Personal views from University of Bath researchers on the news of the day

Topic: Heath Science & Technology

Is the EU anywhere near getting its own army?

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📥  EU Referendum, Heath Science & Technology

David J Galbreath, University of Bath and Simon J Smith, Staffordshire University

As part of a warning by a group of former military officers that the European Union undermines the UK’s military effectiveness, former General Sir Michael Rose expressed concern at the EU’s plan to set up its own army.

But in a speech on May 9 outlining why the UK would be more secure if it remained in the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron said suggestions of an EU army were “fanciful” and that the UK would veto any suggestion of it.

As Cameron pointed out, there is a significant gap between the rhetoric and reality of the establishment of a fully functional European army.

The creation of a European army is a long way off and by no means inevitable. Even the most supportive nations, such as Germany, would acknowledge this reality.

As defence falls within the intergovernmental sphere of EU law, any single member state can veto its creation ensuring that the prospect of the UK getting dragged into an EU army against its will is zero. In fact, one could argue that the UK remaining inside the EU would do more to prevent an EU army than a Brexit would.



Responding to the O’Neil report on superbugs

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📥  Heath Science & Technology

Dr Ruth Massey, from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University, responds to today's publication of The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance’s report on Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally.

"It has been estimated that superbugs (antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms) will kill someone every three seconds by 2050 unless the world acts now. In response to this the O'Neill Report on "Tackling drug-resistant infections globally" was released today. It proposes 10 intervention strategies that aim to both reduce the demand for antimicrobial drugs, so our current stock of drugs last longer, and also to increase the supply of new antimicrobial drugs effective against superbugs. The focus of this report is very much that this is a global problem that needs addressing at a global level if we are to be successful.

"The report contains some bold proposals such as the need for a test result before a prescription for antibiotic be issued, which will require a major shift in the expectations of patients in many countries. One particularly refreshing proposal is that basic research is critical to our success. Recently much financial support has been directed at strategies or products that are almost fully developed, but all of these required basic research programs to get to this stage. With this report proposing both short and the long term strategies to tackle this problem, we have to hope that governments listen and put the proposals into action."

To find out more about Dr Massey and her work see http://www.bath.ac.uk/bio-sci/contacts/academics/ruth_massey/.


Making sense of “junk” DNA and RNA “noise”

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📥  Heath Science & Technology


Our DNA is what makes us who we are and the central dogma underpinning genetics is that genes are encoded by DNA, the code is copied into RNA which is then decoded to build proteins.    When the genome was sequenced it was discovered that only a small proportion of our DNA (2%) encodes genes and rest is noncoding and was termed “junk” DNA.

We now know that the “junk” DNA is not inert.  Some of it encodes regulatory information that signals when and in which tissue a gene should be expressed.   Large pieces of noncoding DNA are copied (transcribed) into long bits of noncoding RNA, or long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) and these were similarly regarded as mere transcriptional “noise”.  However, it soon became apparent that this “noise” has a function in regulating the expression of coding genes, but whether this is universally true is still under intense debate.  One reason for this uncertainty has been the lack of experimental methods whereby the functions of lncRNA can be tested.  Our study published in Nature Communications has identified one of these lcnRNAs with a dual function- one that monitors the speed that cells go through their cell cycle and other that maintains the shape of cells.

Small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and a protein called Argonaute

To work out what a gene does we can literally knock it out in the lab by using enzymes to cut it out of the DNA.  This ensures that no protein is made and the resulting effect on the cell can be ascribed to the function of the knocked-out gene.  A knockout approach for lncRNA poses a problem because researchers can’t be sure that no other regulatory sequences are also being removed.

A better method is to prevent protein synthesis by degrading the RNA, using a small synthetic RNA molecule. The small interfering RNA (siRNA) approach reduces the amount of RNA produced and is called knock-down (as opposed to knock-out).  A protein called Argonaute 2 (AGO2) is attracted by siRNAs.  It is part of a gang of proteins that chop up and destroy the siRNA-targeted RNA.   We therefore explored whether siRNA could be used to identify functions of a lncRNA known as GNG12-AS1.

