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At the cutting edge - recently funded projects

19 November 2007

The competition for funding is fierce, with only very best proposals maturing into a project.


Tracing the path of depression

Depression is an extremely debilitating disease that has a major impact on health. It is estimated to cost the UK around £12 billion a year, yet little is understood about the changes in the brain that underlie this disorder. A grant of £364,000 to develop radioactive ‘tracers’ that will help in understanding the cause of depression has been awarded to the University and its partners, with further funding from pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, which will contribute £667,000 to the project. 

Powerful techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) scanning have recently provided significant advances in understanding how the brain works. These techniques allow the study of brain function and chemistry in living human brains, but they rely on the availability of specially designed radioactive ‘tracers’ to monitor brain function. Noradrenaline, a chemical found throughout the brain, has been implicated in depression and many other debilitating brain diseases, but it cannot be studied in living human brains at present, since no tracer is available to monitor it

The funding awarded to David Nutt, Professor of Psychopharmacology, and colleagues will be used to develop tracers to track noradrenaline’s activity in the brain. This in turn will allow us to better diagnose depression, which will lead to a much better prognosis for the sufferer. It will also permit the refinement of treatments that we already have, and the development of new and better ones.

The grant is one of 18 such projects being spear-headed by the Medical Research Council. The total value of the grants is £17 million for projects that will develop new ways to assess health, monitor disease, or determine responsiveness to treatment.

Stem cells to repair damaged heart muscle

In the first clinical trial of its kind in the world, 60 patients who have recently suffered a major heart attack will be injected with selected stem cells from their own bone marrow during routine coronary bypass surgery. The trial will test whether the stem cells will repair heart muscle cells damaged by the heart attack. Dr Raimondo Ascione, Reader in Cardiac Surgery Sciences, and colleagues at the Bristol Heart Institute have been awarded a grant of £210,000 from the British Heart Foundation to conduct the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

In a heart attack, part of the heart muscle loses its blood supply (usually due to furring up of the arteries with fatty material) and cells in that part of the heart die, leaving a scar. This reduces the ability of the heart to pump blood around the body. Since the blood supply to the heart can be improved with coronary bypass surgery or angioplasty, thereby reducing the risk of further heart attacks, current treatments can keep the patient alive, but with a heart that is working less efficiently than before the heart attack.

The viability and function of the area already damaged is not restored. Cardiac stem cell therapy aims to repair the damaged heart as it has the potential to replace the damaged tissue. By electing to use a very promising stem cell type selected from the patient’s own bone marrow, this approach ensures no risk of rejection or infection. It also gets around the ethical issues that would result from the use of stem cells from embryonic or foetal tissue.


Untangling the entangled

Quantum mechanics tells us how the world works at its most fundamental level. It predicts very strange behaviour that can only be observed when things are very cold and very small. It has an inbuilt element of chance, allows ‘superpositions’ of two different states, and admits super-strong correlations – entanglement – between objects thousands of miles apart that would be nonsensical in our everyday world.

Despite this strange behaviour, future technologies anticipated to utilise what is known

as ‘quantum information science’ include quantum computers with tremendous computational power, quantum metrology, which promises the most precise measurements possible, and quantum cryptography, which offers perfect security and is ready to be used in commercial communication systems.

Single particles of light – photons – make excellent quantum ‘bits’ or qubits, because they suffer from almost no noise (at these scales even heat is ‘noise’), so they have great potential for application in future quantum technologies. There has already been a number of impressive proof-of-principle demonstrations of photonic information science; however, this technology has now reached a roadblock – it is stuck in the research laboratory, unable to be scaled up into a practical application.

To address the problems, Dr Jeremy O‚Brien, who is affiliated to the Department of Physics and the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and his research partners, have been awarded over a million pounds by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The project aims to reach the high performance levels required by developing single photon sources based on diamond nanocrystals, optical wires on optical chips, and superconducting single photon detectors. It also aims to integrate all of these components on a single optical chip.

Already O’Brien has demonstrated a way to almost double measurement precision by using photons of light with which to gauge distances. The findings were reported in Science (4 May 2007). The Japanese-British team showed how the precision of such a measurement depends on the wavelength of the light used. By using a group of four-photons, the set behaves as if it had a shorter wave-length than a single photon. It is rather like using a ruler with spacing four times as fine. Bringing this kind of technology from lab-scale to chip-scale is a key target of this grant.

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