02 August 2013
On April 25, 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper in Nature magazine on the molecular structure of DNA whose opening paragraph suggests that, “This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” It proved to be very interesting indeed – the News Chronicle featured an article one month later called, “Why You Are You: Nearer the Secret of Life.” Like all science, the discovery of DNA’s Double Helix was the result of an extended chain of knowledge.
One link in this chain, common to many scientific discoveries over the last 100 years was the involvement of the Medical Research Council. Watson and Crick worked at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, and Maurice Wilkins who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize (Rosalind Franklin had died in 1958 and was ineligible) worked at the MRC Biophysics Research Unit.
Founded in 1913 to tackle Tuberculosis, one of the leading causes of death in the early 20th Century, the MRC has not just been at the forefront of research. While 29 MRC-funded scientists have indeed won Nobel Prizes, the research has had a very direct impact on public health.
While in the UK, children and families are familiar with the ‘Five-A-Day’ advertising campaign promoting the eating of fruit and vegetables, it was Biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland who discovered nutrients essential to the growth and health – now known as vitamins. Previously dietary-linked illnesses, such as ‘scurvy’ suffered by sailors, was the result of something in the food rather than the lack of the right type of food.
Penicillin had been discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1929. But it was the MRC-supported work of Nobel Laureates Sir Ernst Chain and Lord Florey during the Second World War, that enabled the anti-bacterial drug to be produced in enough quantities to make a serious contribution to treating soldiers. It’s worth noting that while the MRC is part of the long UK heritage of investment in research and knowledge, Ernst Chain was German and Howard Florey was Australian – science has no borders.
Throughout the 20th Century the MRC helped fund major breakthroughs in the area of skin-grafts, leukaemia and the invention of MRI-scanning and unsurprisingly DNA looms large in its research. In 2000 the first draft of the Human Genome sequence was published under the direction of John Sulston at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, originally established in 1992 by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.