Transcript April 2008
Gareth Mitchell: This is the official podcast of Imperial College London. And I’m Gareth Mitchell of the Science Communication Group here at Imperial and the BBC technology programme, Digital Planet. Hello. Today, how Imperial is now home to an ambitious plan to develop the next generation in heart medicine. That’s in just a moment. And amidst so much discussion of renewable power sources these days is there any energy left in coal?
Sevket Durucan: If the combustion efficiency is improved from 45/47 per cent to 50/55 then you have less emissions. And that is what is referred to as being clean.
GM: And to one of the world’s most exciting and rapidly developing countries, India, and how the Business School here at Imperial wants a piece of the action.
Gerry George: It is massive in terms of new buildings coming up, new educational infrastructure that is needed, new students graduating and new jobs being placed.
New therapies to fix heart damage
GM: That’s all right here on the official podcast of Imperial College London. Well, let’s begin with affairs of the heart and specifically where it’s at in cardiovascular medicine. I’m with Professor Michael Schneider who’s head of Cardiovascular Science and chair in Cardiology in the National Heart and Lung Institute which is a division of Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine. And Professor Schneider, I know you’re a cheerful kind of person most of the time but especially at the moment because you and your researchers have just won a very significant award, haven’t you?
Michael Schneider: Yes, that’s right. We were fortunate enough to be one of the four centres named by the British Heart Foundation as a centre of research excellence, which is a six year nine million pound grant for collaborations between cardiovascular medicine on the one hand, the enabling biological sciences, including here at Imperial stem cell biology, developmental biology, genomics and the unusual part of the mix is the strong emphasis on bioengineering and the physical and computational sciences, which are of course part of Imperial’s unique culture as a specialised school of science, technology, engineering and medicine.
GM: Years ago I went to a cardiology conference and I was interviewing quite an eminent cardiovascular surgeon who said really heart surgery, it’s nothing more than plumbing. And I felt that there was a bit of understatement there. He wasn’t particularly selling his trade to me particularly well. Obviously there’s so much more to it than that. A heady mix of stem cells, proteomics and so on.
MS: In a way he’s right in that the kinds of therapy that were available to patients at the time that you interviewed him largely consisted of fixing the plumbing. What we would say is that the problem with heart attacks when they occur is that the heart, unlike, say, the skin or the liver, lacks a significant capacity to rebuild itself by creating new muscle.
And what many investigators around the world are trying to do right now is to help heart muscle bloom in the desert. To promote the ability of cardiac muscle to regenerate either by supplying stem cells through a catheter like one uses with diagnostic heart procedures or at the time or surgery. Or potentially giving drugs or small molecules or hormone like proteins to stimulate or activate the latent stem cells that exist within the heart but which clearly aren’t enough for the heart to prepare itself under normal circumstances. So what we’d like to do is either give back more of them or activate them so that they can do a better job.
GM: You mentioned there stem cells for instance. So presumably this is taking cells that still haven’t differentiated into what they’re going to end up being and trying to make them into heart muscle cells to rebuild the heart?
MS: Right. So one of the ways to do that most obviously is with embryonic stem cells which unquestionably have the ability to create every cell type in the body without exception. Now, what we don’t know in the case of embryonic stem cells is how best to turn them into heart muscle to that they do so efficiently and homogenously. We don’t know how to take them once they’ve turned into heart muscle further along the path so that they are mature adult like cells rather than primitive heart muscle cells. How to make them pump vigorously. We don’t know how to deliver them most effectively to the injured heart. So we know that that’s a promising cell type to use but there’s still many questions to be answered.
There are other kinds of cells though that have been deployed for heart repair around the world. And although cardiac regeneration I’m sure sounds very futuristic and far off to many of your listeners what’s important for them to know is that there already have been more than a dozen human trials, clinical trials, of stem cells of different kinds reported worldwide. Most typically it’s done with cells from the bone marrow that can give rise to all the cells of the blood. Or in some cases cells descended from the bone marrow that circulate in the bloodstream. And those results are very encouraging for a field that’s so new and really just getting started.
