Gareth Mitchell: This is the official podcast of Imperial College London. And I’m Gareth Mitchell the presenter of the BBC’s weekly technology programme, Digital Plant, and I’m also a lecturer in the Science Communication Group here at Imperial. Hello. This month, interviews with two formidable names in science. Firstly, one of the world’s leading epidemiologists, a renowned expert in infectious diseases. He’s also the new rector of Imperial College.

Professor Sir Roy Anderson: It’s a very internationally competitive world. The pace of science is just increasing and increasing in every field. And I’m very interested in how we develop time for people to think and innovate.

GM: And also this month, with the BSE crisis in Britain long behind us some food safety experts are now saying it’s safe to reintroduce livestock feeds based on the remains of other animals. So who better than to comment than the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the infectious agent behind BSE and CJD.

Professor Stanley Prusiner: If we didn’t learn a lesson from BSE and variant CJD then something is wrong.

GM: That’s Stanley Prusiner, a visiting professor at Imperial. So a new rector, a Nobel Prize winner and some headlines from around the College. All in this edition of the official podcast of Imperial College London.

Sir Roy Anderson on becoming Rector

A definite theme of infectious diseases today then, especially as our new rector officially takes up his post this month. Professor Sir Roy Anderson has held Imperial’s Chair in Infectious Disease Epidemiology since the year 2000. If you’re Imperial staff, student or alumnus I’m sure you’ll be interested in what our incoming leader has to say about his vision for the future of our university.

But if you’re on the outside, given Sir Roy’s high profile in scientific and public life his views on science, and especially in infectious diseases, should be of note too. He’s played a prominent role as an advisor to the government in various disease outbreaks, including BSE and foot and mouth. And Sir Roy has recently completed a stint as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence. Well, he gave his first interview since formally starting work as rector to this very podcast. And my opening question, now that he’s in post, is what is his overall vision for the College?

Professor Sir Roy Anderson: I’m cautious at the moment of saying too much about my plans because I’m still in the phase of listening to everybody. It’s extraordinary how big the place is, in many senses. So I’m through about just over one-third of the departments and centres. And then rolling through July,August,September I hope to finish, although it might drift a big into October. However, at this stage one could quite firmly say this is a very special place. Richard Sykes has done a superb job for us. And my task is to take it even further. It’s a very internationally competitive world. The pace of science is just increasing and increasing in every field. And I’m very interested in how we develop time for people to think and innovate. I mean, it’s a difficult task in today’s world because one is bombarded with instant communication. But real innovation, real discovery, requires peace. It requires time to think. And so my main strategy will be focusing on people and how to create an environment which stimulates their innovation.

GM: Obviously you’re no stranger to the College having been here as a student but also as Chair in Infectious Disease Epidemiology for the last seven or eight years. What about challenges in infectious diseases? What are the big risks that we face at the moment as a society?

RA: We live in a changing world for generations of our species. Our species, or sub-species Homosapeins-sapeins, is about a few thousand generations old. It’s much more recent than people think about. Our generation time is 25 years, something of that ilk, defined as time from birth on average to production of a child. Infectious agents, viruses and bacteria, have generation times of a few hours to a few days so they go through an awful lot of evolution in one of our evolutionary cycles. In a world that’s changing in three important contexts. One: increase population size. Seven billion at the moment, aiming for eight billion. Population size is important for infectious agents for two reasons. One: greater density, greater transmission per unit of time. Two: every transmission event is an opportunity for evolution. So greater human population density, greater the rate of evolution of the pathogen.

Then the sort of other area is that our world has increasingly become a world of mega-cities, which are cities over 10 million. Huge conglomerates. And down the peri-urban areas we have livestock brought into feed these people. Humans acquire most of their infectious agents from either livestock or wild animals. And this proximity of livestock with humans means that the evolutionary events of transfer will increase. So my guess is the next five decades will see an increase in the emergence of very novel pathogens. Some will be trivial. Some will be very serious like AIDS, like influenza and like SARS. There’s the beginnings of a rather disturbing epidemic at the moment in China and South East Asia, which probably hasn’t hit the Western press. A gastrointestinal virus of a novel sort which causes a disease called hand, foot and mouth disease, and it’s been killing infants. It’s a very unpleasant enterococcal or entrovirus infection.

