Leading the Way 2014 – Biomarkers

After the success of piloting Leading the Way in 2013 we return in 2014 with 2 schools participating in Leading the Way 2014 – Biomarkers.

Over the next two weeks we will be publishing a series of Biomarker related blog posts for Monkseaton Middle School and Excelsior Academy Year 8 pupils to read and discuss.

Below is the first of these posts.

Leading the Way – Poster Competition

The Leading the Way team is with Monkseaton Middle School and Excelsior Academy between (3rd-13th June 2014) during their science lessons.

We have organised the chance for each team to work with one of us on preparing a poster on the topic of BIOMARKERS over 3 days. Do not worry we are here to help you and remember this is a team project.

A very important part of our work as scientists is to explain to the Government and the Public (you) why our research is important and why we need to do those key experiments. Sometimes the numbers involved help the justification.

For example, in 2012 approximately 5 % of the adult population in the UK were suffering from Diabetes (source: www.diabetes.org.uk). This is approximately 2.9 million individuals and has been estimated to cost the NHS:

£1 million per hour!

This is a very strong reason why we should invest in Diabetes research to identify innovative ways of preventing, diagnosing and managing the disease. As maybe our research can help the NHS reduce this cost (even a saving of £10000 an hour soon adds up).

Poster Criteria

1) Choose a biomarker to study.

2) Justify why that biomarker.

3) Justify why we need to know its shape.

On Friday 13th June we have organised a Poster Fair at each school. During this event researchers based at Newcastle University will judge your posters.

Competition Prize: The winning team will win a day at either Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biosciences or Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology to see the research of the judges in action.

It is therefore time to get our thinking caps on. As a team you will need to begin to think which type of biomarker you wish to research with us and why. Do you want to focus on a particular disease you have heard about? Do you want to consider a screening system for foods? or Do you want to research the use of biomarkers to tell us if one of our organs is functioning properly?

Remember the key experiment you are justifying is identifying your chosen BIOMARKER as a good candidate for diagnosis or treatment.

Good Luck

The Leading the Way Team

Science in the Media

Science is a prominent topic that our traditional media outlets as well as newer platforms such as blogs frequently discuss. Here we provide you with a number of articles from the BBC News – Health website as examples of Science in the news.


When reading through these articles consider these discussion points with respect to biomarkers:

1) Is the topic being discussed a candidate biomarker?

2) Could the location of the biomarker be as important as the ability to define if it is present?

3) If we identify a biomarker is there the opportunity to use it for any other reason?

A really visual look at some human diseases.

Hidden Beauty: Diseases become art under a microscope: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22476101

These are two articles on a debate about the importance of using antibiotics to treat infectious diseases.

Battling the bacterial threat to modern medicine: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20554921

Antibiotics resistance ‘as big a risk as terrorism’ – medical chief: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21737844

Finally an interesting example of science innovation.

The light fantastic: Harnessing Nature’s glow: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21144766


Diabetes is a disease where there is too much sugar (glucose) in the blood.

Glucose enters your body from the foods you eat such as cakes, fruits, pasta and bread. Your body uses glucose as energy for everything you do.

The insulin peptide structure

Insulin is a hormone that is made in the pancreas when there is too much glucose in the blood. Insulin acts like a key that opens the doors that lets glucose move from the blood and into your cells. It is then used for energy.

When someone’s body loses its ability to produce Insulin, they have Type 1 Diabetes and when someone’s Insulin loses its ability to ‘open the door’ to their cells, they have Type 2 Diabetes.




  • Frequent urination
  • Dehydration
  • Thirst

Problems caused by Diabetes

  • Blindness
  • Kidney failure
  • Problems with legs and feet
  • Death

Some facts about Diabetes…

Type 1 Diabetes

  • Genetic (inherit from parents)
  • Autoimmune condition (your immune system attacks your pancreas, leading to Diabetes)
  • Begins when you are a kid
  • Need to inject Insulin into your body everyday for treatment

Type 2 Diabetes

  • Lifestyle (lack of exercise, obesity)
  • Can happen at any age
  • Need to live a healthier life, exercise more and sometimes take medicines for treatment.

Discussion Points: Diabetes is one example of where a biomarker test is used on a daily basis by patients. Here the focus is on self-management not diagnosis. Can you think of any other health issues that would benefit from such a strategy?

Horse meat scandal

The “horse meat scandal” hit the headlines back in January when the food standards agency (FSA) in Ireland found beef burgers being supplied to supermarkets in the UK, had traces of horse DNA. This led to nationwide testing of products, and a range of processed beef products being taken off the shelves. As of the end of March, the FSA said 5,430 tests had been carried out in the UK, with 17 different products including Findus beef lasagne testing positive.

