2000 Human genome sequenced
The first draft of the complete human genome sequence was published, under the direction of Sir John Sulston at the Cambridge Sanger Centre.
2001 Statins cut risk of strokes and heart attacks
Results of the world’s largest trial into the effects of statins showed that routine use of these cholesterol-lowering drugs in patients at high risk of heart disease reduced the incidence of heart attacks and strokes by a third, even in people with normal cholesterol levels.
2001 Nobel for how processes involved in cell division are coordinated
Sir Paul Nurse and Dr Tim Hunt along with US researcher Dr Leland Hartwell, won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for identifying elements of the cell cycle. The cell cycle coordinates processes involved in cell division and growth. Dr Hunt worked on sea urchins and discovered proteins that are made and destroyed during the cell cycle. Sir Paul found the cdc2 gene, which controls cell division. These discoveries increased our understanding of cell cycle control, where defects can lead to the alterations seen in cancer cells. Their research was supported by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, now Cancer Research UK, and the MRC.
2002 Nobel for how genes regulate organ development and programmed cell death
Dr Sydney Brenner, Professor Robert Horvitz and Sir John Sulston (of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology) won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work into how genes regulate organ development and how cells are programmed to die; critical knowledge for the understanding of disease. By studying the nematode worm (C. elegans) they identified key genes in development. The worm has a short lifetime and is transparent, making it possible to follow cell division directly under the microscope.
The researchers induced gene mutations and linked them to specific effects on organ development, as well as finding corresponding genes in humans. Take part in our live neuroscience study spotting eggs laid by C. elegans in Worm Watch Lab.
2002 Newborn hearing screening programme put in place
Researchers at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research showed that a technique developed in the 1970s could be used to screen newborn babies’ hearing, leading to a national screening programme. The technique is based on detecting and analysing ‘otoacoustic emissions’, or noises that the ear makes in response to sounds. The NHS newborn hearing screening programme, introduced in 2002, improves the early detection of hearing impairment in babies. This enables earlier and more effective treatment for the 900 babies born each year in the UK with permanent hearing loss.
2002 Hib disease eradicated in The Gambia
MRC research in The Gambia led to a national vaccination programme that completely wiped out Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) disease, one of the main causes of pneumonia and meningitis in children in developing countries.
2002 Magnesium sulphate halves eclampsia risk
MRC scientists showed that magnesium sulphate halves the risk of eclampsia, a serious complication of pregnancy that is characterised by convulsions and can result in death of the mother or baby.
2003 How Spanish flu jumped from birds to humans
Investigators at the National Institute for Medical Research used X-ray crystallography to study the structure of the Spanish flu virus and solved the 85-year-old mystery of how it caused the world’s most lethal flu outbreak. They discovered that the epidemic, which killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide, was triggered when a bird flu virus jumped the species barrier into humans.
2005 Test for pre-leukaemic syndrome in Down’s patients
MRC research led to the recommendation that newborns with Down’s syndrome should have their blood cell counts tested to screen for a condition which can lead to leukaemia. Most of the 750 babies born each year with Down’s syndrome now have this test.
2006 Maternal vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy is linked with poor bone health in children
A nutritional survey of thousands of pregnant women and their offspring carried out at the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton has found that the poorer the mother’s vitamin D levels during pregnancy, the lower her child’s bone mass tended to be, and the greater their risk of bone fracture in later life. Pregnant women are now routinely advised to take vitamin D supplements.
2007 Discovery that thin people can be dangerously fat on the inside
Research using MRI by Professor Jimmy Bell at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre revealed that many people who look outwardly slim and fit are actually carrying an unhealthy cushion of fat around their internal organs. Carrying such fat could result in serious conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, in later life and suggests that lifestyle changes to reduce disease risk should include physical activity as well as a healthy diet.
Watch our video featuring Professor Bell explaining how his team makes MRI fat maps of the body.
