Last week we had a number of collaborative meetings with organisations as diverse as NERC and Syngenta. The first meeting however was an introductory one for me with Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor at Defra. We discussed Defra and Sir Mark Walport’s ongoing review of Animal and Plant Health in the UK as well as other issues of mutual interest.

Later in the week members of the NERC and BBSRC Executive teams got together to see where areas of emerging science might benefit from some joint funding to either capitalise on synergies or accelerate collaboration. We identified a few areas where we could work together more closely and members of the two Councils are exploring these in more depth.

At the end of the week I paid a visit, along with other BBSRC colleagues, to Syngenta at Jealotts Hill International Research Centre – my first visit to the site. It was interesting to get an industrial perspective on the issues surrounding sustainable food production and challenges to improving productivity as well as having the chance to see Syngenta’s largest R&D facility in the world.

As Professor Steve Beaumont, Vice-Principal for Research and Enterprise at the University of Glasgow was in Swindon, I also managed a meeting with him to catch up with developments at the University, including their experience with Impact Acceleration Accounts. I have visits planned to a number of Universities in the coming months and am looking forward to meeting more BBSRC funded researchers and hearing about the science we are investing in.

In terms of new science there have been some really important findings over the last few weeks. On Monday there was the announcement of successful work funded by BBSRC and the Gatsby Foundation on creating resistance to potato blight – the underlying cause of the Irish famines in the 1840’s. The researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, used the Desiree potato which is one of my favourites to grow, primarily because, not having a huge amount of time for gardening, I find it easy and versatile. 2012 was the third year of the trial where a gene was introduced from a close relative of the potato. The conditions in 2012 were ideal conditions for late blight. Sure enough non-transgenic Desiree plants were 100% infected by blight early August while all the transfected plants remained fully resistant to the end of the experiment. There was also a difference in yield, with tubers from each block of 16 transfected plants weighing 6-13kg while the non-transfected tubers weighed 1.6-5kg per block.

I have recently caught up with work from BBSRC and MRC funded scientists in the lab of David Hay who  have shown that human liver cells derived from stem cells meet the current ‘gold standard’ to test drug toxicity – i.e. these stem cell derived hepatocytes showed equivalence to primary adult hepatocytes. This is important not only for developing new therapies for liver disease but also in the routine metabolic profiling of new drugs which hitherto has had to rely on a limited supply of fresh human tissue for accurate metabolic profiling.

Of course with last Friday being Valentine’s Day, I was interested to watch the video from Chris Denning’s lab in Nottingham highlighting his BBSRC-funded work transforming fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes. In the short term this will create an in vitro test system for cardio toxicity but the work also opens the longer term option of stem cell transplantation to repair damaged hearts.

Both the above stem cell examples show how investment in basic biology can open up opportunities for the development of new therapies.

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