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The Spark of Life

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Professor Frances Ashcroft FRS was educated at Cambridge University. She is currently a Royal Society Research Professor in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and Director of OXION , a training and research programme on the integrative physiology of ion channels (tiny membrane pores important for the function of all cells). Her research aims to elucidate how a rise in the blood glucose concentration stimulates the release of insulin from the pancreatic beta-cells, and what goes wrong with this process in neonatal diabetes and type 2 diabetes. As a result of her work patients born with diabetes can now substitute oral drug therapy for insulin injections. She has published many scientific papers, a popular science work, Life at the Extremes, and is currently working on a new book.


What do a thoroughbred American quarter horse known as Impressive, a shivering pig, a herd of ‘fainting’ goats, a child with cystic fibrosis and a person with a rare inherited form of diabetes have in common? The answer is that all of them have genetic errors in a particular kind of protein, known as an ion channel, that regulates the electrical activity of the body. Humans are electrical machines and your ability to read this page and to understand its message, to laugh and cry, to see and hear, and to move your limbs, is due to the electrical events taking place in the nerve cells in your brain and the muscle cells in your limbs. And that electrical activity is initiated and regulated by your ion channels. These little-known proteins are essential for every aspect of our lives, from consciousness to fighting infection, from sexual attraction to the beating of our hearts. They are also used as weapons of warfare by the immune system and by bacteria. It is therefore not surprising that a multitude of medicinal drugs work by regulating the activity of ion channels, and that impaired ion channel function is responsible for many human and animal diseases. This lecture charts the development of our understanding of animal electricity, explains how it is generated by ion channels, and discusses the ways that ion channels regulate our lives and the dramatic consequences when things go wrong. It also shows how an understanding of the ion channels involved can lead to a new therapy for patients born with a rare form of diabetes. In brief, its aim is to ‘sing the body electric’.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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