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Neutrons & Health

An ageing population means that the prevalence of chronic diseases and disabilities is rising. STFC science is helping to tackle this by discovering causes and treatments for common conditions.

The UK research councils are working together in a project called ‘Lifelong health and wellbeing’ find out more about it here.

Take a look at other bioscience and health research that’s been going on at ISIS and how ILL is tackling the health issues of the future.


Tracking cholesterol

Precise measurements of cholesterol transport rates are giving new hope for treating Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects around half a million people every year in the UK.

Cholesterol forms part of the outer membrane that surrounds every cell. It plays a vital role, carrying chemical and nerve signals around the body by insulating nerve fibres, and aids the production of important hormones. 

Problems in cholesterol production and transport in the brain can lead to build-ups of the chemicals causing Alzheimer’s disease. As well as Alzheimer’s, abnormalities in cholesterol transport can lead to several other fatal diseases, such as narrowing of the arteries and heart disorders

Neutron scattering experiments demonstrated that the movement of cholesterol between cells takes several hours longer than previously thought, and also showed how the errors in previous results had arisen.

The results are changing opinion on how disorders linked to abnormal cholesterol transport should be treated and how the neurochemistry throughout the central nervous system is affected.

 “Neutrons revealed the true rate of cholesterol transport in cells. Inaccurate rates from previous studies have hampered our understanding of how healthy concentrations of cholesterol within cells are maintained.” 

Dr Lionel Porcar, Institut Laue-Langevin

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Cleft Palate

A new hydrogel material can make cleft palate surgery easier and less painful for the patient  

Cleft palates are the most common birth defect in Britain, with one in every 700 babies affected. Babies born with cleft palates usually have problems feeding, and may have speech difficulties in later life, as well as issues with their hearing, teeth and facial growth. In severe cases radical surgery is required to correct the problem and complications can occur as the child grows into an adult.

A new hydrogel material similar to that used in contact lenses has been developed by a team of surgeons and materials scientists in Oxford. They used neutron scattering to confirm the performance of the gel at the molecular level.

A small plate of the hydrogel material is inserted into the roof of the patient’s mouth. The gel absorbs fluid and gradually expands over several weeks, encouraging new skin to grow. When enough skin has been generated, the plate is removed and the cleft is repaired using the new tissue. 

The new materials will improve the patient experience by reducing the number of hospital visits and simplifying surgical procedures. 

A spin-out company from the University of Oxford has been formed to commercialise the materials. 

 “ISIS is an incredible facility and we are very fortunate to have it on our doorstep. It allowed us to show that the molecules in our hydrogel are aligned in the right way.”

Marc Swan, surgeon, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford

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Strength of hip replacements

Neutron stress measurements of artificial hip coatings will help to reduce failures

Over 50,000 hip replacements are performed in Britain each year, and the number is expected to double by 2030.

Implants are commonly made using titanium coated with a thin layer of hydroxyapatite, which is the main constituent of human bone. The coating, which is around the thickness of a sheet of paper, encourages bone to bond to the implant and hold it in place. 

Small changes to the coating procedure can cause the implant to fail in under six months leading to further painful operations for patients when the implant is replaced.

Differences in the thermal and mechanical properties of titanium and hydroxyapatite at the interface between the two materials cause residual stresses to form in the coating after spraying. Neutron scattering is being used to investigate hip implant coatings, collecting vital stress measurements to determine how this relates to implant failure. 

With a clearer understanding of the microscopic structure, researchers are optimistic that the number of failed implants can be significantly reduced.  

“Using neutron scattering, we are collecting vital stress measurements to investigate hip implant coatings. Combined with computer modelling we are optimistic that the number of failed implants can be reduced.”

Dr Rehan Ahmed, Heriot-Watt University

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Antibody armour

A combination of neutron and x-ray scattering has determined the structure of the most abundant human antibody for the first time in 40 years

The most abundant human antibody is called secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA). It acts as the immune system’s first line of defence when the body comes into contact with the outside world. It is secreted in the lungs, genital system, saliva and gut to deal with bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that cause diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea. 

The antibody is so big, complex and fragile that it has proved extremely difficult to study, and despite its importance and prevalence, no new information has been available since the early 1970s. 

A combination of neutron scattering and x-ray experiments have now successfully revealed how the antibody is secreted and how its structure affects how it works. 

For the very young, the elderly and others whose immune system is less efficient, the ability to make efficient vaccines or artificial versions of these antibodies will become increasingly important in defending their health from new types of infection.

 “By mapping together data from neutron scattering and x-ray experiments we uncovered the molecular structure of secretory immunoglobulin. By combining both techniques we got the complete picture. Using only one technique alone there would have been gaps.” 

Professor Steve Perkins, UCL Structural Immunology Group 

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Last updated: 30 April 2018


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