Frontend targeting by siRNA inhibits its transcription

Under the microscope GNG12-AS1 RNAs were visible at the site of its transcription and also at various other parts of the DNA. To work out what it was doing at these sites we knocked it down with siRNAs designed to target various regions of the transcript.  We were pleased to find that these siRNAs were remarkably efficient at knocking down GNG12-AS1.  To our surprise we found that siRNAs targeting the frontend of GNG12-AS1 resulted in an increased expression of its neighbouring gene DIRAS3, while siRNAs targeting the middle or tail end had no effect on DIRAS3 expression.  Frontend targeting of GNG12-AS1 recruited AGO2, which chopped up the emerging GNG12-AS1 RNA before it got a chance to complete its transcription.  In contrast backend targeting of GNG12-AS1 allowed it to be transcribed fully, before being chopped up by AGO2.  These results mean that the expression of DIRAS3 gene is normally subdued by its neighbour and when the neighbour is prevented from being transcribed, DIRAS3 can be expressed more readily.  When GNG12-AS1 was chopped up after it had been transcribed, DIRAS3 was still suppressed since it was the transcription of GNG12-AS1 that suppressed it rather that the RNA of GNG12-AS1.

Without GNG12-AS1 cells change shape and migrate faster

Regardless of where we targeted the siRNA to GNG12-AS1, when the level of GNG12-AS1 was reduced, cells underwent morphological changes and started migrating.  By doing a genome-wide expression profile we identified several coding genes that were upregulated when GNG12-AS1 was knocked down/absent.  Bioinformatic analyses predicted that these genes would be involved in tumour metastasis and we confirmed experimentally that the cell migration we observed with GNG12-AS1 knockdown was due to the upregulation of these metastasis-signalling genes.

Coding and noncoding tumour suppressors

DIRAS3 is a well-known tumour suppressor that is often silenced in breast and ovarian cancer.  It suppresses the growth of tumours by slowing the progression of cells through the cell cycle and promoting cell death.  Too much DIRAS3 will prevent normal cells surviving and GNG12-AS1 helps to modulate DIRAS3 at the right level.  In addition to maintaining DIRAS3 levels, GNG12-AS1 has a tumour suppressor role of its own, preventing the expression of a whole network of genes involved in metastasis.  Genes within the metastasis network cause cells to change their shapes, break away from their group and start migrating faster to invade a new site.  So far, we have found that GNG12-AS1 is often silenced or lost together with DIRAS3 in breast cancer.  Next steps will be to see whether this is limited to breast cancer or whether GNG12-AS1 is a tumour suppressor in other cancers as well.  More analysis is required to work out exactly how and where GNG12-AS1 suppresses the network of metastasis genes.

In the near future, so-called transcriptional “noise” may well be exploited to develop more successful, better targeted cancer interventionist therapies.


How the cat got its coat (and other furry tails)

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, The Conversation

From Sylvester in Looney Tunes to Mr Mistoffelees in the 1980s musical, some of the most famous (albeit fictional) cats share a distinctively sharp appearance thanks to their black and white tuxedo-style coats. Cats with skin and fur marked by white patches in this way are known as “bicolour" or “piebald”. Piebaldism is also common in a range of domestic and farm animals including dogs, cows and pigs, deer, horses and appears more rarely in humans. It is caused by a mutation in a gene called “KIT”.

Our team of researchers from the universities of Bath, Edinburgh and Oxford have been working to unlock the mystery of how these animals get their distinctive patterns. We have discovered that the way these striking pigment patterns form is far more random than originally thought. Our findings have implications for the study of a wide range of serious embryonic disorders in humans, including diseases affecting hearing, vision, digestion and the heart.



How technology can create conflict

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, Public Policy

David Galbreath, Professor International Security within the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, will today give evidence to the House of Commons All Parliamentary Group on ‘Global Uncertainties’.