2007 First gene variation increasing the risk of obesity discovered
MRC researchers identified the obesity-risk FTO variant gene after undertaking a genome-wide search for type 2 diabetes-susceptibility genes. The researchers found that this gene variant predisposes the carrier to diabetes through its effect on body mass index. The researchers discovered single ‘letter’ variations in the genetic code of the FTO gene and showed that those with one copy of the obesity-risk variant were on average 1.6kg heavier than those without the variant; those with two copies, 16% of the population, were 3kg heavier. MRC-led researchers showed in 2013 that these gene variants affected circulating levels of appetite-enhancing hormone ghrelin.
Find out more about the MRC’s research on obesity.
2008 Markers for early detection of cancer found
MRC Cancer Cell Unit scientists have discovered that proteins in the body called mini-chromosome maintenance proteins (MCMs) can flag up early-stage cancers or precancerous cells at risk of developing into tumours. MCM testing is now being developed for the early detection of cervical, lung and colorectal cancers. In a related development, Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald is working on an inexpensive and simple cell-sampling device and antibody test for a precursor condition for oesophageal cancer. This could soon lead to a national screening programme to pick up cancer before it’s too late to save patients’ lives – in 2016 the test began to be used by GPs.
2009 Prioritising antiretroviral therapy over blood tests for HIV monitoring saves more lives
A major trial carried out in rural Africa showed that more HIV patients could be treated safely and effectively for no additional cost by focusing funding on antiretroviral therapy (ART) monitored by trained health workers rather than on expensive blood tests. You can watch a short film about the DART trial and read about HIV therapy in Africa.
2009 Molecular structure and function of the ribosome solved
Dr Venki Ramakrishnan at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology won a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for showing how ribosomes, the tiny protein-making factories inside cells, function at the atomic level. This research has shed light on how the ribosome decodes instructions from DNA and on how antibiotics work, by showing how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes. This information is critical for developing new antibiotics. Modern antibiotics work by blocking the function the bacterial ribosomes upon which bacteria depend upon for survival.
2009 Screening test for abdominal aortic aneurysm introduced
Research at the MRC Biostatistics Unit provided most of the evidence for cost-effective screening programmes now in place in England, Scotland and the US for abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), a condition which affects around 80,000 older men in the UK. The test is expected to halve the number of deaths from AAA over 10 years.
2010 Antibodies can attack viruses from inside cells
Possible new ways of treating viral infections like the common cold and winter vomiting bug were uncovered by Dr Leo James and team from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, following their discovery that antibodies can attack viruses from inside our cells as well as outside of them. The scientists showed that when a virus gains entry to a cell, antibodies trigger a response, led by a protein called TRIM21, which pulls the virus into a ‘waste disposal system’ used by the cell to get rid of unwanted material. Higher levels of TRIM21 appear to make this process more effective, suggesting a new target for antiviral drugs.
2010 Cooling prevents brain damage in newborns
A brain cooling treatment trialled by Professor Denis Azzopardi and Professor David Edwards at Imperial College London shows that by cooling the body by three degrees, brain damage can be prevented in newborns starved of oxygen during birth.
2010 UK Biobank completes its recruitment of 500,000 people
UK Biobank, established by the MRC, the Wellcome Trust, the Department of Health, the Scottish Government and the Northwest Regional Development Agency is a major national health resource which aims to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses. UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people aged between 40 and 69 years between 2006 and 2010 from across the country to take part in this project. They have undergone assessments, provided blood, urine and saliva samples stored in a large freezer for future analysis, given detailed information about themselves, and agreed to have their health followed. Over many years this will build into a powerful resource to help scientists discover why some people develop particular diseases and others do not.
2010 Bowel screening test developed to save 3,000 lives each year
The flexi-scope bowel cancer screening test for the over-65s was developed with MRC and Cancer Research UK funding, allowing doctors to both detect early stages of bowel cancer and remove precancerous polyps to prevent bowel cancer from developing. By nipping the disease in the bud, this test is expected to save 3,000 lives each year in the UK.
2011 Ground-breaking discovery in treatment of African children with shock
The MRC Clinical Trials Unit’s two-year FEAST (Fluid Expansion As Supportive Therapy) trial showed that rapidly giving large quantities of fluid as a resuscitation treatment to African children suffering with shock from severe infections does not save lives and is in fact harmful. It is hoped that the trial will avert thousands of deaths a year by showing that survival rates increased when fluids were given more slowly.