What about our abilities to deal with it? I think they’re hugely enhanced by current scientific methodologies. And if an influenza strain emerged which was highly pathogenic then our ability to develop a novel vaccine, we could probably do it in twelve months. Twelve months will be too slow for some parts of the World but it’s a huge improvement on where we were, say, ten years ago in terms of technologies. There are some disturbing bits of medical treatments. The number of antibiotics to treat bacteria, novel ones, in the pipeline is declining. Discovery has been problematic in this field. We’ve got a huge emergence of drug resistance in hospital settings. You could arrive at a situation where a resistant bacteria is present in hospitals which is virtually untreatable. And why are pharmaceutical products in this area declining? Well, that’s very topical, controversial, and you get different arguments from different sides.

GM: And I suppose another weapon in the armoury is computer modelling. And that’s one of your big things as well, isn’t it? I’m sure something you get very enthusiastic about and talk at length about. How much can that help us in predicting and combating disease outbreaks?

RA: Well, it’s a very good question. I mean, medicine and public health and international health have been subjects of opinion, discussion, consensus. So how does the World Health Organisation decide on the optimum strategy? For pandemic influenza control it puts a group of specialists in a room and asks them to offer their opinion and it comes to a consensus. Now, I approach these problems much more like an engineer or a physicist. I believe opinion is not the best way to do it. Calculation and analysis is the best way. We have huge computational power and this enables us to do even very complex situations like movement and mixing of the global population. And so my academic goal probably in the last decade or two has been to turn public health/global health issues, epidemic control issues, from opinion to calculation and analysis. And I think we’ve moved quite a long way. It’s just perhaps the medical profession is still fighting it a little bit.

GM: And I suppose one very good example of a case where there has been a lot of opinion was, say, in the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, and of course it came back briefly last year. And here you had this big discussion between whether a mass cull should continue of livestock or a vaccination programme. And opinions were voiced very, very loudly on each side. How much do you think engineering can help resolve issues like that?

RA: Foot and mouth was very controversial because there was a lot of opinion. The argument that I constantly stayed with was that opinion wasn’t sufficient. You needed to do calculation. The difficulty with the problem was that in essence the veterinary medicine community was quite hostile to the use of mathematics. They felt that opinion and consensus should be the guiding policy advice. Well, one of the very important lessons I’ve learnt through my life, which actually was told to me, although I didn’t understand it at the time, by my postdoctoral supervisor, Morris Bartlett. He said as you make models more and more complex it’s a law of diminishing returns. And my experience has very much been that.

In real time here at Imperial we had to develop a model. And to start with the model was quite simple in its structure because the problem was so immediate. Over time a variety of groups developed more micro-simulation structures. All these models, from simple to complex, agreed. And that was a hugely powerful argument in providing advice to Dave King, who was chief scientist, and then through to ministers, that one could say with hand on heart and honesty that even if you used simple theory or very complex theory it’s moving you in the same direction. It’s saying this is what you should do. And the vaccine was so mixed in terms of its efficaciousness and its duration of protection that sadly the only option was a rather unpleasant culling option. Because this virus spread so very, very quickly. And none of us liked that implication. Obviously slaughtering animals is not a nice thing to recommend but there were no other options. And so it was a difficult controversial period. I learnt a lot about dealing with the press at the time. Because I was on Radio 4 with Humphries or whoever quite often. I think though on average the Jeremy Paxmans and the John Humphries treat scientists much more gently than they treat politicians and so I was often grateful for their quite sensitive and pertinent questioning.

GM: Professor Sir Roy Anderson, as of 1st July the new rector of Imperial College. And I’ll have more from him for you later in this podcast. Also coming up, some straight talking from the Nobel Prize winner who discovered prions, the infectious agent behind CJD. But before that let’s have some brief headlines from around the College.

