rejection of organs and tissue could be solved by tackling the immune response.
Watch a video featuring Medawar produced by MRC’s Centre for Transplantation.
1961 Discovery of X-inactivation
While studying the effects of radiation on DNA in the early 1960s, Dr Mary Lyon discovered that one of two copies of the X-chromosome in women can be inactivated. This explained the absence of symptoms in female carriers of inherited diseases associated with this chromosome such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and colour-blindness, which affect mainly men.
MRC’s world-renowned centre for mouse genetics at Harwell was named the Mary Lyon Centre in recognition of her important contributions to research in mammalian genetics.