The purpose of the All Parliamentary Group is to inform parliamentarians of the activities of the UK Research Councils in response to global security challenges which help governments, businesses and societies to better predict, detect, prevent and mitigate threats to security.

Professor Galbreath will today give evidence to the House of Commons All Parliamentary Group on ‘Global Uncertainties’.

Professor Galbreath will today give evidence to the House of Commons All Parliamentary Group on ‘Global Uncertainties’.

The nature of conflict has always been connected to the application of technologies. In fact, nearly all social behaviour is. We can understand technology in a broader sense than that of the modern sense of communication or kinetic power. Technology should be understood both in its conceptual forms as well as applied forms. Let us think of the relationship between the way we may seek to broaden horizons on the battlefield and the technologies the give us situational awareness through visual and aural technologies.

The conceptual and applied forms of technologies are non-linear and complex. The reason why it is important to understand the nature of technologies is because the non-linear and complex relationship between concepts and applications has a defining result for conflict whether at the individual or group level. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the ways militaries have sought to detect and destroy them are such examples of how the convergence of science and technologies has a direct impact on a conflict. Techno-science examines this relationship between science and technology and our social behaviour.



The international legal questions raised by drone strike on British citizens

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, The Conversation

The revelation that the British government killed two of its own citizens in Syria using a drone has major legal implications – not only for British people but for the country as a whole.

Questions have been asked about whether prime minister David Cameron had the right to take action in Syria without parliamentary approval back home but there are other issues at stake here – including the UK’s international standing.

Both the US and the UK have used armed drones to target their enemies, but the UK has quite often made a point of distancing itself from the US by asserting that it uses these weapons within a clear legal framework, guided by British and international law.


Does the government's justification for the drone strike in Syria really stack up in legal terms?


Rio 2016: with one year to go, how has Lula’s legacy fared?

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, The Conversation

Dr Bryan Clift is from our Department for Health. This piece was originally written for The Conversation UK.

In August 2016, the Games of the 31st Olympiad will officially open in the Estadio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For the host nation, Rio 2016 is the culmination of a range of political, economic, social, and cultural ambitions.

The foremost advocate of Rio 2016 – former populist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – said of the games during the bid process: “For others it is just another games. For us it will be an unparalleled opportunity.” But whether da Silva’s populist legacy is enough to see the games through to success is open to question.


With 365 days to go until the start of the Rio Olympics will populist former President Lula da Silva legacy be enough to ensure it's a success?



It's not all about aliens – listening project may unveil other secrets of the universe

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, The Conversation

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project got a $100 million boost this week from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. While this may seem like a lot of money to spend on a nearly impossible task, many astronomers welcome the investment. The cash will go some way to help save some observatories from closure and allow astronomers to continue to use the facilities for astrophysics research alongside SETI.



The “Breakthrough Listen” initiative, announced on July 20 at the Royal Society in London, will pay for giant radio telescopes at Green Bank in West Virginia, USA and the Parkes Observatory in Australia to scan the skies for signs of alien communications. The Lick Observatory’s optical telescope in San Jose, California will also join the search with the goal of scanning one million stars in our Milky Way galaxy along with a hundred other nearby galaxies. In the UK, the giant Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank is also involved in SETI programmes.

The funding, to be allocated over a decade, will pay for thousands of hours per year on these facilities compared to the tens of hours usually available to SETI scientists competing with other astronomical programmes. Frank Drake, one of the pioneers of modern SETI and a member of the Breakthrough Listen team, has described previous support for SETI research as patchy. The total worldwide support in recent years has been only about $500,000 from private gifts.



How EU data protection law could interfere with targeted ads


📥  Heath Science & Technology, Public Policy, The Conversation

Professor James Davenport is from our Department of Computer Science. This piece was originally written for The Conversation UK.

The successor to the 20-year-old European data protection directive has inched closer to becoming law, having been approved by the Council of Ministers, which represents each of the 28 EU member states. This has led to howls of anguish from some parts of the computing industry, not just the usual suspects based in the US such as IBM and Amazon, but also European firms such as German software company SAP.