Two things might be fair to say. One is that the effectiveness is such that it’s close to the margin of our ability to detect reliably in clinical studies. So the benefits that have been seen are real but small. The second is that the reason that the cells from bone marrow or the bloodstream might not work better than they do is that they may not turn into heart muscle quite as well as some investigators imagined three or four years ago. The major benefits from bone marrow might be through other kinds of mechanisms like helping the heart’s wound healing or helping the heart make new blood vessels. But not turning into new heart muscle itself. And so from that point of view trying to make new heart muscle bloom in the desert.
In our laboratory we study on the one hand embryonic stem cells which can clearly do so and novel stem cells that we discovered, and a few other labs are working on, that exist in a latent form in the heart itself. No one knew they were there until just a couple of years ago. And now we can take those cells out even in the human heart, grow them up, purify them and potentially give them back to patients and anticipate that these cells will turn back into heart muscle more effectively than the ones from bone marrow. There’s still a few years of pilot work to do before it would be ready for patients.
GM: But a very exciting potential solution there to many problems.
MS: There are questions like how best to grow them up so that they retain the properties that we want so that they are clearly safe to be given back to patients. But I think a consensus of investigators is emerging that heart derived cells would be highly auspicious as a potential therapy for heart disease.
GM: We also hear a lot about proteomics in cardiovascular research. Can you just talk us through some of that?
MS: Proteomics is a bit of jargon in the trade and it refers to technologies for studying not just one or two proteins that a cell makes but potentially profiling thousands or tens of thousands of proteins that the cell makes. And there are a number of investigators here at Imperial, including my colleague David Clugg in the Chemical Biology Centre who are outstanding investigators in that area of work and really pushing forward the frontiers for those kinds of measurements. From the point of view of cardiac regeneration and repair, one of the important questions for proteomics to help solve is what are the hormone like proteins that these cells manufacture and secrete into their environment? Because many investigators think that an important part of how stem cells work in regenerative medicine is not just by what they turn in to it’s also what they make and how they affect their neighbours. And so a proteomics approach to study the secreted signals from stem cells of different kinds will give us important clues as to how stem cells help heal the heart.
Another important question for proteomics to help answer has to do with turning embryonic stem cells into heart muscle. We know that in normal embryonic life, when the heart is being formed, there are secreted signals that come from neighbouring tissues and that those signals provide the instructive environment that allows the heart to form normally. We need proteomics to help us answer the question what proteins are being secreted at that time that act on the future heart forming region to instruct it and guide it and lead the heart to form?
GM: So all kinds of research at the cellular level, the molecular level, the stem cell level. Any thoughts on creating artificial hearts? It’s something that the media seems to be very keen on. This idea almost of a kind of artificial bionic heart. Is that something of interest to your researchers here?
MS: I think one of the things that is a strength here at Imperial with such strong capabilities in biomedical engineering and tissue engineering is that one can begin to ask the question not just about administering cells as a suspension of cells or an aerosol of cells but manufacture those cells in an orientated way so that they’ve got real fibres and better tensile strength and better mechanical performance. And, as you say, some investigators have even demonstrated in pilot studies that one might scale that up into a scaffold that resembles the heart itself. Whether that is a better form of cardiac repair. I think that’s going to be a front burner issue over the next five years.
GM: Now that the funding has been awarded what happens next? How is it going to be implemented?
MS: So here at Imperial the BHF Centre for Research Excellence is constructed in part around seven flagship projects. One in the lab of each of the seven directors. And those cover topics like stem cell biology, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, human genetics and genomics. Three topics that we have talked about but also a variety of other important topics that we didn’t discuss in any detail including inflammation in blood vessels, cardiac arrhythmias and sudden death, chemical biology and the affect of blood flow on the lining of blood vessels.
We also have created here at Imperial a new four year MRES PhD programme specifically to create a cadre of investigators who are trained in a new cross disciplinary way that includes cardiovascular medicine, the enabling biological sciences and the allied physical and computational sciences to prepare scientists who work across these frontiers and out of the usual scientific silos to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms of heart disease and to develop novel diagnostic procedures and novel therapies that couldn’t be created by any one discipline alone. We’ve got the PhD programme, the postdoctoral projects, the training for physicians and scientists and a very, very wide array of education programmes including visiting professorships, seminars, speakers, workshops. Pilot project support to help get new initiatives underway in the labs of some of our rising stars or to promote established labs taking altogether new directions in their approach to heart disease.