Headlines from around the College

The magnetic properties of an industrial dye used in the manufacture of clothing could hold the key to next generation quantum computing. An Imperial team, working with colleagues at University College London and Warwick, are looking for new materials to use in the exciting field of spintronics. The ‘spin’ in spintronics refers to using an electron to spin as a way of carrying information. Conventional electronics relies on electrons moving around to accumulate charge within silicone semiconductors in order to represent the binary values that they store. But the beauty of spintronics is that you can store information according to the electron being in combinations of fundamental states called spin-up or spin-down. And it means coding much more information per electron than in today’s semiconductors. And that should allow secure super fast computing. In fact spintronics is already used in hard drives.

But the tricky bit is getting it working in the remainder of the circuitry in computers. Because it relies on magnetism it isn’t easily compatible with today’s semiconductors based on non-magnetic silicone. So back to the dye. It’s called MPC and contains atoms of metal so it can be made to act as an organic semiconductor and it brings together the electrical and the all important magnetic qualities needed for spintronics. The researchers have secured funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop the technology further.

And also this month, a team in Imperial’s division of medicine says that a chilli pain receptor could offer the key to easing the symptoms of irritable bowl syndrome. According to the research, just published in the journal Gut, people with IBS have abnormally high levels of the pain receptor that picks up the burning sensation from hot food like chilli peppers. It could offer a new target for pain relieving drugs. And it would be much needed. IBS affects one in five UK adults and is a little understood and distressing condition with symptoms that include abdominal pain, bloating and problems such as constipation and diarrhoea. At present the pain is treated with opiates but these cause serious side effects.

And you can catch up on more stories from around the College and check out events at Imperial by going to our Press Office website. The address is

Professor Stanley Prusiner on keeping BSE out of the food chain

Well, in June The Times newspaper went with a headline that said that the EU ban on livestock feed based on animal remains should be reviewed. The restriction came in on the back of the British BSE crisis of the 1990s. The newspaper questioned whether there really is a risk anymore in giving livestock feeds based on other animals. The Times quoted the chairman of the European Food Safety Authority as questioning whether it was morally or ethically correct to continue feeding grain to animals amid the mounting global food shortage.

Well, someone who’d definitely have a view on all that is Professor Stanley Prusiner who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for discovering prions, infectious agents behind CJD and BSE. He’s the director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco and also a visiting professor here at Imperial College. And he’s been giving a special three-part Leverhulme lecture series here this year, and part three was just a week or two ago. After the lecture I grabbed a few words with Professor Prusiner. I was keen to hear his views on those comments in the newspaper from the European Food Safety Advisor. But first we spoke about his recent lecture series.

Professor Stanley Prusiner: Richard Sykes and I spoke about what had happened along the way in the prion story. How the idea of prions was met with extreme doubt. And there were many people in the field who continued for a decade or more to look for the mythical scrapie virus and found eventually that it didn’t exist. Some of whom, a few, still are not willing to admit that it doesn’t exist. They’ll go to their graves believing that somewhere, sometime, somehow someone will find this virus. I’m quite secure in the prion concept. There is nothing to overturn it. And in fact there’s a new wealth of new data from the study of prions in yeast and other fungi that argue that the mammalian prion story is rock solid.

Every major discovery in science is met with scepticism, which is reasonable in the beginning. It’s met with sometimes derision. And it’s sometimes met with personal hostility towards the discoverer, which I guess is the price that very lucky people pay when they stumble into a discovery. And in many ways one could call this an unwanted truth. Because we thought that we understood all infectious pathogens prior to the discovery of prions. We thought they were all nucleic acid based. We thought that they all multiplied at the direction of a core DNA or RNA and that these rules were inviolable. But in fact prions have violated all of these rules. There’s a normal form of the protein that we all have. And in the situation where someone develops a disease, whether it be human or animal, the normal protein is changing its conformation and that new conformation accumulates and the accumulation of this misshapen protein causes the organism to die, in the case of mammals.

GM: The work goes on. The very brief potted history is you were presented with a patient with CJD in 1972 at the University of California, San Francisco. Cutting a long story short, you won the Nobel Prize for discovering prions in 1997. But as recently as 2004 you and your team published some very interesting work where you created, as I understand it, an artificial prion and put that into the brains of mice. Can you briefly tell me a bit about that?