Sometimes it’s hard to be a man

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, The Conversation

Dr Ed Keogh, from the Department of Psychology, is Deputy Director for our Centre for Pain Research.

Men should take better care of themselves. We die at an earlier age than women, despite women suffering more health conditions and making greater use of health services. Life expectancy differences may be different because of biology, but we also know that men engage in riskier activities, including poorer lifestyle choices. Men are more likely to drink excessively and smoke, both of which are associated with serious health conditions and increased hospital admissions.

Most worryingly, men are more likely to commit suicide, where they are three times more likely to take this route – percentages as high as 75% in the UK and 79% in the US have been recorded.

Campaigns such as Men’s Health Week and the seasonal sprouting of facial hair in support of Movember aim to get men more involved in their health. Men are less likely to talk about their health concerns because masculinity is commonly associated with being stoic rather than emotional. But to improve our health it’s time to start talking, and acknowledging pain is a good place to start.

Common pains

Pain is a signal that demands our attention – it tells us to take note and take care. It is common, yet complex in nature, and up to 19% of Europeans are reported to be in chronic pain.

Pain is associated with high levels of disability – the latest figures from the Global Burden of Disease Study group show that lower back pain is associated with the highest years lived with disability. Other types of pain also appear in the top 20, including neck pain (fourth), migraine (sixth), osteoarthritis (13th).

Pain also shows gender-related differences – women report more pain compared to men, are more likely to use analgesics and visit a pain specialist. However, this doesn’t mean men are immune from pain and related disability.

Data from the Health Survey for England in 2011 found 37% of women and 31% of men reported chronic pain, and figures from a recent US study found 21.6% of women and 16.2% of men reported persistent pain (which is frequent pain that lasts for more than three months). Both studies illustrate that men are not far behind in terms of the levels of pain they experience.

Painful silence

Despite the general focus on men’s health through events such as Movember, this has not yet translated to what we specifically know about men’s pain. There are clearly conditions that affect men, where pain may play a role, for example prostatitis, a prostate-related condition that can include pain. Embarrassment around such symptoms may prevent men seeking help.

There are also differences in pain behaviour, in that women report using a wider range of coping techniques, including social support. It is less clear what men do. Reporting pain and suffering is likely to be a problem for some, especially if they believe they should be strong, and not show signs of vulnerability.

Lab studies have shown that gender-based beliefs affect pain reporting, with pain tolerance levels higher in those with a strong masculine identity. But is this effect due to reduced pain sensitivity, or an unwillingness to show pain? Pain can also affect male gender identity, especially if men feel unable to meet expectations about what it is to be male. Pain can affect sexual function, which in turn can affect gender identity and contribute to depression.

Gender differences

While research into men’s pain exists, it is still somewhat limited. We should build on the general interest in men’s health, and see if we can develop it in the context of pain. We still need to discover what the key mechanisms are for explaining why men and women differ in pain.

There is a general reluctance in research to look for sex and gender differences. We are trying to change this through our own studies - we are currently inviting men and women to tell us more about their pain.

There will be important similarities, but differences too, and it is here we need to find out what is specifically relevant to men and women’s pain. It would seem sensible to know whether gender differences in pain are due to a reluctance in men to seek help.

We also need to know whether there are some approaches that are better suited to help men to deal with their pain. For example, can those interested in pain management learn from the men’s health literature, and develop initiatives to help men find better ways to talk about pain? A “men’s sheds” approach, which provides a physical space for men to meet and learn new skills, can be used to reduce isolation and improve health awareness – could be one approach to take.

Ultimately, we need to look beyond the idea that pain is a sign of weakness, and ask how men can use pain to stay fit, healthy, and alive for longer. Frank and open discussions about other notions of masculinity will also drive healthier behaviour in men.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

To complete Dr Keogh's latest survey about the gendered differences in pain see https://t.co/Pf5uOpWJRV