(Almost) One year later

With large parts of continental Europe currently enduring a severe heatwave, maybe some people will remember, with fond memory, the ice bucket challenge. A year ago the challenge went viral on social media and my inaugural post featured a friend of mine doing it too. People were pouring buckets/pots/canisters of ice-cold water over themselves to raise awareness and donations for a rare disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a type of motor neuron disease (MND). One person went to even greater lengths and had glacial water released over him from a helicopter. Celebrities joined the challenge too and even Homer Simpson poured a cup of cold water over himself.

At the time, my main concern was that not enough of the donated money – a whopping $115 million in the USA and £7 million in the UK – would go into (basic) research. However, according to ALS Association approximately two thirds of the money is being channelled into various research projects. For instance, a $5 million chunk went to a collaboration between several labs based in California that investigate how nerve cells/neurons can be isolated from patients and grown as stem cells in the lab. Once this is achieved, these cells can be used to study the properties of affected neurons in more depth and eventually to test new drugs before giving them to patients. Another approach will be using $3.5 million to sequence the genomes of patients suffering from ALS and thereby find out what genetic signatures are associated with the disease. Overall therefore, my initial scepticism seems to have been unfounded since a large chunk of the money is indeed being invested in research. [To put these figures in perspective, however, let me just add that, on average, it takes ten years to produce a new drug with an associated cost of at least $1 billion.]

Pie chart showing where the $115 million went. - Image obtained from the video of this CNN article.

Pie chart showing where the $115 million went. – Image obtained from the video of this CNN article.

Apart from research, other funds are going into patient care, such as providing improved intravenous nutrition and better mobility aids, such as walking sticks, rollators and wheel chairs. Additionally, the ALS Association is investing in education and spreading the awareness for MND even further and lastly, it is trying to motivate people to re-do the ice bucket challenge this August. And if that all goes to plan I’ll write again in a year, hopefully reporting on advances in the field and maybe with some news on the early stages of development of a new drug.

Further reading:

A newspaper article in the Guardian.

A CNN article.

Editing @eLife

Within the span of three days two people independently told me that I “always manage to land on my feet”. Well, I think they’re right about that. For the last two weeks I have been working as an editorial intern in the Features Team at the scientific journal eLife.

eLife logo

eLife logo (copied directly from their website)

They won’t object to me re-using their logo here since eLife was established in 2012 as one of the first fully open-access online journals for the life and biomedical sciences. One of eLife’s distinguishing features is its fast decision-making process: once a research team submits an article for consideration the initial decision of whether to review it or immediately reject it is made within a few days. Furthermore, the reviewing process itself rarely takes more than a month and if changes need to be made to the manuscript then there usually is only one round of revisions. So when it took them a whole nine days to reject a paper I had been working on with friends they were actually being slow. Other than having a fast decision-making process, eLife is also trying to increase the quality of the science they publish and one endeavour that I find particularly interesting is their “cancer reproducibility project“: 50 of the highest impact cancer papers published between 2010 and 2012 were picked and are now going to be re-done by independent researchers in an attempt to find out how reproducible the results actually are.

In the day-to-day publishing at eLife, however, one of the main things I worked on was writing so-called Digests – short summaries of each of the research papers that are meant to be understandable to interested laypeople. The digests include some background information, an explanation of the main results in the paper and a brief description of which questions future experiments will address. Among other things, I wrote about what happens to sleep-deprived fruit flies, a new mechanism that protects against pancreatic cancer, how some pathogenic gut bacteria get past our defences, and how skin cancer cells move. After reading and thinking about a considerable number of these articles it is less surprising that our paper was rejected.

Of course my digests are not being published as I wrote them. Peter, the main Features editor, went through and corrected all of my writing, something that was extremely useful to me. For instance, I learnt to avoid what he calls “jaw-breakers”, combinations of words in quick succession that are difficult to say. (However, upon re-reading that last sentence, maybe I should say I am still “learning to avoid” jaw-breakers.) Other things he pointed out were practical, because they helped me understand how much or how little the general public can be assumed to know about science. By the start of the second week I could already hear Peter’s voice in my head while writing – which sounds a lot worse than it was since he actually has a pleasant Northern Irish accent – telling me to rephrase this or shorten that.

Apart from writing digests I edited a so-called Insight article, a slightly longer article that comments in more depth on an original research paper and is written by an expert in the field. In particular, I learnt about how the production of transgenic pigs might be able to curb the next outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (assuming these pigs will be approved by the various regulatory bodies).

Other than that I worked on editing an interview with an early career researcher, i.e. a researcher who is at PhD level or higher but has not received a tenure-track position (yet). In between these things I proofread some articles before they were published in their final form, or looked for “pull quotes” to make articles more interesting. (I didn’t know that pull quotes were called that, but they are the sentences that are pulled out of the text of an article and enlarged so that you immediately read them and subsequently get slightly annoyed when you find them again in the main text.)

the features team

Stuart, Peter, me, Emma and Sarah (from left to right)

I have to admit that working in a typical open-plan office was a new experience for me, since I’m generally used to chaotic lab benches and cramped desk spaces. The thing I enjoyed least was that everyone eats lunch on their own (except for Friday pub lunches) and often at their desk. This struck me as quite strange since you would expect it to be much easier to coordinate having lunch together in a place where everyone works at a computer. In labs people are busy doing experiments but somehow they still find time to be a bit more sociable during their breaks. However, having a nine-to-five (or 9.30 to 4.30 …) job is certainly one of the perks of working in an office like this. Furthermore, I think there is generally less chance of one taking work home (both physically and mentally), although of course I imagine that changes as one assumes more responsibility.

Overall I had an enjoyable experience and am grateful for having been able to get a glimpse into real scientific writing, editing and publishing. If I continue writing eLife digests as a freelancer this will give me the benefit of keeping up to date with the latest, high-quality biomedical research outside the narrow range of a PhD. So really all there is left to say is Thank You to Peter, Emma, Sarah and Stuart, and the rest of the eLife team for being so helpful and welcoming.

More Fluorescent Proteins

Although I’m approximately two years late in reporting about this discovery I still think it’s pretty cool. In 2013 Kumagai et al. for the first time discovered a fluorescent protein in a vertebrate, the Unagi eel. Until then fluorescent proteins had only been found in invertebrates, such as reef corals and the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, where the famous green fluorescent protein originally came from. My attention was drawn to this finding in a brief article in the Chemistry World journal, in which the author claims that, “Unagi’s status as a culinary delicacy means you’re more likely to encounter these eels in a restaurant than a lab”. [Picture copied directly from the article link.]

Unagi eel

Apart from (presumably) tasting good and looking pretty, the fluorescent protein – called UnaG – from Unagi eels may be able to form the basis for a diagnostic test for liver disease. UnaG only fluoresces when bound to bilirubin, which is a break-down product of haem, the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood. Livers with impaired function have difficulty further processing the bilirubin before it is excreted, leading to a build-up of bilirubin in the body, and in extreme cases to jaundice. So the intensity of UnaG fluorescence can be used as a read-out for how badly the liver is damaged.

And now for something completely different: next time I’ll be writing about what it’s like to be an intern at the journal eLife!


Kumagai A, Ando R, Miyatake H, Greimel P, Kobayashi T, Hirabayashi Y, Shimogori T, Miyawaki A A Bilirubin-Inducible Fluorescent Protein from Eel Muscle. Cell 153: 1602-1611