Life Sciences

Is there a biology gender divide?

Addressing the persistent gender gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects has proven to be one of the most pressing academic concerns in recent years.

Biology has been seen as an area which is not affected by gender inequality, as it is the one STEM subject in which female candidates have traditionally outnumbered male ones. More than 60 per cent are female and about half of biosciences graduate students are women.

However, a new research paper published in the US casts doubt on the notion that the gap has totally disappeared, revealing evidence of inequality even in biology classrooms.

Unequal participation

Researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) and University of Washington found evidence of gender-based gaps in both achievement and class participation during a study of introductory college-level biology courses

"Often, gender differences are assumed to be present only in fields where males outnumber females and where there is a strong emphasis on math," said Sara Brownell, assistant professor with ASU's School of Life Sciences. 

"But we are seeing it in undergraduate biology classrooms that do not focus on maths – where females make up about 60 percent of the class – indicating that this could potentially be a much more systemic problem. It's likely this is not unique to physics or biology, but rather true of most undergraduate classrooms."

Some 23 classes were studied at a research one (R1) university over a two-year period. Comprising mostly sophomores and biology majors, they were generally taught by two instructors each. More than 60 per cent of the 5,000 students enrolled on the courses were female.

Studies of exam performance and class participation revealed that female's exam scores were on average 2.8 percent lower than those of male students.

There was also a gap in participation rates, with 63 per cent of males on average speaking up when asked to volunteer responses to questions – even though they made up just 40 per cent of the classroom.

Bridging the gap

According to co-author Sarah Eddy, this can create problems because such classes are the first opportunity many people have to interact with professionals and peers and build up their confidence levels. Unequal participation rates mean women have fewer chances to succeed.

Fortunately, however, the researchers have proposed strategies they say could be used to bridge the divide.

They recommend using a pre-sorted list of student names to randomly call on students, rather than allowing them to raise their hands. They believe this idea may meet with some initial resistance but would boost equality in the classroom.

"In order to solve the problem, instructors must be aware that it even exists," Professor Brownell pointed out. 

She argued that it is now important to find out the causes of the inequality and then develop new strategies that could combat it.

Life Sciences

Science skills gap ‘a result of confusion’

A significant amount of confusion exists among science graduates in the UK in relation to the careers that are open to them.

A panel of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) leaders and academics have spoken at the Business in the Community Responsible Business Week event in London about the issue and how it is contributing to the country's skills shortage in this area.

The panel, chaired by HR magazine deputy editor Katie Jacobs, debated issues such as the lack of skilled employees that are currently available to firms that require people who are qualified in STEM industries.

What's more, the experts discussed how diversity in these subjects is also of extreme importance and must be prioritised.

Louise Archer, professor at the department of education and professional studies at King's College London, told HR magazine most people who qualify in science believe the only careers that are subsequently open to them are scientists and doctors.

However, this is simply not the case, as there are plenty of other options too – such as engineering. The problem is that many people are not aware of this.

One issue that cropped up during the panel's time together was the age at which people should be encouraged to get involved in science and take it up as a potential career path. Simon Lenton, HR director at Jaguar Land Rover, said his firm's policy is to get children aged between ten and 14 involved and focused on such activities.

He also suggested that it is important science-based organisations are able to appeal to female students.

Ms Archer added one problem STEM industries must overcome is that science is "seen as very elitist", whereas working in business is thought to be much more realistic, mainly because of what she described as the "Alan Sugar effect".

Life Sciences

Chancellor announces science investment

Chancellor George Osborne used his 2014 Budget to help promote British science, announcing extra investment in stem cell research and postdoctoral training.

Some £55 million is to be provided to fund research into stem cells, establishing a Cell Therapy Manufacturing Centre to help treat a wide range of degenerative diseases.

The government said that while the UK has a leading position in stem cell therapy research, its manufacturing capability is limited. 

It is expected to create 100 jobs at the Stem Cell Therapy Catapult, while firms using the centre are expected to generate £1.2 billion of revenue by 2020 – 80 per cent via export.

