Summer Special – Stem Cells: Great potential for healing, and important ethical challenges

cells-1872666_1920 Arek Socha pixabay copy
Arek Socha, Pixabay

Do you have a chronic health problem such as asthma, diabetes or arthritis? In the US, 125 million people (around 38% of the population) suffer from these types of diseases, and treating them takes up 78% of the healthcare budget. The figures are probably similar for other developed countries.

At the Faraday Institute summer course last month, the Oxford-based biologist Paul Fairchild explained that a significant proportion of chronic diseases could be treated by replacing just one of the patient’s cell types or tissues. The use of ‘stem cells’ is a rapidly growing area of research and medicine, but it also throws up some very significant ethical issues. Continue reading

Guest Post: Theory and Experience

B0007641 Insulin
Insulin by Anna Tanczos, Wellcome Images. (CC-by-nc-nd4.0)

3 years ago I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. 5,925 injections later, I find it difficult to describe it in a factual, scientific way. Although the biology is fascinating, Type 1 is so much more than that. It’s the joy of having hot chocolate to treat a medical emergency. It’s the awkwardness of Continue reading

Flies and Robotics: Ordered Irregularity

The organization of Drosophila wing epithelial cells after wing inflation. Iyengar, Balaji (2012). figshare. License <a
The organization of Drosophila wing epithelial cells after wing inflation. Iyengar, Balaji (2012). figshare. License CC-BY

As I child I wondered what would happen if my bones grew at a different speed to my skin? Would the bones pop out or would I have floppy boneless regions? How did everything coordinate? As with most childhood questions, below the surface of the apparently childish simplicity there is a deep scientific question which parents often battle to answer. Continue reading

Guest Post: T Cells – a wonder and a signpost

Human neutrophil ingesting MRSA - By National Institutes of Health (NIH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Human neutrophil ingesting MRSA – By National Institutes of Health (NIH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There are many amazing complex systems in our bodies, but the immune system beats them all, recognising foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites and fighting them off.

How do our bodies manage to recognise virtually any kind of foreign invader that we might meet anywhere in the world? Continue reading

Surprised by Science

Today’s post is the second in a bi-weekly series of podcasts that began with an interview with John Polkinghorne. This week I interview Harvey McMahon, a lab head at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge about life in the lab for a Christian.

You can buy a copy of God in the Lab for £8.99 on the Lion Hudson website. For more information, please go to

Reflections of a Cancer Biologist

© Philippa Darbre
© Philippa Darbre

Last week I mentioned that a large proportion of biologists believe in God, so it’s time to hear from one of those people. Philippa Darbre is an Associate Professor in Oncology at the University of Reading. She began her career with a degree in biochemistry from Birmingham and then a PhD from Cambridge. After 5 years at the Molecular Medicine Institute, Oxford, and 9 at Cancer Research UK, she joined the University of Reading in 1991. Philippa begins her own story of of relating science to faith with a verse from Psalm 8.

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place,

what is mankind that you are mindful of them?

At its essence, science is about observing the world around us, and exploring how it works, or, in my case in cancer research, trying to understand how things can go wrong. The beauty of the night sky is Continue reading

Changing the Lens

© Eugene Z,

In his Faraday seminar on teleology (part 1 here), Dr Harvey McMahon suggested that we use more than one type of language to talk about biology. If language is a lens that gives us a certain perspective, then it would be useful to have more than one type of lens in our toolbox. The lens that McMahon suggested we use a little more is teleology, or purpose. He gave three examples of how teleological thinking can be applied.

The stochastic nature of biology

‘Stochastic’ behaviour involves a certain amount of randomness. You could predict the outcome of a stochastic event using statistics, but you would never be 100% certain what was going to happen. That is the nature of most biological processes. The question is, if we were smart enough to study biological systems down to the atomic level, would we find that they are actually completely predictable? Would knowing all the variables make 100% predictions possible? And if we could predict every process in our bodies and brains, would there be room for human decisions? Continue reading