2012 Smartphone app that can diagnose eye disease
MRC-funded researcher Dr Andrew Bastawrous collaboratively developed Peek, a portable eye examination kit that uses smartphone technology to undertake eye tests and diagnose vision problems in remote locations in low-income countries. 90% of the world’s 39 million blind people live in low-income countries where there is little or no access to ophthalmologists. The kit is being trialled alongside an MRC study of 5,000 people in Kenya during 2013-14.
Dr Bastawrous won the MRC’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award in 2012 with an article about his research.
2012 Nitric oxide studies give clues for sepsis treatment
Nitric oxide is an important cellular signalling molecule involved in many physiological and pathological processes. MRC scientists have undertaken research on the role of nitric oxide in various diseases such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. During blood poisoning — sepsis — the body makes vast quantities of nitric oxide, causing a rapid decline in blood pressure and subsequent failure of vital organs. Researchers at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre discovered a molecule that selectively reduces nitric oxide in the blood vessels in cases of sepsis. The current survival rate for sepsis is approximately 50% and has not significantly progressed in decades; the identification of a candidate drug for its treatment may be the first steps in improving these odds.
2013 Nobel for devising computer simulations to understand chemical processes
The 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Professor Michael Levitt Professor Martin Karplus Professor Arieh Warshel, all three of whom spent time at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. They devised computer simulations to understand chemical processes, laying the foundations for new kinds of drugs. Today, scientists routinely use modelling to understand how different biological molecules interact, to probe the mechanisms of disease and to design new drugs.
2013 3D structure of stress receptor identified
Heptares Therapeutics was formed in 2007 to develop pioneering research involving G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) from the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology and National Institute of Medical Research. GPCRs provide an almost universal mechanism for transmitting signals into and out of cells. A large proportion — around 25 to 30% — of drugs marketed across all conditions act on GPCRs, making these probably the most important known drug targets. In 2013 the company identified the three-dimensional structure of CRF1, the protein receptor in the brain which controls our response to stress. This will help scientists develop drugs for the treatment of depression and anxiety.
2013 3D structure of primitive brain tissue grown in lab
An international team, including researchers at the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh used stem cells to grow a three-dimensional structure in the lab resembling primitive human brain tissue. This provides a unique new laboratory tool for studying human-specific features of brain development and neurological disorders in a way that has not been possible using animal models. Model systems like these are likely to become increasingly important for early testing of new therapies before they progress to human trials.
Read more about how this brain tissue was grown.
2013 Preventing neurodegeneration
Researchers at the MRC Toxicology Unit, who in 2012 identified a major cellular process leading to brain cell death in mice, showed that an orally administered drug-like compound can block this process and prevent neurodegeneration in mice. The team, led by Professor Giovanna Mallucci, showed that the build-up of misfolded proteins in the brains of mice with prion disease over-activates a natural defence mechanism in cells. The production of new proteins,including those essential for nerve cell survival, gets switched off, causing brain cell death. In 2017, the team discovered two repurposed drugs that block this ‘off’ switch, restoring protein production and stopping brain cell death.
2013 Discovery of gene regulating alcohol consumption
At the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit, a team led by Professor Howard Thomas from Imperial College London discovered a gene that regulates alcohol consumption and that when faulty, can cause excessive drinking. The researchers showed that mice with one of two single base-pair point mutations to the Gabrb1 gene overwhelmingly preferred drinking alcohol over water, choosing to consume almost 85% of their daily fluid as alcohol. Despite the complexity of alcohol addiction, the results of this long-running project suggest that a genetic component might be involved.
2014 Fully functional immune organ grown from lab-created cells
Scientists grow a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting lab-created cells. The advance could aid future development of ‘lab-grown’ replacement organs. Researchers from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine took cells called fibroblasts from a mouse embryo and ‘reprogrammed’ them into an unrelated type of cell – specialised thymus cells. The thymus is a vital immune system organ. Mixed with other thymus cell types and transplanted into mice, these cells formed a replacement organ of the same structure and function as a healthy adult thymus.
