I really enjoyed my visit to the biennial BBSRC Fellows Conference in York last week. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend all of day one as I was in Cambridge first thing discussing the potential for further development of Agri-Tech East with a number of other of key stakeholders but I did manage to arrive before the dinner and had the chance to talk to some of the fellows both before dinner and during the meal. The range of research that is supported through our fellowship schemes is truly breath-taking. This was highlighted further the next day when a number of Future Leader Fellows presented their research in the form of short ‘elevator pitches’ which was a master class in conveying information succinctly and clearly.
I particular enjoyed hearing from Alison Mather on how little we actually do know about antimicrobial resistance in terms of where it is, what we are actually measuring, whether it is different in different host populations both within and between countries. Clearly there is a lot more basic information we need to acquire. Joanne Edgar talked about her planed work in maternal care in chickens which could have a big impact on animal welfare and productivity in the poultry industry. Peter Adams is developing new artificial stacked membranes which are analogous to the thylakoids in chloroplasts which have a light harvesting function. Not only could these have applications in artificial photosynthesis but also could be important for other biological processes. There were many other interesting posters and presentations further reinforcing the breadth of research which BBSRC funds.
I went back to my pharmaceutical roots with Alessio Ciulli, a David Phillips Fellow. He gave a longer presentation on the work of his group at Dundee on more specific targeting of protein-protein interactions in the ubiquitin system, upstream of the proteasome. Specifically they have been using structure based design to targeting E3 ubiquitin ligases. The von Hippel−Lindau protein (pVHL) is the substrate recognition subunit of the VHL E3 ligase that targets HIF-1α for degradation. Initially his group developed inhibitors of the pVHL:HIF-1α interaction with moderate potency. More recently X-ray crystal structural analyses allowed the development of a ligand series with nanomolar binding affinities. These VHL:HIF1a inhibitors could be interesting new probes for tracking hypoxic signalling which could be important for developing new therapies for cancer or inflammatory disease.
With additional funding from BBSRC through responsive mode, his group are also targeting protein:protein interactions in the chromatin system. The BET bromodomains (protein interaction modules that bind acetyl-lysine) have been targeted by potent small-molecule inhibitors, but these inhibitors lack selectivity for individual family members. Using fragment based design they modified existing small-molecule inhibitors to achieve with nanomolar affinity and achieves up to 540-fold for Brd4 – impressive work which again could underpin development of anticancer agents.
Lastly, several of the women attending asked me about the Tim Hunt story and I want to end with my personal views on this. I know that over the past week or so a number of people have condemned what they see as ‘a lynch mob’. My views are this. Firstly I believe Tim Hunt (whom I do not know) did speak his mind at the event and did not, as he later claimed, say these things as a joke. In fact the day after I listened to him on Radio 4 when he said he did mean the part about ‘having trouble with girls’ and ‘he just wanted to be honest actually’. For me it would have been far more acceptable for him to have stuck to his guns about that and then we could have had a conversation about why he felt that way. I think Colin Blakemore’s piece in the The Times on Saturday 20 June, arguing about the importance of free speech and that ‘Tim Hunt didn’t deserve to have his reputation shredded… He deserved to be told politely why he was wrong’ is clearly right.
On the other hand I think the remarks and the reaction to them reflect an interesting position of where sexism in science sits. For example, I am sure if he had said that non-whites and whites should be segregated in the lab, rather than males and females, then there would be far more approbation and lack of forgiveness. In addition, male and female segregation in order to reduce the distracting influence of attraction assumes a very heterosexual view of the world. As I said in a comment I provided to the Science Media Centre the important thing here is to be inclusive and recognise the benefits of diverse approaches in order to tackle the difficult challenges that face us. We also need to be professional in the workplace and that includes emotional maturity and respect – tears and bullying are just not professional in either sex!
I joined several other scientists to discuss the issue of sexism in the lab and wider problems about culture and unconscious bias in science on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science last week. One thing that emerged from the programme is a need to give both men and women better tools and techniques for calling out inappropriate behaviour as such conversations can be difficult and challenging. Hopefully one day we will have a culture where we won’t need them but until then we will work on finding ways to help move the agenda forward.