Transcript Oct 2007
Gareth Mitchell: From Europe's leading science university, this must be the official podcast of Imperial College London. And I'm Gareth Mitchell, presenter of Digital Planet on the BBC but also a lecturer here in the Science Communication Group. But you don't really want to know all that. You must want to know what's coming up on the podcast this month. Well, no pressure but can you write a detailed report on a disease outbreak please. It's only the most high profile case of animal infection this year.
Brian Spratt: I got a phone call on the weekend asking me if I'd do this little report. It should take a couple of days. And it turned out to be rather bigger than that and it ended up being a 60 page report and taking a whole month to do.
GM: When the government needed an urgent investigation into the foot and mouth outbreak on a farm in the south of England they came here to Imperial College. The man at the centre of it all speaks to us in a few moments, amid continuing interest in foot and mouth and the arrival in Britain of bluetongue disease.
And we catch up with the scientists on campus who are immortal.
Matthew Genge: It was a complete surprise to get this asteroid named after me. The nomination said for contributions to the study of cosmic dust.
Christina Swasey: Have you actually looked at your asteroid?
MG: Unfortunately I've never seen my asteroid. But it's an awful long way away.
GM: So, what's it really like to have celestial bodies named after you? All that and the latest headlines from around the College right here on the official podcast of Imperial College.
Brian Spratt on investigating foot and mouth disease
Well, now then, for much of the time science can be a rather solitary affair with much time spent in the lab or writing up long detailed scientific papers. But sometimes scientists find themselves at the heart of big media stories. And that's certainly been the case this summer for Professor Brian Spratt who's Head of the Department of Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology here on the St Mary's campus at Imperial. Now, Brian, you were looking into the foot and mouth outbreak, basically, which as anybody in the UK knows is a big story and has been a big story. And you have chaired a group that prepared an independent review of the outbreak in the South East of England. So just for people who might be listening to this who don't live in the UK, bring us up to speed. What's the background to this outbreak?
Brian Spratt: Well, foot and mouth disease is a highly infectious disease of cloven hoofed animals. So that's cows and pigs and sheep. It's a very important disease that we try and keep it out of this country because it is so infectious and has such a devastating effect on cattle. And the last outbreak we had was in 2001 and that outbreak was all across the country and it cost the country, there were various estimates, but the minimum estimate we have, the government's estimate, is about £8 billion. So it has this potential to really cause huge problems for the country and the farming community. So we really take it rather seriously.
GM: And so it's not surprising then that when an outbreak was detected in the South East of England over the summer there was a huge amount of attention from the agricultural community, from government and of course it became a huge news story as well. And this outbreak was in a place called Pirbright wasn't it?
BS: There are two laboratories at Pirbright that work on foot and mouth disease. One is a company called Merial which produces virus in large amounts for producing the vaccine. And the other is a research laboratory that works on foot and mouth disease and, for example, does all the diagnostics. So to test animals that are suspected of having foot and mouth disease. So it was highly suspicious that we had a foot and mouth disease outbreak occurring just a few miles from a site where they worked on this virus.
GM: And you ended up being commissioned then to chair the group that put together one of I think it was two reviews for DEFRA, which is the government department responsible for agriculture?
BS: That's right. I got a phone call on the weekend asking me if I'd do this little report. It should take a couple of days. And it turned out to be rather bigger than that and it ended up being a 60 page report and taking a whole month to do. It's interesting why government chooses particular people. I'm actually a bacteriologist and I work in a fairly obscure area on the population and evolutionary biology of bacterial pathogens. And so you can sort of ask, well, why was someone who's a bacteriologist asked to chair a group on foot and mouth disease? As I said, it's what government does. And I think it's quite a good policy because, particularly with foot and mouth disease, there are so few people that work on foot and mouth disease, and most of those work at Pirbright or have worked at Pirbright. And if you've got someone who is a real expert on foot and mouth disease they'll be slightly sort of compromised because they would know many of the people involved rather closely. They're a little bit too close to the subject. So government has this policy, as I said, of choosing someone who is fairly close but not an expert in a particular field.
GM: They ended up coming to you as somebody who has expertise related to the field even if not within the field itself. The phone rang and there went what could have been quite a few weeks during the summer for you. And the next thing you knew you were on site in Pirbright presumably with your wellies on or whatever clothing you needed and trying to gather information and data for what was obviously going to be a high profile report. So how did you go about it?
