Your research into the genetics of obesity requires looking for gene variations that can influence things like appetite and weight gain. How do you do that at a distance?
My Institute (the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science) is closed. I'm fully expecting not to be in the lab for three months. But we are fortunate because the work we are doing now doesn't require us to be in the lab. We have access to the gene sequencing cluster at CRUK, which is still open, partly because they are doing gene sequencing for COVID-19. So our sequencing is being done and when we get the data back we can start to do analysis. We also had papers we need to write. It seems the whole world has slowed down but we should be able to get some work done. Like everyone else, we are collaborating via Zoom from our laptops.
What kind of genes are you looking for?
We are looking for variations in genetic heritability. The current technolology, whole genome sequencing, allows us to look across the genome, so we can look at everything. The problem is trying to find the hundreds or thousands of genes which are important. The trick is to find a well-described phenotype and then look for gene variations that exist in people who exhibit that phenotype. The key words are 'well-described'. For instance, BMI is a good phenotype, it's free to calculate and it's not subjective. So you can take samples from large numbers of people with a certain BMI and see if they have variations in certain genes that might influence their BMI.
We also look for rare phenotypes, where there may be a big effect from a relatively small number of genes. Prader-Willi Syndrome is an example of that. People with this genetic disorder develop an insatiable appetite that often leads to obesity. We know the location on the chromosome of the mutated genes that cause the disorder. That location may be a target where we can search for other variations that may have more subtle effects on appetite.
Are there any research labs or projects you know of that are staying open during this time?
There was guidance from the Government on 23 March that specified what kinds of facilities could continue to stay open to perform research. The criteria are that the research be either critically important, that pausing would have a severe impact on the research, or that it requires ongoing maintenance and supervision activity. So, for instance, in Cambridge there is a new purpose-built mouse facility at the biomedical campus for performing animal studies. The mice have to be carefully bred for specific purposes, so we have a rota of postdocs and PhD students to go in and do the geneotyping and other tasks. That facility is probably the safest place to be at the moment. It's a brand new facility with purified and filtered air designed to keep out viruses. Stem cell research is another example. Stem cells need to keep growing and take a long time to get to stage they need to be, so if you shut down that process any work would be slowed by 2 or 3 years.
You are a Tutor at Wolfson, mostly of PhD students. How are you advising them at this time?
It depends where they are in the process of their PhD. The ones who are most stressed are those who thought they were a few months away from writing up their dissertations. We've had guidance from the School of Biological Sciences that, for those PhD students who are close to finishing, their supervisors and examiners are going to have to understand the circumstances. The students may not have been able to complete their experiments or collect all their data. We hope everyone will be sensible and understand they may need to make allowances for someone finishing a PhD in the time of COVID-19. Many are also worried about their funding. Some PhDs are self-funded but most science-based students are supported by the big funding bodies like the Research Councils. We hope they will continue to support students through this time.
Are PhD students intermitting because they can't continue with their research?
This is an interesting situation. We have some PhDs who are already medically trained physicians. They might be doing further PhD work in a specialist area, like surgery or lab-based animal research. The NHS is trying to get all clinically trained people repurposed back to the front line. The Wellcome Trust and other key funding bodies for these medical PhDs have said that anyone clincally qualified who goes back to the NHS will be guaranteed that their studenships will continue.
Your family is in California, how are they coping at this time?
My father is a retired medic. He would not even use the chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco because he's so conscious of viruses. I'm a bit more worried about my mother, who is in San Diego, because she went through chemo a few years back and her immune system might not be as strong. That is a worry for many people. We are keeping in touch.