Imperial College London

Gene targets for obesity and wildfire research: News from the College

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DNA structure Digital illustration in colour background. Image: Shutterstock

Here’s a batch of fresh news and announcements from across Imperial.

From a study showing a genetic link for obesity, to a new centre for wildfire research, here is some quick-read news from across the College.

Obesity gene target

An international team has discovered a new genetic link for a type of obesity which affects pathways in the brain as well as in the pancreas.

Caused by mutations in a single gene called MRAP2, the condition is associated with excessive hunger and linked to early onset diabetes and high blood pressure.

Professor Philippe Froguel, who worked with French researchers in Lille on the discovery, hopes the findings could lead to new treatments targeting the MRAP2 protein. He said: “Discoveries such as these could help to tackle genetic forms of obesity. Finding the genetic basis is the key to targeting excessive hunger.”

Froguel’s team previously identified the MC4R gene and a treatment to activate the protein and affect appetite. The treatment is expected to become available from next year.

Read more in Nature Medicine: ‘Loss-of-function mutations in MRAP2 are pathogenic in hyperphagic obesity with hyperglycemia and hypertension

Neutrophils not so bad

: Neutrophils (Red) and Type 2 innate lymphoid cells (Green) surround the airways (Magenta) and blood vessels (Blue) during allergic inflammation
Neutrophils (Red) and Type 2 innate lymphoid cells (Green) surround the airways (Magenta) and blood vessels (Blue) during allergic inflammation

When it comes to asthma, neutrophils may not be the ‘bad guys’ people thought they were.

Severe asthma is caused, in part, by inflammation of the branching airways inside the lungs – which makes it hard to breathe. White blood cells called neutrophils are a major component of this inflammation, and researchers previously thought these cells were driving much of the lung damage and ensuing symptoms.

But new research from Dr Robert Snelgrove and Dr Dhiren Patel, from Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute, has found that neutrophils are not all bad in the context of asthma. They show targeting neutrophils can also have a negative effect, as they have a regulatory role over other inflammatory cells in the lung.

Read the full paper in Science Immunology: ‘Neutrophils restrain allergic airway inflammation by limiting ILC2 function and monocyte–dendritic cell antigen presentation

Malaysian turbomachinery accolade

Professor Martinez-Botas in labProfessor Ricardo Martinez-Botas, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has received an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).

Professor Martinez-Botas is the co-Director of UTM’s Centre for Low Carbon Transport (LoCARtic) and has supervised more than ten PhD students from UTM and other institutions in Malaysia.

In 2018, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad visited Imperial and toured Professor Martinez-Botas’s Turbo Group lab, learning about the latest developments in low-carbon transport and electric motors, as well as major collaborations with UTM.

Recycling tech award

Matoha instrumentMatoha Instrumentation, founded by Imperial scientists and entrepreneurs, has won an Institute of Physics Business Start-Up Award.

The company make technologies that quickly and cheaply analyse the chemical composition of materials that visually look the same, allowing them to be more easily sorted for recycling. They have made two platforms: one that identifies and analyses plastics, and one that works with fabrics.

The technology uses a combination of near-infrared spectroscopy and machine-learning algorithms to continuously improve performance. The small and low-cost nature of the technology means it can also be used where larger, automatic detectors are not feasible, instead providing a ‘better pair of eyes’ to manual sorters. The team behind Matoha Instrumentation previously won the Faculty of Natural Science’s Make-A-Difference competition.

Read more on the Institute of Physics’ website

IMPACT reunion

Participants at IMPACT reunion with Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre bannerThe Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre marked the end of Black History Month and six years of the IMPACT talent development programme for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff with a special reunion event. Delegates and mentors, old and new, gathered at the event to reflect on and celebrate their time on the programme.

Gabriella Gordon-Kerr, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, has been at the helm of the IMPACT programme since it started in 2014. She said: “It was great to gather our delegates and mentors in one room, and to reflect on the success of the IMPACT programme. At our reunion event, we looked at the history of the programme and heard stories of progression from delegates. 

“We asked delegates to sign a guest book on the day, and one of the quotes that resonated with us said: “IMPACT has left an ever-lasting impact on my life in more ways than one.” Here’s hoping to another great six years.”

Lecture anniversary

BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera presented the 10th Vincent Briscoe Lecture of Imperial’s Institute for Security Science and Technology this week.

He spoke of the intertwining history of technology and espionage over the last century, from the most classified heart of the national security state. From Bletchley Park through the Cold War to Google and Huawei he explored how data, encryption and computers transformed what we think of as secret and what this means for us.

This marks the tenth anniversary of the lecture, which was named in honour of Professor Vincent Briscoe, a distinguished inorganic chemist at Imperial’s Department of Chemistry.

Imperial’s rising star

Dr Jackie Bell has won the Rising Star Award from WISE – a campaign that promotes the work of women in STEM.

The annual awards recognise inspiring individuals who actively promote these subjects to girls and women. Dedicated to raising aspirations and changing people’s beliefs that science isn’t for them, Dr Bell has given talks to schools and community groups across the UK, and helps Imperial and other institutions develop inclusive community outreach approaches.

Jackie is currently developing the Department of Computing’s outreach strategy, committing to at least 50 per cent female participation for all activities. Jackie said: “I’m a strong supporter of the WISE Campaign and all that is being done to achieve gender balance. To have my work recognised like this is an honour and winning the Rising Star award has given me a greater platform to bring about positive change.”

Hot topic

Speaker at launch of Leverhulme Centre for WildfiresImperial held the launch of a new research centre studying the science and impact of wildfires. Speakers from the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society were joined by Marc Castellnou, a Strategic Fire Analyst working with Bombers de Catalunya (Firefighters of Catalonia), who warned that warm and wet winters, followed by extremely hot summers are a perfect storm for the most dangerous wildfires.

Historically common in Mediterranean countries, evidence shows these conditions have arrived in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Scandinavia as a result of climate change. The Centre’s new Director, Imperial’s Professor Colin Prentice, said, “We need a better understanding of how and why wildfires occur, knowledge to make seasonal forecasts, and an urgent need to understand how to live with wildfires.”

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