Sunday, 25 March 2012

A new "Ion" lady who ...

... deserves the thanks of so many people !

The physiologist Professor Frances Ashcroft, 60, discovered the ‘ion channel’ that causes infant diabetes, paving the way for new treatments ..... Interview by Sue Choularton Published: Sunday Times 25 March 2012

Frances’s rural childhood helped inspire her curiosity about the natural world (Tom Pilston)
I get up about 6.15 and the first thing I do is look over the fields behind my house. I live in the countryside in Oxfordshire and I love to watch the seasons change. At this time of the year, if I’m lucky, I might see hares out boxing in the grass. I’ll then have a cup of tea, get ready, grab a banana and drive to the university for about 7.

I’m based at Oxford’s department of physiology, anatomy and genetics, and I lead a team of 12 to 15 scientists who carry out research into diabetes and obesity. The scientists are at different stages of their careers — some are undergraduates and PhD students, and some are post-doctoral researchers and senior scientists who’ve been with me for years.

A lot of our day-to-day research involves measuring the tiny electric currents that flow through “ion channels”. These channels are found in every cell of our body and every organism on Earth. They work like tiny pores, opening and closing to allow ions (such as potassium) to move in and out of our cells. This underlies the electrical signals in our hearts and brains and is the basis of our ability to see, hear, think and feel — everything we do. 

The currents we’re recording are a million million times smaller than, say, the current needed to run an electric kettle, so we need to use specialist equipment — such as amplifiers to boost the signal and filters to allow us to find the signal in the noise. We also use powerful microscopes to see the cells we’re recording from, and a vibration isolation table so people walking past don’t ruin the experiment.

These days, the rest of the team carry out most of the experiments because I spend a lot of time in my office writing papers and trying to get funding. But through the day, I’ve a stream of them coming in and saying things like “Come and see this result”, or, “I’ve just found something exciting!”

If I’m at the lab I usually have lunch at my desk, but about once a week I’ll walk over to Trinity and eat there because of the glorious gardens — they remind me of growing up in Dorset. I used to love roaming the fields where we lived, to look for wild orchids and watch birds; that’s what first gave me a curiosity about the natural world. My parents were inspirational to me. My father was an art teacher and my mother head teacher at the village school where I went with my sister. She become an accountant and our brother a naval captain. I went to Cambridge to do a degree and PhD in zoology, then post-doctoral work at Leicester University.
I don’t consider what I do as work because the idea of making a discovery is as exciting to me now as it was when I started

The particular ion channel we study is crucial for insulin secretion from the pancreas. Insulin lowers your blood sugar after meals, and if too little insulin is released you get diabetes.
Soon after I arrived in Oxford, in 1983, I discovered an ion channel that prevents insulin secretion when it is open and stimulates it when it is shut. It was one of the most exciting moments in my life — I had to ring everyone and tell them straight away.

The channel turned out to be important as it can cause people to be born with diabetes. Right now we’re still trying to understand how it works and what it looks like. But that breakthrough went on to transform the lives of children with diabetes; in the past they were treated with insulin injections but now more than 90% of them are on tablets.

All scientists hope their work will have an impact on people’s lives, but you never think it will happen in your lifetime, so I have been unbelievably privileged.

Some days, I’m away from my office at a conference or visiting a school to give a talk — it’s always wonderful to be able to inspire young people by what we do. To be honest, I don’t consider what I do as work because the idea of making a discovery is as exciting to me now as it was when I first started.

If I’ve been in the lab all day, I’ll finish about 7. I’m often busy in the evenings — at meetings, out with friends, having a working dinner. But if I’m just heading home, I’ll make something simple when I get in — maybe a salad, poached fish or an omelette. I’ll occasionally watch TV — a good science programme on BBC4 — and usually head up to bed about 10.30 or 11 to read for a while. I’ve just finished a PG Wodehouse, which was hilarious.

I try not to reflect on the day too much because I’ll stay awake trying to figure out something that’s puzzling us in the lab. And as every scientist knows, there’s always something that needs to be solved.

Professor Ashcroft will receive the L’Oréal-Unesco Women In Science European Laureate for 2012 in Paris on Thursday
It amazes me that this story is not today's headline, instead we are subjected to the pathetic nature of politics in Britain where people who contribute so little wish to influence governance to feather their own pathetic and rather squalid nests ..........................

1 comment:

  1. This should definitely not be headline story...the article is full of mistakes. The most obvious one is the one stating that 'more than 90% of them (children with diabetes) are on tablets' - they most certainly are not. Because despite the rising number of people being diagnosed with Type I diabetes, the best form of treatment is still injecting insulin. An inhalation device was put on the market a few years ago, but because the dosage increased compared to that injected, it is not a very popular method of controlling your bloodsugar as a diabetic. Tablets tend to be used for people with Type II diabetes.
    A most ridiculous read...why would I want to know what this lady eats for breakfast? If she's wanting to tell people about her amazing discoveries, why has she let the interviewer drift towards questions concerning her personal life?