GM: Michael Schneider there with that funding award literally just announced this month by Imperial. And speaking of breaking news, let’s now have a quick walkthrough some of the other stories from here making the headlines recently.
Headlines from around the College
Researchers in our department of Earth Science and Engineering have uncovered more evidence of how the origins of life on earth may have come from space. We already knew that the planet’s biological history began around four billion years ago soon after meteorites arrived carrying chemical compounds like amino acids, crucial material for the formation of life. Now, whilst it’s still a leap to say that those space rocks were single-handedly responsible for bringing our ancestral bugs here to Mother Earth the Imperial scientists writing online in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science say they’ve found some of the most compelling evidence yet that meteorites played a crucial role. Not only that but the early Solar System was richer in life’s raw materials than we previously thought. The new evidence comes from the biggest concentration of amino acids ever measured in meteorites. The ancient rocks under analysis were found in Antarctica in the 1990s.
And elsewhere at Imperial a team in the NERC Centre for Population Biology, working with colleagues in Montpellier and Liverpool, has been investigating the optimum conditions to ensure the greatest biodiversity and productivity in an ecosystem. They’re interested in how much a system benefits from the rate that organisms move around it. If life forms tend to stay put they’re less likely to succeed in harsh environments. That’s because here a wide range of organisms is needed to give enough genetic diversity to allow populations to develop those illusive adaptations required to withstand life at the extreme. And that won’t happen unless there’s widespread dispersal of organisms through the system.
On the other hand, if they spread too readily you just end up with a whole load of generalists and that stifles overall biodiversity. So there’s a balance to be struck. And that’s just where this new study comes in. In the lab the researchers created a mini ecosystem made up of communities of bacteria and then studied them as they moved around and evolved to live in various parts of the system over hundreds of generations. The nice thing about using bacteria is that you can study many generations in a fraction of the time that you’d need for other organisms. And that’s good if you don’t fancy waiting several hundred million years for the results. And the good news for ecologists and conservationists is that the Imperial work now gives insights into the optimum balance between specialists and generalists needed to achieve the most productive possible ecosystem.
There you go, two headlines there for you from around the College. And you can read more news as it happens on our press office website. Just go to imperial.ac.uk/news.
The pros and cons of coal
And you’d think that in these days of discussion over renewable fuels that coal would be old news and yet the mining industry, previously in decline in the UK, has shown signs of recovery in some places. Last summer the Unity Mine Cwmgwrach in South Wales reopened after ten years out of operation. Various other collieries around Britain are being considered for similar revivals. So Science Media Production MSc student Rebecca Ross was interested in why there still seems to be energy in such a seemingly old technology. She’s been speaking to Professor Sevket Durucan who’s a professor of mining and environmental engineering here at Imperial. But first Rebecca hit the street to gauge people’s attitudes to coal.
Member of the public:They need to start looking at renewable energy and start using the wind and the water and just making things a lot more sensible instead of just rushing into to go nuclear and reopening coal mines and taking steps back. Let’s take steps forward instead.
Member of the public:Having been down a coal mine a mile down and two miles out to sea I don’t agree with it. I think fossil fuels destroys and that can’t happen.
Rebecca Ross: Even a ex-coal miner seems to think that we’re heading in the wrong direction. I can’t help thinking I’d be mad not to take the chance to talk to an expert so I’m off to see Professor Sevket Durucan, a lecturer in mining and environmental engineering.
Sevket Durucan: Well, in the context of the need for coal and how much coal would be used in the near future it is obviously good news. Coal prices have increased in recent years because of huge demands. But the more you invest in technology in making fossil fuels sustainable the less you invest on renewables. And that could be a valid argument. On the other hand you have to look at the realities of life and pressures from climate change. In the next 20 years are we going to be able to replace all our fossil fuel consumption by renewables or not? If we can’t, which is a fact, then investing in technology which makes fossil fuel use cleaner is valid. But you have to have all forms of energy. You can’t rely on one form. That always has been proved not to be safe and secure. And four or five years ago any research that is carried out or proposed on fossil fuels was not funded and security of supply was always said to be not an issue. Now it is an issue. So the politics change and everything changes.
RR: How can we make coal cleaner?