SP: We’ve made the prion protein in bacteria. Then we have forced the prion protein into a conformation which is high in beta sheet structure. We do that by forming amyloid fibres. And among these fibres we think there are a few infection competent molecules. We don’t think the number is very high. We think it’s relatively low. We’re not absolutely certain of that but that’s what we think at this point. But we’ve been able to do this many, many times. Three different people in different places have done it. It’s quite reproducible. And I should say that in the yeast field, where things go much faster, many different investigators have done the same thing, all be it a different protein.

GM: And of course there have been huge ramifications from all this, you know, the BSE crisis of the 1990s in the UK and since then cattle feed based on other animals has been banned. So now cattle are fed on grain. And recently there was an article in The Times newspaper that questions that approach, especially against the background of the food crisis at that moment, the grain shortage and so on. How watertight is not so much the prion hypothesis but this idea that we should ban animal based feed to cattle?

SP: Well, I think that it’s absolute. The UK paid a huge price. It cost billons and billons of pounds in this crisis. Over 200 animals were clearly diagnosed with BSE. The best estimates are that there was more than a million animals that had BSE infection, slaughtered and entered the human food chain. Now, the good part of all of this is that BSE is not very transmissible. It is transmissible to humans. More than almost 200 have developed variant CJD. But that’s a small number compared to the number of BSE prions that entered the human food chain.

On the other hand, if you look back what’s absolutely clear is that John MacGregor, who was the minister of agriculture, and the Southwood committee that he organised, got it absolutely right, along with people at the Central Veterinary Lab in Weybridge. They figured out that this was a feed born epidemic. They figured this out extremely early. And in 1988 the feed bans that were imposed are directly responsible for the very small number of people who subsequently developed variant CJD. So the idea of not continuing these feed bans seems to me to be lunacy. I think these feed bans should be used throughout the world. If we didn’t learn a lesson from BSE and variant CJD then something is wrong, radically wrong.

GM: What are your future plans for research in this area?

SP: Well, my focus is to learn how a second prion is made. It’s to learn the atomic structure of the prion, which we still don’t know. And the last area that I’m extremely interested in and putting enormous effort in is developing a therapy for CJD. Because some wonderful people develop CJD every year on this planet and I would hope that we could cure them of this awful disease. But even more important, I think if we can break through in one of these neurodegenerative diseases, and I think we have more tools in the prion world than we do in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or motor neuron disease or even Huntington’s, then I think all of these diseases will fall. I really feel very strongly that we need an enormous effort. We need a war on these neurodegenerative diseases. Because they are age dependent and as we live longer more and more people are going to come down with these disorders.

Sir Roy interview part two

GM: Stanley Prusiner there. Well, finally back to that interview with Professor Sir Roy Anderson who’s recently taken up his post as the new rector here at Imperial College. Having discussed his vision for the College and his role as an advisor to the government in infectious diseases I was interested to hear how he feels about taking up the top job, especially having been a student here in the 1960s.

RA: It’s an extraordinary honour to have this job. It really is. And in some senses, in relation to previous rectors, it’s even more a privilege for me. Because I started here as a student and graduated with my first degree. There was Carnaby Street, there was the King’s Road. It was exciting. My primary obsession at school was sport, both athletics and rugby. I was a 200 metre/400 metre runner and then pretty obsessed with rugby. So when I was here I probably was more obsessed with rugby in my first year than anything else. And I played for Imperial College for six years, actually the first team. So it was a long association here.

But then in my second year I got really excited about biology and evolution and so on. I just thought probably I’ll be a scientist. But I had mixed views about whether it would be in academic life. For example, when I finished my first degree here I went up to ICI for a set of interviews and then I went for the fast-stream interviews in the Civil Service. Then the biology department, or zoology as it was then, said would you like a PhD studentship? There’s a NERC one going. Probably not for the best of reasons. I’d so enjoyed my undergraduate years that I thought another three years would be rather good fun. And also I was getting more and more obsessed with biology and research. So no thought of what the future might hold. You don’t at that age. So it is an extraordinary pleasure and a very exciting task to take on.

GM: And what do you think are going to be the big challenges facing Imperial College over the coming years?