So how do we test for horse meat? One of the most reliable tests is called “PCR”. In PCR specific short pieces of horse DNA are used to bind to and detect any horse DNA in the product being tested. The test makes copies of the horse DNA found and these can then be counted in real time as they are produced a percentage calculated. Here the DNA is being used as the biomarker.

Horse meat itself is not a risk to humans, and is in fact sometimes on the menu in countries! However, if horse is being illegally put into food products, it may contain banned substances such as bute, a horse drug which can be harmful to humans (but only if we eat a lot!). It has made a lot of people worry about what is actually in their food and whether they can trust the label!

Wikipedia article:


Dicsussion Points: The horsemeat issue is another use of biomarkers. Not only are they used in diagnosis, we exploit them in food quality tests and other areas. Can you think of anywhere else testing for a biomarker would be useful?

Its all in the name – Biomarkers

We are sure you will all appreciate the importance of names. Names provide you, your favourite team, favourite biscuit or favourite game with an identity. A name also leaves a legacy behind it. Get the name right and people will never forget your impact. You will be working as a teams through the experiments and lessons during Leading the Way.

Pre-event challenge: we would like you to meet your team mates and discuss your team name.

The only rule: We ask when considering your team name that you stay within the theme of human health – remember during Leading the Way we are exploring the use of biomarkers in detection and the importance of knowing their shape.

Your team name needs to be submitted to your Science teacher by 23rd May. The Leading the Way team will then be awarding a prize to the best name when we meet you between on 3rd June if your are at Excelsior and 9th of June if you attend Monkseaton Middle School.

The Diagnosis Dilemma – How quick do I know?

One of the greatest challenges currently facing doctors, is how to best diagnose a patient’s condition, quickly and efficiently.

Doctors are very busy people and often a visit to your GP will be managed on a timetable of either 5 or 10 minute meetings. So in reality they do not have much time available to be directly involved in the tests needed. This is a driving force in current research into diagnosis – How can we do this rapidly and accurately? Here time is key as some of these tests would have a huge health benefit if the results were immediate. Money is also important. A diagnostic test needs to be simple and cheap. Efficient and rapid diagnosis can have long term effects on our economy by reducing unnecessary treatment costs.

When we discuss diagnosis, scientists now exploit the term “Biomarkers” to generally describe the subject of a specific test.

Wikipedia defines a biomarker as anything that can be used as an indicator of a particular disease state or some other physiological state of an organism. We discuss them in more detail here.

Biomarkers have been used in medicine for decades but have not always been described using such terminology. Some examples of well defined biomarkers include determining your glucose levels if you are diabetic or in the diagnosis of Cancer. What each of these tests look for are SPECIFIC BIOMARKERS associated with the reason you are being screened. Glucose is a sugar found in your blood and different types of cancers can be told apart.

Leading the Way Focus: During our time with you we will be considering the importance of knowing the physical shape of biomarkers and how this can help us detect them.

Discussion points: How quick would you want a result? Would you always want an immediate response? are you prepared to wait? Can you think of any other examples of BIOMARKERS?


What are Biomarkers?

Biomarkers are biological characteristics which can be used to detect diseases. Researchers are interested in finding biomarkers because they can be used to help diagnose and treat patients.

Biomarkers are usually proteins found in cells or bodily fluids like blood or urine. By measuring the levels of these proteins doctors can assess how severe a disease is and detect improvements after treatment.

Example: HER-2 and breast cancer diagnosis and treatment

Detecting a biomarker. HER-2 proteins are stained brown, the small blue circles are cell nuclei. (source)

In some breast cancers the tumour cells have abnormally high levels of a protein called HER-2. HER-2 is a protein found on the cell surface which receives chemical signals to make the cell grow and divide. If cells have too much HER-2 the cells grow out of control, leading to cancer and tumour formation.

Detection: HER-2 positive cells are easily detected in biopsy material using a stain which shows high levels of HER-2 in dark brown. As these cells grow very quickly doctors know that HER-2 positive tumours need rapid treatment.

Treatment: Researchers designed a drug (Herceptin) which detects cancer cells with abnormally high levels of HER-2. Herceptin is an antibody which specifically binds to HER-2 proteins and tells the immune system that the cell needs to be destroyed.  Therefore the identification of HER-2 as a biomarker for a type of breast cancer has resulted in quicker and more effective treatment for HER-2 positive breast cancer patients.

Video of Herceptin in action http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66z6BmeA00I

More about biomarkers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biomarker_(medicine)

Discussion Points: When would detecting biomarkers be useful? Do we need a biomarker for every health issue? Why are antibodies often used to detect protein biomarkers? Biomarkers aren’t always proteins. What else could be a biomarker? How could they be measured?