SD: If the combustion efficiency is improved from 45/47 per cent to 50/55 then you have less emissions. And that is what is referred to as being cleaner. If you do have the technology to separate the carbon dioxide from the gas, which is the greenhouse flue gas that people are concerned about, and find a way of depositing it, putting it back, underground.
RR: I’m curious to know what the incredibly environmentally conscious think about the mines reopening. Wondering how the young environmentalists on our doorstep react to the news to the mines I went to speak to a member of ICU’s Environmental Society, ESOC.
Rom: My name is Rom. I’m a student of mechanical engineering. I organise Green Week for the Environmental Society and for the Union. My views? Well, in principle I see nothing wrong with the use of coal mines as long as it’s environmentally friendly. The actual mining, whatever it’s used for, whether it be electricity purposes, if it’s used with carbon capture storage. In principle there’s nothing wrong with it. Many other countries are using it. It’s a great fuel source. And ultimately we can’t ignore the fact that we probably will be using fossil fuels for the next 50 or so years.
GM: A point of view there from Imperial College Union’s Environmental Society ending that report from Rebecca Ross.
Gerry George on innovation in India
Well, finally to industry and commerce and one of the most exciting and fastest growing economies in the world is of course that of India. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Imperial’s Business School is keen to link up with innovators and businesses there hence the foundation just a few months ago of the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It’s director is Professor Gerry George. I’m with him now. Gerry, I’ve put into words there something of the excitement surrounding India. Can you put some hard figures on to that?
Gerry George: India is a fascinating story. You can take the economic numbers that it’s growing at nine per cent a year and it’s projected to go even more over the next five to ten years. But the reality, when you look at it, is it is not just the numbers it’s a story of opportunities. There are challenges in working with India, yes, in terms of business, its infrastructure, its limitations. But there are tremendous opportunities. So what the College really is focused is where can we work with India in terms of education, in terms of research and corporate partners?
GM: And you’ve been linking up with corporate partners in India. There are some really big names there likes the enormous Tata manufacturing company which is involved in automotive manufacturing, in minerals, metals, you name it. And also in education. For instance, the Indian Institute of Technology. So there’s quite a few links going on here.
GG: Absolutely. Taking education first. We’ve got a relationship with the Indian Institute of Technology and with the Indian Institute of Management with the alumni in Europe. So we host the alumni groups of IIT and the IIM. It gives access both ways in terms of Imperial being a host for some of the top quality graduates working in Europe with an Indian origin. On the corporate side, we do work with the Tata Group. We are working on an executive education model on building a culture of innovation as well as corporate venturing. Trying to get technologies out of Indian corporates into the market.
GM: And it is very much about India being a self-sufficient economy. And maybe people have this mistaken impression of India as being a place which is effectively servicing businesses in the West. And it partly does that through call centres and so on operating for Western companies but also crucially there’s a whole load of home-grown businesses there.
GG: Absolutely. Let’s take Tata for example. Tata Nano, which is the new car at the $2,500 level. That’s not just a cost basis but is innovation of a completely different kind. It gives access for people who would never otherwise be able to access a car. A mobility, safety and so forth. It’s innovation not just in product design but in business model innovation. If you succeed in India in a community level you can then scale it upwards in pretty much the rest of the world. Our focus so far in academia has been how can we improve blighted cities by setting up a shopping mall or a large casino? But the story here is about how can you help a growing city remain vibrant. So our research angle, which we leverage on all the parts of the College in terms of a built environment, our energy, our civil engineering, our water and so forth, to come up with the research solution on how can you build and sustain a city that is growing at a fantastic pace?
GM: We are talking about enormous pace here. I’ve been to Delhi a couple of times and the Gurgaon area just outside Delhi near where the airport is which until quite recently was pretty much barren. Not a lot was going on there. But now these huge shopping malls have been setup. And I’m talking huge by American and Western standards here. It just takes your breath away, the sheer scale and the rapidity o f development in India doesn’t it?
GG: Yes. In October I did these master classes on business model innovation with several companies, one of them being DLF, or Delhi Land and Finance. And their plan included eight million square feet of space a year in terms of addition on infrastructure in terms of building. It is massive in terms of new buildings coming up, new educational infrastructure that is needed, new students graduating, new jobs being placed. If you take the jobs angle. You have students to be hired and so forth in placement and the turnover rate is about 30/40 per cent a year in, let’s say, IT companies. So their biggest challenge is how can we improve the quality of students that we take on and how can we retain to the best talent? And that’s where we come in as a College in helping that.
