The holy grail of human biology research

The holy grail of human biology research

As part of Biology Week, we held a writing competition for under-19s to tell us what advances they would most like to see in physiology and the life sciences. Entrants were invited to answer the following question in no more than 200 words:

What do you think is the holy grail of human biology research?

On Physiology Friday, 19 October 2012, we announced the winner of the competition, 16-year-old Oliver Neely of Tiffin School, who saw his entry published in the Winter 2012 issue of Physiology News and received a £50 Amazon gift voucher.

The judges were impressed by all the entries received, and agreed that Oliver's entry was particularly well written and showed a depth of knowledge impressive for a student at his stage of study. Oliver's entry can be viewed below, along with the others that reached the final shortlist.

We would like to thank everyone who entered this competition and congratulate Oliver on his achievement.

Winner - Oliver Neely, 16

I think that the ‘Holy Grail’ of human biological research is to do with certain curious structures found within all organisms: telomeres. These structures are found at the ends of chromosomes and telomeres are there essentially to protect the useful DNA from the ‘end replication problem’, so to stop genetic information being lost during replication.
As a person gets older, the telomeres on their chromosomes get shorter and shorter which accounts for the aging process and eventually natural death.
An enzyme named ‘telomerase’ exists and is present within very young cells such as those found in foetuses, and this enzyme repairs the telomeres at the ends of DNA. If we could somehow use this enzyme on our body’s cells, then in theory we could make our cells immortal.
Cancer cells undergo rapid cell division and consequently their telomeres shorten very quickly so to get around this, they use telomerase in order to keep them from aging. For this reason, research into telomeres might also help us to find a cure for cancer.
Finally, if we were able to get human cells to continuously divide, we could more easily produce cells for transplantation to help people with various genetic disorders.


Edward Arbe-Barnes, 16

Apart from infections and early-caught cancers, there are not many conditions that can actually be cured. The vast majority of research goes into prevention, suppression and management of various conditions; even in the case of stem cells the aim is to ‘patch up’ damaged areas. The ‘Holy Grail’ of research must be something that can repair changes in the human blue print, the DNA. Mehrotra published in ‘Cell’ January 2011 a paper outlining the use of Histone Chaperones in the repair of DNA. The ability to repair any DNA which ‘folded’ the wrong way, has a missing bit, or is just corrupted by faulty series of base pairs opens the possibility of curing many, diseases like cystic fibrosis and haemochromatosis by returning DNA to its original state.
Environmental changes can cause lasting changes to DNA via epigenetic changes, which can be passed on to the next generation. The Överkalix study showed women  pregnant during the 19th century famine in Sweden gave birth to children who then develop diabetes and the conditions was then passed on to future generations. Research into histone chaperones could reverse the mistakes in faulty DNA and such a revolution might just be the Holy Grail. 

George Whatley, 17

The breakthrough that could make the largest impact on health would be the discovery of how to create a limitless supply of personalised lab-grown stem cells and the ability and knowledge to shape their differentiation into every different kind of cell.
This ability could virtually cure many of the most serious non-infectious diseases prevalent in the developed world, including cancers, Type 1 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, blindness, muscular dystrophy and cardiac failure; some of them previously untreatable diseases, improving quality of life and raising life expectancy massively.
Any undifferentiated cells produced from healthy, differentiated cells harvested from a patient with organ failure could be used to grow a replacement organ in vitro for transplantation. The advantages of this would be twofold: there is less chance of the organ being rejected as the lab-grown organ is an exact clone of the original, so will be viewed as self by the immune system.
These advances, quite apart from the increase in patient’s quality of life would have a positive economic impact as well, as the “curing” of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s would save governments and the relatives of sufferers vast sums of money that would have been spent on care.

Harry Williams, 16

Most people don’t get enough of it, but what is known about sleep and its purpose remains relatively little. Do we actually need sleep? If humans didn’t need sleep we would find people who don’t sleep or could function as normal whilst remaining awake for long periods of time. These occurrences just don’t happen and furthermore, studies have resulted in not a single finding of an animal that doesn’t need to sleep, albeit there are animals that only rest one hemisphere of their brain at a time. With a discovery of the function of sleep we could utilise this to refine our sleeping patterns, resulting in accomplishing more in the day. Rest and recuperation are of vital importance when training as an athlete or even studying for an exams, well imagine if we knew exactly how much sleep we needed for the task in hand, it would allow us to push the boundaries of which our bodies are capable of. It has been presented that the younger someone is the more sleep they need; well if we could truly understand sleep then it should improve not just the raising of, but forevermore the overall well being of the human race.

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