2014 Spinal cord tissue grown in a dish
Scientists grow a ‘seed’ of spinal cord tissue in a dish which could pave the way for future treatment of degenerative conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy and other neuromuscular conditions. A team at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research and the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine coaxed mouse and human embryonic stem cells to grow into specialised cells that go on to form spinal cord, muscle and bone tissue in the growing embryo. The method offers a powerful tool to study in a dish how diseases progress in the body.
2014 World’s first production of artificial enzymes
Researchers from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology created the world’s first artificial enzymes using synthetic biology, which could provide a starting point for a new generation of drugs and diagnostics. DNA and RNA are the building blocks of life, storing all of our genetic information and passing it on to future generations. But in 2012 the group created alternative molecules, called XNAs, that can also store genetic information and evolve through natural selection. They used these molecules to build four different types of synthetic enzymes – ‘XNAzymes’ capable of optimising simple reactions.
2014 Nobel for discovering brain’s ‘inner GPS’
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Professor John O’Keefe, along with Professor May-Britt Moser and Professor Edvard I Moser, for their discovery of cells which make up a positioning system, or the brain’s ‘inner GPS’. By combining Professor O’Keefe’s MRC-funded discovery in 1971 of ‘place cells’, with the work of his former postdoc students in 2005, they succeeded in linking cellular information to cognitive processing. They discovered cells that organise into a specific mathematical arrangement and generate a coordinate system. This behaviour helps explain how individual brain cells create a map of space and help us navigate the environment around us.
2014 Study sheds new light on how brain develops
By observing ‘resting state’ networks in the brains of babies born between 29 and 43 weeks using MRI scans, researchers from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre found that these networks were at the equivalent level of an adult by the time the babies were ready to be born. These ‘resting state networks’ are connected systems of nerve cells in the brain that are constantly active, even during sleep. That they have been found developed in newborns means they may provide a foundation for conscious introspection, and has challenged previous theories about brain development and activity.
2015 Genetic links to autistic traits discovered
Researchers have used an MRC-funded Twins Development Study to find that both autism spectrum disorder and milder autistic traits are caused largely by genetic factors. The study included twins who had not yet been diagnosed but with higher levels of autism traits, low-risk twins, and those with diagnosed autism spectrum disorder. The study found that associations between identical twins were higher than in non-identical twins, resulting in heritability estimates of 56-95%. The study found very little evidence for shared environmental effects.
2015 Screening for ovarian cancer save lives
Results from the world’s biggest ovarian cancer screening trial suggest that screening based on an annual blood test may help reduce the number of women dying from the disease by around 20%. The study showed a reduction in deaths from ovarian cancer between participants that were screened and those that were not tested, which became significant after the first seven years of the trial. This allows us to be almost certain that screening reduces the number of women dying from ovarian cancer by up to 40%.
2015 Alcohol consumption in pregnancy
Research by an MRC-funded PhD student changed official guidelines for pregnancy by discovering that even light drinking during pregnancy has increased risks. Dr Camilla Nykjaer used data from the Caffeine and Reproductive Health (CARE) Study, which collected questionnaires from more than 1,300 women. Assessing alcohol consumption before pregnancy and for the first three trimesters, she found that even light drinking in the first trimester can increase the risk of premature births.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Department of Health updated guidance for pregnant women to clarify that no level of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy.
2015 Liver cells grown from stem cells in a lab
Scientists from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine developed a new technique for growing liver cells from stem cells, paving the way for new treatments for patients with liver damage. The new technique for growing cells uses synthetic versions of a naturally occurring molecule called laminins. The team found that growing stem cells on laminins turned them into organised liver cells more efficiently than previous methods. The resulting cells were similar to liver cells freshly isolated from a donor organ. The advance could in future help the development of ‘lab-grown’ replacement organs.
Read more about our work into stem cells helping support liver research on our blog.