BS: Well, we got together a group of five people and, as you say, the first thing we did was to go down to Pirbright. We went into the two category-four laboratories at the Pirbright site. The category-four laboratories are the high security laboratories which work on the most dangerous pathogens. In this case dangerous to cloven hoofed animals. There were two investigations going on. There was a very detailed investigation by the Health and Safety Executive which was sort of technical. It was looking at all the safety critical elements in the laboratories at Merial and at the IAH, the government laboratory. So it was testing all the filters to make sure that nothing could have escaped from Pirbright. And our report was slightly different. Our report was a more general report looking at the science and also making rather broader recommendations. Whereas the HSE report was specifically looking for breaches in biosecurity.
GM: And as you went about doing your investigations how did you then begin to get a picture as to how the disease had found its way out of one of these labs and ultimately into livestock in the neighbouring area?
BS: First of all you've got to look at the possible routes by which a virus can get out of one of these so called high containment laboratories. I suppose if you come at it afresh you would probably say the most like ly place was the Merial Company. Because the Meri al Co mpany was producing about 12,000 litres of the virus which actually caused the outbreak. The IAH laboratory works on a very, very much smaller scale. And so the most likely initial thought would be it was some problem at the Merial site so that there was an aerosol and a sort of a cloud of virus spread down on the wind and caused disease a few kilometres away. Then you have to look at all the other possibilities. I mean people could have taken it out either inadvertently or indeed maliciously. And so by looking at all the possibilities and getting all the results from the Health and Safety Executive it became fairly clear that there weren't any obvious breaches of biosecurity. There was no sort of big hole in a filter. So what happens, particularly at the Merial site working on these very, very large amounts of virus which they grow up to produce vaccine, is that they disinfect after they've grown up the virus. And disinfection is not the same as inactivation or killing. It's only sort of 99.99 something effective. So if you have huge numbers of virus like 10 to the 14 you're working with then even if you have good disinfection you're going to get a fair amount of virus being released from the laboratories into this effluent pipe. And it was found that this effluent pipe was really defective.
GM: Professor Brian Spratt on the trail of that foot and mouth outbreak. So how had this crucial drainage pipe become defective? And what did the review ultimately conclude? Stay tuned, if you can use that phrase for a podcast, but I think you know what I mean. We'll have part two of that candid interview later on including a view on what it was actually like to be on site at Pirbright amongst some pretty distressed lab workers with the nation's media camped outside. In a moment star stories as Imperial scientists reflect on having their names written in the Cosmos.
Before that let's have some quick headlines from around the College.
Headlines from around the College
Imperial researchers have teamed up with colleagues in the United States to crack the genome of a species of parasitic worm called Brugia malayi. It's a so called filarial worm that causes debilitating diseases including elephantiasis. It's carried by mosquitoes and when it gets into the human body it can grow in lymphatic vessels causing sever symptoms like excruciating pain and swelling. Now that scientists have unravelled the worm's DNA they can work out what proteins that it produces. And that will help researchers get to the bottom of the worm's biology and therefore how it causes so much damage in its human hosts. With over 130 million people worldwide infected by filarial worms and over a billion more at risk of infection new insights into dealing with the parasites cannot come a moment too soon.
And over the summer relaxation for me came in the form of a 1,000 mile motorcycle journey around Wales. As I embarked on the adventure riding out of central London the words of Bob Noland at the Centre for Transport Studies in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department were ringing in my head. He'd just announced the results of a study revealing an increase in injuries to bikers in inner London since the congestion charge came to the capital. Motorbikes are exempt from the charge, an incentive for commuters to swap four wheels for two wheels, which probably explains why motorcycle casualties have gone up by 40 a month in the congestion charge zone since the scheme was introduced. The study, in collaboration with Loughborough University, also found that injuries and fatalities have increased amongst cyclists in the zone.
If you heard last month's podcast you'll probably remember this.
Brian May: I think I'm just Brian May the curious mind really. I really have a passion for unusual things and this was unfinished business in the back of my mind for 30 years I suppose. And I'm thrilled to be able to have the opportunity to go back and tie things up so I can hold this tome in my hand. But it's more than that because this opens some doors. And we've already discussed the fact that I'll stay on and hopefully do some more observations. And it's the observations which I love. It takes you to the most beautiful places in the world and it brings you close to the Cosmos I guess.