RA: I think we’ve got many. We’ve got the obvious one, that I’ve already mentioned. It’s an internationally very competitive world. Scientists can move anywhere, and increasingly do so. When I look at the staff, before I even turn to the students, we’re a total international community. And that’s delightful. So we’re attracting lots of good people from all over Europe, all over North America and much, much broader than that, China and India. So one of the tasks is to make this place continuingly attractive. And one of my challenges is obviously to think of ways that we can improve that side of it.

Second big challenge for the College. We are like an international multinational company. We have got a series of quite important strategic decisions to make about how we engage with the rest of the world. How we’ve done it to date is very good but it’s bottom-up. And the questions that come to mind are we’ve got the individual research collaborations but should Imperial have footprints overseas? Should we engage in turning this from a dominantly London based organisation to something that’s broader?

Now, the third area is an obvious one. I’ve had a lot of conversations with politicians over the last few years about climate change and other issues. Some international observers believe that regulation, political agreement, international treaties will solve this problem. I’m afraid I don’t believe that. I believe quite sincerely that science and technology is the main hope we have for dealing with the energy crisis/food crisis that we’re in today. And indeed the impact of climate change. We have to really invest a lot of our energies and abilities into looking at novel energy sources. Looking at novel ways to feed and water the Earth and what the problems and issues are there. And those are quite non-trivial tasks. And then there’s also the issues about mitigating climate change, carbon capture technologies and so on. So that is one area that I very much want to strategically focus on.

The fourth area, which is linked to this, is that health is a crucial bit of education. And large chunks of the poorer regions of the World still suffer very poor health. Child life expectancy, and so on, is not good in dominant parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. There are, of course, special bits of the world which the current situations politically make very difficult education and health. That’s obviously Zimbabwe. But I rather hope that we will focus a little bit too on global health where we can see how our technologies, our management skills and so forth, our medical clinical skills, can be brought to bear to focus attention on solving some real practical problems in the developing world.

GM: And mentioning health there, that brings us neatly on to your own area. Because obviously you’ve had a long career in science. Is there a scientist that you’d pick out as your favourite scientist?

RA: I was at a school, Hertford Grammar School, which has a house called Wallace House, and that was named after Alfred Wallace. So I always think of Wallace and Darwin in the same breath. Because Wallace wrote to Darwin when he was collecting in South East Asia about his ideas concerning evolution, which were of course the same as Darwin’s ideas. And that first letter stimulated Charles Darwin to get a move on with the book, The Origin of the Species. Darwin gets the limelight but Alfred Wallace, perhaps I’m biased by my school, but he was equally important in that discovery.

GM: And as for your pastimes, what you do in your spare time. One thing I gather is that you’re very interested in photography. Do you have a pretty mean SLR camera by any chance?

RA: I’ve always been interested in wildlife photography. You need huge patience, which I don’t actually have in spades. I’m sure my wife, Claire, would agree with that. But it’s also being in the right place at the right time. I’m afraid I’m a particular Nikon obsessed person and I have a D3 camera. So it is an obsession and I enjoy it. But the amount of time that I have to do it, of course, is rather limited. I’ve been very, very privileged in my research career of having travelled all over the world to very remote places on all the continents. And of course that’s presented opportunities for photographing wildlife. Whether it’s the jungles of South East Asia or deserts in Australia or whatever. So that is an obsession but I must admit recently I haven’t had a great deal of time.

GM: Professor Sir Roy Anderson, the incoming rector of Imperial. And that’s it for this month. Plenty more for you next time though. The August edition will be available, true to form, on the first working day of the month. This podcast is jointly hosted by the Imperial Press Office and our Science Communication Group. The theme music is called Lila and comes from the composer Ozgur Buldum. If you have anything to say about what you’ve heard in this edition then do let us know. The best forum for discussion is our Facebook group. Just type ‘Imperial College podcast’ into Facebook to find us. And current discussions up there include whether or not the download file size of this podcast is too big. I personally think it’s worth it for the better quality. And, hey, it’s only once a month. Agree or disagree? Let me know. But to avoid using up anymore megabytes let’s just quickly tell you that your producer today has been Helen Morant and I’m Gareth Mitchell. Until next time it’s goodbye for now.