Keith Thompson, the chief executive of Cell Therapy Catapult, said the decision to establish the manufacturing centre showed the potential for growth this industry has in the UK.

The UK's Bioindustry Association (BIA) welcomed the announcements and Steve Bates, BIA chief executive, said: "Today's announcement by the chancellor of £55 million to build a large scale cell therapy manufacturing centre is fantastic news. 

"The centre will help establish the UK as global centre for cell therapy manufacturing. This will ensure that this high value manufacturing industry of the future will reside in the UK and so will the value and jobs created by it."

The Cell Therapy Catapult, which is to manage the funding, was established in 2012 to help grow the UK cell therapy industry.

Mr Osborne also announced investment worth £106 million aimed at strengthening the UK's science, technology, engineering and mathematics capabilities.

It is to be spent over the course of five years at 20 new centres for doctoral training, helping to equip 750 postgraduates with the skills they need to meet the demands of industry.

A number of other measures were announced by the chancellor to help boost UK businesses and manufacturing.

There is to be an expansion of apprenticeship grants, supporting more than 100,000 work placements.

Mr Osborne also announced a doubling of the investment allowance against corporation tax to £500,000.

Life Sciences

Genome sequence breakthrough could hold key to new drugs

Scientists in the US have potentially developed a new way to use genome sequence in the design of medicinal drugs.

Experts from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have released details of their discovery – using an example of a compound they have already established to tackle cancer cells. This potent amalgam effectively manipulates the poisonous cells, so they attack themselves and die.

It is hoped the way it was created can be adapted to lead to the formation of many other treatments.

The system involves gaining a better understanding into how drugs are bound to RNA folds, specifically microRNAs – which are tiny molecules apparent in almost all plant and animal cells. They regulate a range of cellular processes, working as "dimmer switches" for one gene or more by binding their transcripts and stopping them from being translated into proteins.

MicroRNAs are a relatively new discovery in the world of science, having only been identified for the first time in the 1990s. As a result, scientists are still learning about the potential they hold in regards to medical breakthroughs.

Using the example they have already developed, lead researcher Dr Matthew Disney said it was the first time therapeutic small molecules have been designed using RNA sequences alone, boasting it was "something many doubted could be done".

The study was part-funded by the National Institute of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Its spokesman Dr Peter Preusch commented: "This new work is another example of how Dr Disney is pioneering the use of small molecules to manipulate disease-causing RNAs, which have been underexplored as potential drug targets."

Further details of the research has now been published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. Dr Disney has described his team's findings so far as "unprecedented" and something that "provides great excitement for future developments".

Life Sciences

New material could help treat heart defects

Researchers have developed a new adhesive that could be used to treat patients suffering from congenital heart defects.

Conventional treatments for such conditions are highly invasive and problems are posed by the need to secure the devices quickly and safely. Sutures take a long time to stitch and can put pressure on the developing heart muscle, while current adhesives are either too toxic or prone to lose their grip in the fast-flowing blood surrounding the heart.

Scientists at Boston Children's Hospital, BWH and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a bio-adhesive that could be used to rapidly attach biodegradable patches in patients suffering from heart defects. 

They were inspired by examples from nature, recognising that many creatures have secretions that are viscous and water repellent, enabling them to attach in wet and dynamic environments. They developed a material that is biodegradable, elastic and biocompatible, in addition to having viscous and water repellant properties.

The researchers found that the patches remained attached even at increased heart rates and blood pressure. 

"This adhesive platform addresses all of the drawbacks of previous systems in that it works in the presence of blood and moving structures," said Pedro del Nido, MD, chief of cardiac surgery, Boston Children's Hospital, co-senior study author. "It should provide the physician with a completely new, much simpler technology and a new paradigm for tissue reconstruction to improve the quality of life of patients following surgical procedures."

Ultraviolet light is used to activate the patch's adhesive properties, meaning an on-demand, anti-bleeding seal is put in place within five seconds of the light's application.

It is expected the seal will reduce the invasiveness of surgery as well as operating times, leading to improved surgical outcomes.

Robert Langer, ScD, MIT, and author of the study said he was delighted the materials his team developed would be used to greatly improve human lives.