GM: Queen guitarist Brian May telling me about his PhD. He started research for his thesis on Zodiacal Dust at Imperial back in the 1970s and when I interviewed him last month he'd finally completed the work and handed it in. Well the good news is that since then the College's most famous postgraduate student has found out that he's passed. Oh, and whilst we're dishing out congratulations a quick pat on the back to Science Communication MSE student Colin Barras who's been awarded second place in the prestigious Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer Awards. So a few number one albums and an invite to play the guitar on the roof of Buckingham Palace and Colin will really be giving old Dr Brian a run for his money.
More news from the College on our Press Office website at imperial.ac.uk/news.
Scientists in space
Well speaking of Brian May, perhaps one day he'll have a celestial body named after him. Surely the ultimate honour for any scientist who deals with phenomena of a cosmic nature. And so it is that this very institution boasts a number of researchers whose names are written in the Heavens. As part of her radio course work for our Science Media Production MSC, Christina Swasey went in search of those on campus blessed with celestial honours.
Mark Sephton: 7552 Sephton. Mattgenge and then it has some numbers, 6626. So I'm a bit worried by the three sixes.
Phil Bland: It's called Philbland something. I've got a number. 1981EW21.
CS: No, those aren't part numbers you just heard. Those are the names of asteroids. And not just any asteroid mind you. These are asteroid named after researchers here at Imperial College London. You see, their colleagues from the International Astronomical Union decided that they were all doing such an excellent job and named some rather large rocks from Outer Space after them. Today I take this opportunity to go pop my head into each of their offices and find out a little bit more than their asteroid names and really see what makes them each such stellar bodies. I know, that's the worst pun ever. All right, let's see what's behind door number one. Dr Sephton, are you in? So can you describe to me why you received this award? What kind of research did you do?
MS: Well, I'd been working on meteorites. And meteorites are naturally delivered fragments of asteroids. So these days we talk about going to asteroids, using spacecrafts and bringing fragments back. But we also get fragments of asteroids sent to us by normal cosmic collisions where asteroids bang into each other and send little fragments towards the Earth. And they fall through the atmosphere and land on the Earth as meteorites. I'm lucky enough to have worked on meteorites in recent years and made some significant discoveries. Particularly the most primitive class of meteorites, the carbonaceous-chondrites, which contain large amounts of carbon and a whole suite of interesting chemical compounds, some of which are relevant to the origin of life. Like amino acids, carboxylic acids and nuclear bases that make up some of the components of DNA and RNA. So it's a real organic chemical mix from time before life.
CS: So what do you think the future of looking at meteorites holds?
MS: And so the future of study of meteoritic organic matter and other meteoritic components is going to be in new analytical procedures or even new samples. The bigger th e samp le the smaller the component you can go for. So if you have something which is only a fraction of a per cent and you've only got a gram to look at you probably don't have much chance. But if you've got 100 kilos then all of a sudden you can go chasing those very small components. And some of those small components are very relevant to the origin of life. And so we'd need to concentrate up those biologically relevant compounds to make our first organism. But with so much free organic matter kicking around at the time of the origin of life it would seem silly not for life to have taken advantage of it.
CS: Without any further ado let's head to door number two. Conveniently enough Dr Genge's office is right next door to Dr Sephton's.
MG: It was a complete surprise to get this asteroid named after me. The nomination said for contributions to the study of cosmic dust.
CS: Have you actually looked at your asteroid?
MG: Unfortunately I've never seen my asteroid. But it's an awful long way away. So it looks like at some point in the future my asteroid may well collide with the Red Planet and make a big hole. Cosmic dust has been known for almost 100 years but it's been very difficult to collect. Basically, we go to Antarctica, we melt the blue ice, this fantastic sky blue high pressure ice that's exposed at the surface there, filter the dust that comes out and around 10 per cent of the dust is from space. You're never more than a few meters away from one of these little tiny extraterrestrial visitors. So they're in your home, they're on the street and they're probably even on your clothes as well and you never realise. For the last ten years I've been studying this dust. We've shown that many of the asteroids are very different from meteorites. We've identified carbonaceous materials, these organic molecules, within micro-meteorites, within these cosmic dust particles. They may even be related to the origins of life on earth.
CS: Where is the future of looking at dust going to lead?
MG: The next steps are to collect dust from other objects in our Solar System and to think of better ways of collecting it so that it gets to Earth in a pristine fashion. So although vast amounts of dust come to us, and they're kind of the poor man's space probe, it would also be good to go there and collect material so we know exactly where it comes from. In that way expand our knowledge of how our Solar System formed and how we got here.
CS: Last but not least I make my way over to door number three, the office of Dr Phil Bland. And it's wide open.
Phil Bland: I'm Phil Bland. I'm a planetary scientist in Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial.
