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The scientists who transformed modern medicine

Structural biology, a seemingly arcane topic, is currently at the heart of biomedical research.  It holds the key to the creation of healthier, cleaner and safer lives, since it guides researchers in understanding both the causes of diseases and the creation of medicines required to conquer them. Structural biology describes the molecules of life. It seeks to know how many atoms are present, and in what ways they are connected, in substances like amino acids, enzymes and vitamins, for it is these properties that govern how such molecules function in living bodies.

Molecular biology emerged from the work of physicists and chemists.   Some of them, and most of their predecessors, worked in the Royal Institution’s Davy Faraday Research Laboratory in London. It is in the laboratory where some of the giants of British science conducted their pioneering work. It was where Humphry Davy discovered in the 1800s the elements sodium, potassium, calcium, and chlorine. It is also where he invented the miners’ safety lamp, which saved coalminers’ lives. Davy’s young assistant, Michael Faraday, was described by Ernest Rutherford as the greatest scientific discoverer ever. Faraday invented the dynamo, electric motor and the means of generating continuous electricity. In the 1930s, the laboratory’s then director, Sir William Bragg, collected a group of brilliant young physicists together to investigate, using X-rays, the detailed atomic structures of many of the molecules of life: proteins, amino acids, enzymes, viruses, steroids, etc. One colourful individual who worked at the laboratory was J. D. Bernal (a friend of Picasso, Paul Robeson and later, Lord Mountbatten).

After completing his PhD Bernal returned to Cambridge, as a mineralogist and physicist, and two of his research students there in the mid-1930s, Dorothy Crowfoot (later Hodgkin) and Max Perutz, each later became Nobel Prize-winners. His contemporary, Sir Lawrence Bragg, (son of Sir William), became head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge at that time. Later Bragg helped to establish, with Perutz and his brilliant former PhD student, John Kendrew, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, under the auspices of the Medical Research Council. It was also Kendrew who attracted James Watson to Cambridge, where Watson solved the structure of DNA with Francis Crick (Perutz’s PhD student).

The three Nobel prizewinners, Max Perutz (extreme left), Aaron Klug and John Kendrew (front row), accompanied by three other members of Peterhouse who were pursuing research at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology: (Back row) Drs R. A. Crowther, J. T. Finch, and P. J. G. Butler. (Credit JET Photographic).

The personalities, ambitions, abilities, idiosyncrasies, and rivalries of these scientists transformed all branches of biology, by the brilliance of their structural work, and through collaboration and competition with one another, provided us with a beautiful example of how science advances. Dorothy Hodgkin, from the time she worked with Bernal, and later in Oxford, was less competitive than most of the other people described here. She was the first woman, after the Curies (mother and daughter), to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in 1964. Her successes were stellar throughout her life. As a graduate student she elucidated the structure of steroids, notably cholesterol. Later she solved the structure of insulin, penicillin, and of vitamin B12, thereby transforming much of modern medicine.

Peterhouse College, Cambridge, was also home to a galaxy of outstanding molecular biologists.  The photograph below shows six members of Peterhouse that were also key scientists at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, operated by the Medical Research Council. Three of them were Nobel Prize-winners and five were fellows of the Royal Society.

In the 1950s, Rosalind Franklin (working at Birbeck College, London, in Bernal’s group) and her two research colleagues, Aaron Klug and John Finch, were given permission by Lawrence Bragg to use the unique high-intensity X-ray sources of the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory to investigate the structure of the polio virus. (Finch had to be injected with the Salk vaccine, before starting his experiments there).

Perutz and Kendrew also led the world in deriving the structures of haemoglobin and myoglobin, the proteins that transport and store oxygen in all animals. The Laboratory of Molecular Biology that they founded in Cambridge is often described as one of the most successful ever. They shared the Nobel Prize in 1962. And shortly thereafter they founded the European Molecular Biology Organisation. It was one of their collaborators, Michael Rossmann, who in 2016 solved the structure of the Zika virus.

The nature of the first enzyme to be determined by the techniques of molecular biology was also solved at the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory, by a group of physicists, led by David Phillips and Louise Johnson, before they were each appointed at different times to professorships of molecular biophysics in the University of Oxford.

Featured image ‘Michael Faraday in his laboratory. c. 1850s’  by Harriet Jane Moore. Used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.



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