A start-up company, Gecko Biomedical, based in Paris, has obtained rights to the adhesive technology and hopes to bring the adhesive to market in two to three years.

Life Sciences

Research reveals effect of vitamin D on child development

A new study has revealed links between vitamin D levels in pregnant mothers and muscle strength in children.

According to research conducted at the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit (MRC LEU) at the University of Southampton, children are more likely to have stronger muscles if vitamin D levels in their mothers' bodies are high during pregnancy.

A link has previously been made between low levels of vitamin D and reduced muscle strength in adults but little has been known about the effects of varying levels of the vitamin in pregnant mothers on their children.

Scientists conducting the study measured vitamin D levels in the bodies of 678 mothers in the later stages of pregnancy. Grip strength and muscle mass were measured in the children when they were four years old.

It was found that grip strength is stronger among children of mothers who had higher levels of vitamin D in their bodies. An increase in muscle mass was also discovered, although the link with vitamin D levels was less pronounced in this case.

Low levels of vitamin D are common among British women, who frequently fail to supplement their diet – even though taking additional quantities is recommended.

Lead researcher Dr Nicholas Harvey, senior lecturer at the MRC LEU at the University of Southampton, said the research may have wider implications. He pointed out that a low grip strength among children is often associated with health problems which develop in adults, including diabetes, falls and fractures. 

Greater vitamin D levels in pregnant mothers may therefore help to reduce the likelihood of developing these conditions in later life.

The research formed part of the Southampton Women's Survey, one of the largest of such studies conducted globally.

Cyrus Cooper, professor of rheumatology and director of the MRC LEU at the University of Southampton, said the latest results are part of a wider project to determine the effects of mothers' diet and lifestyle on children's development. "This work should help us to design interventions aimed at optimising body composition in childhood and later adulthood and thus improve the health of future generations," he commented.

Life Sciences

Genetic study could help treat rheumatoid arthritis

A new study into rheumatoid arthritis may prove useful in identifying new treatments for the disease.

The largest worldwide study of the genetic basis of rheumatoid arthritis demonstrates that integrating information of genome-wide studies with existing data can help scientists to discover drugs that may help cure diseases.

A genome-wide association study meta-analysis was conducted on over 100,000 subjects of European and Asian descent. Approximately ten million genetic variants known as single nucleotide polymorphism were analysed. Some 42 new regions of the genome (loci) were identified that are associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

The study was conducted by Dr Robert M Plenge from the Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute in the USA and Dr Yukinori Okada from the RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences in Japan, in collaboration with over 70 institutions throughout the world.

Results from the study bring the number of known loci associated with the disease to 101. Bioinformatics studies were conducted to integrate the new information with existing datasets, leading the researchers to identify 98 genes that could lead to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis.

The findings were integrated with existing drug databases and it was discovered that many of the newly-identified genes overlap with regions targeted by rheumatoid arthritis drugs already in use. When the drugs were developed, this was not known.

Drugs which are currently used to treat cancer such as CDK4/6 inhibitors could help with the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, according to the team.

It was found the genes that cause rheumatoid arthritis, immunodeficiency disorders and blood cancers overlap to a large degree. 

"This study sheds light on the fundamental genes, pathways and cell types that contribute to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis and provides evidence that the genetics of rheumatoid arthritis can provide important information for drug discovery," the reports authors conclude.

Between 0.5 and one per cent of adults in the developed world suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. It is the second most common form of arthritis in the UK, affecting around 400,000 people.

Life Sciences

Scientists find a way to replace injections with tablets

Scientists in the US may have found a way to administer nanoparticle therapeutics orally, rather than through injections.

At the moment, these treatments can only be given to a patient via a needle, as the nanoparticles have trouble penetrating the intestinal lining when consumed in tablet form. 

However, researchers at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new kind of treatment that can be absorbed through the digestive system.

This could eventually provide doctors with a much easier way to treat people who have cancer and other diseases. The discovery might also revolutionise the way type-1 diabetics receive insulin.