CS: Do you know anything about your asteroid?
PB: It's between three and five kilometres long. My wife was very chuffed because hers is bigger than mine.
CS: Gretchen Benedix?
PB: So she's also a planetary scientist I should say.
CS: What kind of research have you done that earned this distinction?
PB: I look at impacts on Earth and then how much stuff hits the Earth as well. Trying to work out how likely we are to get whacked. And then a lot on what meteorites tell us about the early Solar System. So kind of how you make planets from just dust and gas. So I'm not really sure which thing. Some combo of those I think, yeah.
CS: What do you feel is going to be the next big thing to discover in space?
PB: Basically for the last 40 years people have been looking at meteorites trying to work out. They're very old rocks and they were formed before there were any planets. And so the idea is if that if we understand what they're telling us we can work out how you make planets like the Earth. My hunch is that we'll have wrapped up maybe 80/90 per cent of the field in the next 10 or 15 years. That will be fun.
CS: Do you have any intentions of looking at your asteroid?
PB: I've not looked at it. I should do actually because I think I've got to take a picture of it for my old man actually. So my dad is a very religious person. I'm obviously not but I was able to say that I'm not going to get into the Kingdom of Heaven but I've got a rock out there at the moment.
CS: I'm going to have to say there's a lot more behind an asteroid's name than what you may think. And don't be afraid to try to reach out and grab a little stardust even if it is just on your dress or because it's really dusty and you left the window open. But know that there's something special there.
GM: Christina Swayze taking the celestial roll call whilst also giving us all a credible excuse for going easy on the dusting.
Brian Spratt on what he found at Pirbright
Well, now back to my interview with Professor Brian Spratt of our Faculty of Medicine who was called in to write one of the official reviews into the foot and mouth outbreak over the summer. It was traced to the site of two laboratories in Pirbright in the south of England, specifically to a leaky effluent pipe. The drainage pipes on site were old and cracked. Overall in pretty bad condition.
BS: There was ingress of roots and there were cracks and misalignments. It was pretty clear from the survey we got that those pipes were going to leak. It's a slight mystery really how the virus got down to the first infected farm. I think we have to be clear that it's not necessarily true that we found out exactly what happened. But what we think probably happened is that either the effluent pipe was leaking and the virus got out and came to the surface, possibly related to the extremely heavy rains we had on one day in the period of interest. Or possibly that there was an overflow of one of the manholes. Because they were also found to be defective. And then you've got to say, well, okay, so you've got contamination on or near the soil at Pirbright. How would that get down to the first infected farm? The thoughts on that was there were contractors working on the site and that the contractors were working on putting in new drains. And they probably got contamination on their wheels or in the wheel arches and then some of them went down past the first infected farm and perhaps left clods of earth on the road and then the farmer picked it up and went into his farm. Now, that all seems a little bit sort of bizarre. But this is a virus where a cow only has to inhale about 10 virus particles to get disease. So it is a highly infectious virus and so you wouldn't need many viruses on a clod of soil and taken up by a farmer's Landrover.
GM: It does seem then as if these were pretty unusual and challenging conditions. It just so happened there was drainage maintenance going on, or replacement of the drains, and those heavy rains that you mentioned. I mean this was some of the heaviest rainfall the region had seen for years and years and years. So these were exceptional circumstances weren't they?
BS: Well I think they were because otherwise it would have happened before. I mean those drains didn't suddenly start leaking two weeks ago or six weeks ago. They must have been leaking for months and months and months. So we do think that it probably was a very unfortunate combination of circumstances.
GM: And what was the atmosphere like when you were on site? I mean presumably this is still a functional laboratory? There are people there and their morale must have been quite low so how were you received as you walked in there with your clipboards or whatever to start trying to trace the root of the outbreak?
BS: Well we were received very well and very well looked after. I guess we would be as we were going to write a report on them. But there was clearly a lot of stress, particularly on the Merial site. The manager there we talked to was clearly very, very stressed. The people on the IAH who'd worked for years and years on this virus doing their research and doing all the diagnosis. I think the mood there was one of real sort of almost depression really. They were very shocked and concerned and upset about it.
GM: And these of course are not the usual circumstances in which scientists gather data and write up reports. I mean most of the time you might have had a year's worth of experiments and months to write up the results and nobody really takes much notice of you until maybe you deliver them at a conference or something. Here you must have been operating with the government looking in on you and eagerly anticipating your findings but also the media as well. It must have been quite a time.