GM: Now, it just so happens Gerry that you’re bringing a book out and in fact it’s being launched pretty much as this podcast becomes available. What is the book about? What’s it called?
GG: The book is titled Inventing Entrepreneurs and it captures the stories of scientists who’ve become entrepreneurs. And there is a whole emphasis on converting science into technology opportunities. Bringing in things to market. What I say in this book after interviewing over the past three or four years leading scientists who’ve become entrepreneurs and some who’ve decided not to become and to say what are the challenges? And to consider entrepreneurship as a journey rather than it’s just a start-up. It is not ever just a start-up. It’s about the journey and what the challenges are and certainly what the opportunities are in bringing science up. And the first among them is actually having it be useful. We are the best. Imperial is ranked among the best in terms of innovation in inventions. And the next step then would logically follow is how can we transfer these inventions? How can we create opportunities and improve our whole lot?
GM: It is fascinating though isn’t it? Because we’re talking often about scientists who are moving from the lab bench into the scary world of business and commerce. How fundamental is that change in culture for the scientist who them becomes an innovator?
GG: If you’re a good professor or a scientist you already are working with a budget. You’re working with the lab. You’re hiring people. You’ve got an agenda. You’re writing for grants. It is a big step forward but it is a step. It’s not completely different. The skills there are slightly different. And the book focuses on how can we generate those skills and can we assimilate those skills as we go along? What are the skills to look for? And what should be our thinking? The biggest change is scientists focus on technologies but companies focus on products. So if we have a particular technology that can be made into a product which can go into a market then that’s something that we should think about. And Inventing Entrepreneurs is the book that you should read for it.
GM: I suppose it might be counterintuitive that scientists have a lot of potential in business. Because you might think on one hand that scientists tend to rather lone characters. They may be socially a bit deficient. Perhaps that’s an old fashioned view and the new view actually is that scientists are trained to be able to assimilate lots of data, to spot trends. Many of the kinds of skills that you would need in business.
GG: My background. I’m a geneticist by training but I’ve got my PhD in management. So I’m a geneticist turned social scientist. And then every four or five years I say let me take a sabbatical year and I go and start a company. The way I look at it is entrepreneurship in its truest form is the most noble thing a person can do. Now, if you look at employment or creation or the dignity of work, entrepreneurship does provide that. I say there are five foundations for why we should think of starting a venture. And the top among them is societal benefit.
Then there are other goals. Then the personal goals - do come up in terms of where do you want to be? Do you see yourself 20 years from now as being a professor or a scientist continuing to do your work? Or do you see going into academia and coming out of academia as natural progression of how you would grow your science? The fundamental question then actually is about what do we think of the work that we do? Is it about for the pursuit of science itself or is it about benefiting society in some ways? And so if we decide that the goal is to benefit society then there are different ways in which we can do it. The book encourages people to think about those ways.
GM: Brilliantly put. Well, I do genuinely look forward to reading the book. So good luck with the book and of course the new centre here as well. Lots of exciting times. Gerry George, thank you very much.
GG: Thank you very much Gareth.
GM: Professor Gerry George there. He’s the director of the newly opened Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. And he’s author of Inventing Entrepreneurs, Technology Innovators and their Entrepreneurial Journey. Which pretty much wraps it up for this month but I’ll have plenty more for you in May. This podcast is updated on the first working day of each month. Ozgur Buldum wrote the tune that you can hear underneath me and he very kindly lets us use it as our theme tune. Be grateful to him otherwise it would be me struggling away with the three and a half chords I know on the guitar. Well they say that fusion isn’t quite possible yet as a solution to the world’s energy problems but somehow we’ve achieved it right here between the Imperial Press Office and the Science Communication Group collaborating to produce this podcast each and every month.
I’m Gareth Mitchell. And if you think the production is slick then give thanks to Helen Morant who puts this lot together. So as she fades up the tune as it reaches the end I’d better bid you a fond farewell. Until next time it’s good bye for now.