Chris Cole

When life doesn’t give you enough cornea, print your own!

by Chris Cole

3D printing is fast becoming a more commercially available technology every year. With all the potential applications it likely stands to revolutionise several aspects of research and innovation. One such example of this appeared in the news just over a week ago, and it was from our very own local Newcastle University! The labs of Dr Steve Swioklo and Prof Che Connon got national attention for their work attempting to produce synthetic corneas with the potential for transplantation.

Reports estimate that 15 million people across the globe suffer from some form of corneal blindness (or at risk of becoming blind). Whilst the good news is these conditions can be treated by corneal transplant, there is still a large obstacle due to the lack of donor corneas for the patients. Using 3D printing it appears there is a potential way around this problem. In their work published in Experimental Eye Research, they detail their methodology of creating a “bio-ink”, made with a mix of human corneal stromal stem cells, alginate and collagen. The ink is then used with a 3D printer in order to produce an object matching the shape of a human cornea. By culturing the synthetic cornea, the stem cells are then able to grow around the cornea structure, effectively replicating/ imitating a healthy human cornea.

Although it’s easy (and correct) to be excited by such stories, which almost seem straight out of science fiction for how futuristic they appear, it will likely be several years before this technique undergoes clinical testing and comes into clinical practice. Still, the amazing research sets an example of the potential benefits of 3D printing to personalised medicine and of the high calibre of research that researchers at Newcastle University produce.

Image of 3D bio-printer taken from Newcastle University press office release video

Learn more: Isaacson A, Swioklo S, Connon CJ (2018) “3D bioprinting of a corneal stroma equivalent” Experimental Eye Research 173: 188-193


Chris Cole

There is life outside the lab!

By Chris Cole

I’m coming to the end of my PhD and looking back the one piece of advice I would give to anyone going down the academic route is this; remember there is life outside the lab! I’m not just talking about writing up or attending talks/conferences (although those are important). Instead I’m talking about having an outlet to get you out of work and blow off some steam even for just a few hours.

Around four years ago I started my MRes/PhD, which remains one of the biggest milestones of my life. However, at roughly the same time I made another decision. To go from being a bookworm with no committed hobbies to training aerial in the circus (e.g. trapeze, acrobatics). Yeah, you read that correctly and to this day it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Because of I’ve met some amazing and incredible individuals, travelled way more than I ever had previously and (more relevantly) it helped me through the most stressful moments of the past four years. And I wasn’t the only scientist who ran off to the circus. There is a trend in the circus community to have a range of people from STEM backgrounds. I’ve met medics, computer scientists, geologists, chemists and physicists who all train it as an outlet.

So, all I can say in reflection to anyone starting academia or feeling run down from the pressures that come with it is get out the lab! Think of something you’ve always wanted to try, google it and go do it! Maybe you’ll find something you’ll love and stick with it for life, or maybe it will be an experience. But regardless it could give you that much needed breather from the world of academia.

Chris Cole

Alexander Bogdanov: The Icarus of haematology

By Chris Cole

I, like most of us, am a complete sucker for stories of interesting people. So, in the past week I thought I’d try my hand at finding an interesting historical science figure to post about. The problem is the sheer choice of amazing stories to tell. Already there are dozens of stories of titans of science who pushed humanity forward monumental leaps. Then, during reading for my PhD I stumbled across one individual who caught my attention…

Now if you’re expecting a story of a humble underdog who overcame adversity and was proved right then temper your expectations my friend. This story takes a different direction. I present to you Alexander Bogdanov. Time to set the scene… It’s the early 1900s. Thanks to the work of Landsteiner, Decastello, Sturli and Janský (and countless others) we were beginning to understand the phenomena of blood groups allowing successful blood transfusions to take place. The discovery of other blood groups (e.g. rhesus groups) would continue for the next 50 years making this time a golden age for haematology.

In comes Bogdanov to our story. Born in 1873 in Russia, Bogdanov, in addition to being heavily involved in politics, was an established and respected physician involved in setting up Russian blood transfusion services. In the 1920s when our understanding of blood groups and blood borne disease was escalating, Bogdanov formed a hypothesis: that giving himself blood transfusions would rejuvenate his health or perhaps grant immortality… So essentially vampirism… To test his hypothesis Bogdanov transfused 11 different students blood into himself (be grateful he wasn’t your supervisor).

Now I expect you’re wondering whether he became immortal or reverse ageing?… Not quite. He reported massive improvements to his health and reduced balding (apparently the placebo effect had not become a known phenomenon by this point), but unfortunately his miraculous treatment turned on him when he administered himself with the blood of a student whom had tuberculosis and malaria, which predictably proved lethal. The story almost reads like a Grecian myth warning of the danger of hubris… And untested blood transfusions. So, what can we take as a life lesson from Bogadov? Well maybe this: if the original idea isn’t grounded in sound reasoning then it’s probably not the best idea to jump into live human experimentation… Even if it could potentially halt balding.

Archive Chris Cole

We need to talk science…

By Chris Cole

Over the past few decades, support for the concept of communicating science and research to the public has exploded. Gone are the days of scientists being largely able to stay locked away in the labs doing their research and having little regard for the world outside. Instead we are now actively encouraged to try and communicate our research when possible and always think on how our research can affect society. For some in academia, this push to share the concept of their work and engage in dialogue with the public is frivolous, but I would argue that given the past decades it’s now more important than ever that we as scientists do not lock ourselves away in labs (however tempting it may be!).

You may ask why I think it’s particularly important? Well, not to flog a dead horse (excuse the macabre expression) but I’d like to briefly visit the MMR vaccine scandal of the late 1990s. No doubt most (or hopefully all) of you reading this will know of the scandalous (and now revoked) paper in The Lancet in 1998, which falsely claimed a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Now, this has already been tackled by countless people far smarter than I, so I will not be ripping this shameful aspect of medical history any further. But why do I bring this up?

Well, simply put we are now seeing a resurgence of measles in the western world thanks to parents, even today, not vaccinating their children. A debilitating disease that should rightfully be eradicated is still afflicting children 20 years on from that paper. Clearly many people have engaged with the public trying to explain why they should obviously vaccinate their children, but even today there are charlatans posing as experts pushing this dangerous misinformation. More and more it seems like there is growing distrust of scientists, doctors and experts by vocal parts of society (e.g. the flat earth society) who, thanks to social media, can spread their ignorance far and wide. So, I ask, isn’t getting a better dialogue going between the scientific community and the public one of the best ways to remedy this?

For examples of organisations and events both here in Newcastle and on a national level who are engaged in getting science out to the public visit:
– Bright club
– Pint of Science
– Soapbox science