According to, the number of people being diagnosed with diabetes – both type-1 and type-2 – in Britain has risen from 1.4 million in 1996 to 2.9 million in 2013, which represents 4.5 per cent of the population. This figure could rise to four million by 2025.

On a global scale, it is estimated that 360 million people are living with the disease. 

Most type-1 diabetics have to inject insulin, but these new studies have the potential to change this. 

The nanoparticles created by the scientists are "decorated with antibodies", which attach themselves to receptors found on the walls of the intestines. Once they have latched onto these cells, they are able to permeate the intestinal wall and enter into the bloodstream. 

Robert Langer of MIT played a leading role in the research and he reiterated how crucial the discoveries could be in the long run.

"Being able to deliver nanomedicine orally would offer clinicians broad and novel ways to treat today's many chronic diseases that require daily therapy, such as diabetes and cancer. Imagine being able to take RNA or proteins orally; that would be paradigm shift," he commented. 

Plenty of work needs to be done before doctors and patients can directly benefit from the new nanoparticles and researchers are now looking to develop nanomedicine that can cross other borders, such as the blood-brain barrier.

Life Sciences

Investment will help nurture next generation of scientists

The UK government has announced plans to invest £350 million into the training of the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Much has been made about skills shortages in these sectors and the authorities are keen to encourage more youngsters to take vocational courses at university. 

The money – which is being provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – will be shared across 24 universities around the country. 

A total of 70 new centres for doctoral training will be established as part of the scheme and it is hoped that 3,500 graduates will benefit from the investment. 

Universities minister David Willetts said it is important that educational institutions form closer relationships with businesses in the long term. 

"Scientists and engineers are vital to our economy and society. It is their talent and imagination, as well as their knowledge and skills, that inspire innovation and drive growth across a range of sectors, from manufacturing to financial services," he commented. 

Four of the centres have been allocated to the University of Manchester, much to the delight of Professor Colin Bailey, vice-president and dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

He said the university's strength in engineering, as well as physical, medical and life sciences was a major factor behind the government's decision to award the facility with four of the new training complexes. 

"This additional funding will mean we can train more of the UK's scientists and engineers of the future," Mr Bailey remarked. 

Meanwhile, Glasgow's University of Strathclyde will host three of the centres and will be a partner in two others. 

Students will now be able to learn more about future power networks and smart grids, wind and marine energy systems and medical devices and health technologies.

It is hoped this latest government initiative will help to establish Britain as a world leader in engineering and pharmaceutical research and development in particular, which will give the nation's economy a real shot in the arm.

Life Sciences

New research may explain malaria drug resistance

Scientific studies carried out in the US may help to explain why some people build up resistance to antimalarial drugs.

Findings published in the online journal PLOS ONE showed that autophagy – the process of cells removing damaged parts of themselves to restore normal function – can be linked to the ineffectiveness of malaria treatments. 

Paul Roepe – a Georgetown University professor who authored the study – said these tests are particularly timely, as malaria is a growing problem.

The disease killed more than 650,000 people in 2010 alone, according to figures provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), while reported cases in the US have recently reached a 40-year high.

This study, Mr Roepe added, is the first of its kind, as it separates the types of drug actions used to prevent malaria. 

While some drugs slow down the onset of the disease, higher doses can be administered to kill off the parasites completely. 

Before now, researchers had not differentiated between these two forms of therapy. 

"Our study found genetic and cell biological evidence linking autophagy to resistance to the parasite, which kills the effects of drugs," Mr Roepe commented. 

"These results have important implications in the ongoing development of new antimalarial drug therapy."

He hopes that by publishing this work in an open access journal, drug developers from across the globe will be able to produce more targeted treatments. 

Resistance to antimalarial drugs potentially places half of the world's population at risk, so this research – which also featured work conducted by experts at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky – could prove to be crucial.

WHO estimates that 219 million cases of malaria are reported around the world each year, with African children said to be the most vulnerable. 

In fact, 80 per cent of all malaria deaths occur in just 14 countries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria account for 40 per cent of the world's malaria fatalities, so it is clear where new treatments should be targeted first.