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The Comedy of Errors

PubhD #26: History, Physics and Chemistry at The Vat and Fiddle

28 April 16 words: Gav Squires
How will local researchers cope with only having ten minutes to talk about their work?
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First up is Sarah who is researching English identity in the 16th century through their "cheap print" productions.

"Cheap print" was accessible and sold for 1-2p so it wasn't necessarily affordable to everyone at the time. Cheap also meant small - octavo publications were folded eight times to give 16 sides and were around the same size as a modern paperback. Most of them ended up "down privies, on fires or lining pies".

However, from those that survive, we know that cheap prints were mainly ballad sheets, sermons, play scripts or pamphlets. These pamphlets were akin to modern tabloids and help to show us what the lower orders thought. Although only around 30% of the people in this country were literate at the time, these pamphlets were often read out in public places.

Towards the end of the 16th century, an anti-Spanish sentiment started to appear in these pamphlets. This started in 1583 when a pamphlet entitled "Destruction of the Indies" was translated into English. However, each time the word "Christian" appeared in the pamphlet, it was replaced with the word "Spanish". This was post-reformation England where there was a divide between catholic and protestant and where a fear of the Spanish empire was growing. So, were these pamphlets trying to unite people against the Spanish?

In 1580, Spain annexed Portugal in just 3 days. Following this there was a big ramp-up in anti-Spanish sentiment and by 1587 there was a concerted effort trying to get the threat of the Spanish across to the public. Spaniards were described as being greedy and then a pamphlet about Sir Francis Drake made them out to be cowardly too.

While it's sometimes claimed that there was no such thing as a national identity in England until the 1700s, the roots of something can clearly be seen in the late 16th century. The Spanish are being set up as the "other" and the fact that we're not Spanish, regardless of whether we're protestant or catholic, is what makes us English.

Key learning: In the 16th century all printing presses in the country were licensed by the government

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Second on the bill is Katie who is not only researching the use of nano-particles for medical applications but she also organises PubhD in Leicester.

Scientists working at the nano level refer to anything in millimetres or larger as "bulk". Gold at a bulk level is really inert but at the nano level it becomes quite reactive. In fact at that level if you shine a light on it, the light reflects back up to 10,000 times brighter.

Katie's research is focussing on cancer and rather than using gold, she's using iron. Your body doesn't attack cancerous cells because they are still recognised as being you. Current treatment has lots of side effects and impacts healthy cells as well as cancerous ones. Using these iron particles and a magnetic field you can try and get a much more targeted treatment. As the field rotates, the particles' magnetisation spins causing the particles to heat up. However, you have to be very careful with the speed and magnitude of the magnetic field applied - too high and/or fast and it could stimulate muscles (for instance, the heart) and could potentially kill.

Commercially available nano-particles are "a bit naff" and are not really good enough to be used on their own. However, research in Germany on brain tumours showed that there was a statistically significant improvement when they used nano-particles in addition to traditional treatment when compared to just traditional treatment alone. The Germans were using iron-oxide particles which are not as good as pure iron.

How can we prevent the iron becoming iron-oxide? Is there something that we can wrap it in to protect it from the oxygen? We can't use gold as the gold forms blobs around the edge of the iron and doesn't completely cover it. Silver has very similar problems and aluminium creates too many alloys. Next to try is copper…

The other big question is how do we target the tumour? You can try injecting your nano-particles directly into the cancer - tumours have very poor circulation so there's a pretty good chance that they will stay there. There is also magnetic targeting where you make changes to the magnetic field gradient or biological targeting. This is where a protein is attached to the nano-particle that is the opposite to the protein found on the outside of the cell that you're trying to target. Cancer cells have more antigens on their surface than normal cells so the nano-particles are more likely to attach.

Key learning: A nano-particle is 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

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Finally, there's Sam who is researching the use of hydrogels in a healthcare environment.

But first we get a brief history of chemistry. Newton was the beginning of the end of alchemy - people would no longer believe that you could make gold from base metals. Then came Lavoirsier, considered to be the father of modern chemistry before he was executed during the French revolution. Du Pont came to fame by manufacturing incredibly pure gunpowder starting during the industrial revolution.

Then came the first world war, known as the chemists' war because of the work they did on creating better weapons such as poisoned gas. During world war two, it was realised that you could create things using synthetic material, for example synthetic rubber. This is also when people first started looking at how to treat chronic wounds. It was thought that you had to drain the wound, keep it dry and prevent infections.

However, this didn’t work very well - it's far better to keep the wound moist and allow an exchange of gases. This is where hydrogels come in. Being hydrophilic they help keep wounds wet and because of the way they are constructed, they allow gaseous exchange. They are created with structures cross-linked together either chemically or physically. They can be made with synthetic fibres which are bio-compatible but can be difficult to work with. Synthetics can also be difficult to remove from bio-systems.

How can we make these hydrogels stronger? Integrated networks - meshes of polymers intertwined which will hopefully have the properties of both networks. However, it's hard to construct hydrogels from materials that have a low molecular weight, although it can be done using special catalysts.

There are also a number of questions about how the material properties will change over time. Due to these complications, around 10 years of research are needed before these hydrogels reach the market. However, some hydrogels are being used commercially, for example, ECG electrodes are attached using hydrogels as are nicotine patches.

Key learning: Due to a shortage of cotton, the German army made uniforms using rayon

PubhD returns to The Vat and Fiddle on Wednesday 18 May at 7.30pm with talks on politics, paleontology and history.

PubhD website

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