BS: It was. We were asked to write a report in five days initially and that was three days down at Pirbright and then writing it over the weekend. Luckily government then changed its mind and wanted us to actually write a broader and more considered report. They wanted us to wait until the Health and Safety Executive had produced their results and showed us their results. So in the end we got just under a month to write our report. It is a pretty short time. I've done a couple of reports before. I did a big report on the health hazards of depleted uranium munitions and I think we were about a year and a half working on that. That's more the normal timescale we work to on reports like this.
GM: As for your reports, part of it goes into trying to come up with the most likely means by which this virus escaped. Does it go so far as to make recommendations as well and if so what might they be?
BS: We made a lot of recommendations. Some of them were sort of short term recommendations and fairly obvious ones like don't do anymore work there until the pipe is fixed. And also if possible to change the process, particularly at the Merial company. I mean instead of using disinfection to use a heat treatment. So heat is going to basically sterilise all the virus rather than just reduce it by 99.999 per cent. So they're going to do that. And then we had a number of other concerns where we made recommendations. I think another one which I personally find important, and I think is going to be accepted by government, is there's a kind of conflict of interest. DEFRA is the regulator. It goes in and it has to check all the filters and check everything is working to make sure no virus can get out of the facility. But DEFRA is also the organisation which puts in a very large percentage of the money that Pirbright has to function. And also DEFRA buys the diagnostic capabilities of the Pirbright laboratory. So there's a kind of worry there that DEFRA really want to make sure that it always has the ability to diagnose foot and mouth and other animal diseases. And also it's the organisation that has to inspect. And so you might sort of say, well, you know, the laboratory is actually a little bit tatty and that filter is a bit old but, come on, we really need to make sure that the laboratory can keep going. So there is that conflict. And what I would like to see is instead of DEFRA regulating animal pathogens and the Health and Safety Executive regulating human pathogen work that the Health and Safety Executive, as an organisation which is extremely experienced in this and is separate from any government department, actually regulates all work on the most dangerous pathogens whether they're animal pathogens or human pathogens.
GM: Does all this have implications as to where these kinds of facilities should be located?
BS: Well, that's a very interesting question. Because there are many voices which say should you really have an institute or a company working on highly infectious viruses of animals right out there in the Surrey countryside? Or should you have laboratories working on the most dangerous human pathogens located in cities? And I'm surprised that that debate hasn't actually been opened up in the media because of this incident with foot and mouth disease at Pirbright. And I think the answer to it is that these type of facilities, the high containment facilities, they really should be safe and if they're safe they can be located anywhere. The reason that they should be safe is that we have 50 years or so of experience of making them safe. And when we have an accidental release, like the one we had at Pirbright, we have to learn from it to make sure that it doesn't happen again. And so for almost any sort of possible way in which a virus can be released from one of these facilities more than one thing has to go wrong for that virus to get outside. This is a very unfortunate incident because we can't say it's got a perfect safety record but the safety record is extremely good. And if the safety record is extremely good we can have these kind of facilities really anywhere. You know, have an animal facility on some island several miles off the coast and you should have a facility working on human pathogens, I don't know where, on the top of a mountain somewhere. But I think you've got to remember that these facilities need to have very good access. Because if there is a foot and mouth outbreak like in 2001 there were just huge numbers of samples coming in from infected animals to be tested to see if they'd got foot and mouth disease. And you've really got to put them somewhere with very good communications.
GM: Professor Brian Spratt. Well, that's pretty much it for today but do join me again next month when I'll have more from Imperial College including some of the life that goes on outside the lab. We'll be catching up with a volunteer scheme at the College in which students are getting hands-on in the quest to restore a historically important vessel.
Volunteer: Right, so I'm going to do that? Excellent. Okay. So I pull this one and the whistle is going to blow?
Ship's whistle blows
Wow, that's fantastic. Brilliant!
That's pretty genuine. It's compressed air not steam but it will sound much like that.
GM: Well, you can hear more on that in November because this podcast is available on the first working day of each month and is a co-production of the Imperial Press Office and the Science Communication Group. And you can come and find us on Facebook. This podcast has a listeners' group where you can find out more about us and post up any comments that you have. Just do a search for Imperial College on Facebook and you'll find us pretty easily. And if you want to find the source of more of this music then check out composer Ozgur Buldum. On line he lives at ozgurbuldum.com and he kindly lets us use this tune, called Lila, as our theme music. So, see you next month. But for now, from me Gareth Mitchell and producer Helen Morant, thanks very much for listening and goodbye.