2015 Computer games help reduce negative emotional visual memory
Research from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit shows that playing a visually demanding computer game may reduce the occurrence of intrusive visual memories over time. Repeated intrusive visual memories is a common trait of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example someone who has been in a road accident might continue to re-experience the moment of impact. Participants who played Tetris after having reactivated memories saw significantly fewer intrusive memories over the following week than the control group. Taking part in an engaging visuospatial task after memory reactivation may create a ‘cognitive blockade’, which can help inform the development of psychological treatment techniques.
2016 Animal feed antibiotic ban
A UK-China research collaboration has helped inform a ban on the use of the antibiotic colistin as an additive to animal feed in China. In 2015 the team identified a gene called MCR-1, allowing bacteria to survive colistin treatment in animals and humans. MCR-1 is a ‘mobile gene’ which can be transferred to other bacteria, making them resistant too. Following their discovery, the team worked with the Chinese Government to discuss the risks and impact on animals and humans. As of 1 November 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture banned the use of colistin as a feed additive for animals.
2016 WHO roll out of pneumococcal vaccine
An affordable new formulation of pneumococcal vaccine has been approved by the EU and pre-qualified by the WHO based on results of trials conducted at MRC Unit The Gambia. The trials tested a more cost-effective vaccine, containing four doses, rather than one; it offers a 75% reduction in temperature-controlled supply chain and storage requirements. The results showed that the new formulation was as safe, tolerable and immunogenic as the already licensed single-dose syringe.
Read an interview with Clinical Trials Coordinator Dr Olubukola Idoko on our blog.
2016 Study finds over 100 new genetic links to schizophrenia
Professor Michael O’Donovan, deputy director of the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, led a study and identified 128 genetic regions associated with schizophrenia; over 80 not previously linked to the condition. The strong association among genes expressed in the brain, and in tissues, can now pave the way for well-informed experiments that will unlock the biology of this condition and ultimately, new treatments.
2017 Structure of Alzheimer’s protein revealed
The atomic structure of tau, one of the two types of abnormal proteins found in Alzheimer’s disease, was revealed by researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology using a technique called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Understanding the structures of these filaments will be key in developing drugs to prevent their formation. In the brains of Alzheimer’s patients there are two types of abnormal ‘amyloid’ forms of protein. Tau forms filaments inside nerve cells and amyloid-beta forms filaments outside cells. Tau lesions appear to have a stronger correlation to the loss of cognitive ability in patients with the disease.
2017 First genome editing in human embryos
Dr Kathy Niakan and her team at The Francis Crick Institute gained the first ever licence to use a new gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 in human embryos in 2016. In 2017 they used the technique to reveal that a key gene, OCT4, is needed for correct formation of the early human embryo, known as a blastocyst, during the first few days of development. The finding will help scientists better understand the biology of our early development, including the causes of early miscarriage.
2017 Nobel for revolutionary microscopy technique
Based at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Dr Richard Henderson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, with Professor Jacques Dubochet and Dr Joachim Frank, for developing cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). The technique enables scientists to see the structure of biomolecules by firing a beam of electrons at proteins in a frozen solution. Compared to X-ray crystallography, where proteins are crystallised then hit with X-rays, cryo-EM can reveal the structure of a wider range of proteins, including those that cannot easily form into crystals.
2018 Treating age-related macular degeneration with stem cells
Two patients with severe wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have regained their sight following a stem cell treatment developed by Professor Pete Coffey at UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology. Vision loss in AMD is caused by damage to support cells at the back of the eye, found behind the light sensing cells of the retina. Professor Coffey’s team created a ‘patch’ to replace the damaged cells, made up of embryonic stem cells. In a short operation they placed the patch over the dead cells. Within 12 months, both patients went from being unable to read, to reading with glasses.
2018 Nobel for transforming antibodies into medicines
Professor Sir Greg Winter shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing tools to make pharmaceutical drugs from antibodies – immune system proteins created to destroy foreign invaders. Sir Greg, of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, found ways to select and ‘humanise’ mouse antibodies, unlocking their potential to treat disease. Discovered by fellow MRC scientists in 1975, monoclonal (individual) antibodies bind to specific cells and disease proteins. Sir Greg added selected mouse antibody parts to human antibodies, preventing them from being destroyed by the patient’s immune system. Monoclonal antibody drugs have treated millions of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.