Skip to main content

The Spark of Life – electricity in the body.

What is the link between a lightning flash, the poet Percy Shelley and a cure for diabetes? It is the kind of question you might hear on a radio quiz program such as ‘Brain of Britain’. The quest for an answer takes us on an exciting scientific journey with unexpected twists and turns. It is an extraordinary voyage of discovery, beautifully navigated for us by the distinguished Oxford scientist, Professor Frances Ashcroft in her book “The Spark of Life”, which she discusses with Denis Noble for Voices from Oxford.

Since the 18th Century Italian physician Luigi Galvani showed that an electric shock can cause muscles to twitch, scientists have been fascinated by the role of electricity in life.  Modern science has discovered that electric currents flow in and out of cells in the body mediating and initiating their function.

All cells in the body in all organisms on earth, “from the simplest bacteria to the trees in the giant redwood forests of California” have tiny protein structures in the cell membrane which can pass electric currents in the form of ions, “charged atoms”, such as sodium, potassium and calcium. 

Frances Ashcroft is particularly interested in how sugar levels in the body are controlled.  If it falls too low then the brain is starved of fuel; if it remains high for too long then it can cause the complications of diabetes. Blood sugar levels are regulated by the hormone, Insulin, released from the pancreas in response to a rise in blood sugar. “We and others discovered a tiny protein pore which is found in the membranes of the insulin secreting cells.” She explains. “When the pore is open insulin is not released, and when it’s shut insulin is released.” When blood sugar levels rise the pore shuts and this triggers a cascade of events resulting in insulin release.

By making mutations of the gene for the protein pore it is possible to understand how the protein pore works, and also, as Professor Ashcroft says, “there are mutations resulting from accidents of nature which may lead to disease.” In one mutation she is working on the protein pore remains open, insulin is not released, glucose levels remain high “and then you get diabetes.”

What Frances Ashcroft and her colleagues realised was that the pores could be closed by drugs, sulfonylureas that were already in routine clinical use for late onset diabetes. Those who have the mutation are born with the disease, and are dependent on regular insulin injections. But it was realised that the existing drugs could be used to close the pores and release insulin. Frances Ashcroft tells us about the excitement of this important discovery and the impact it has had on people’s lives. A truly breathtaking result. 
  
Understanding electricity and how it works in the body has led to the development of new treatments for diseases. Disease caused by mutations in protein pores has now been given its own name “channelopathy”. An example is one found in goats that causes them to fall down. But what is really significant is that this is similar to the human condition myotonia congenita, where muscles lock up when the patient is startled. Understanding channelopathies has the potential for development of treatments for such diseases.

In one sense Frances Ashcroft says “we are nothing more than soup and sparks”.  Or as Percy Shelley put it “...man is a mass of electrified clay.”

This article is also published by Voices from Oxford

Voices from Oxford video link

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services. It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared. Utilitarian ethics considers the ba

Mr Duncan-Smith offers a disingenuous and divisive comparison

Some time ago, actually it was a long time ago when I was in my early teens, someone close to me bought a table. It was an early flat pack variety. It came with a top and four legs. He followed the instructions to the letter screwing the legs into the top. But when he had completed it the table wobbled. One leg he explained was shorter than the other three; so he sawed a bit from each of the other legs. The table wobbled. One leg, he explained, was longer than the other three. So, he sawed a bit off. The table wobbled. He went on cutting the legs, but the table continued to wobble. Cut, cut, cut! By this time he had convinced himself there was no alternative to it.  He ended up with a very low table indeed, supported by four very stumpy legs and a bit of cardboard placed under one of them to stop it wobbling on the uneven floor.  Mr Duncan-Smith argues that we need a 1% cap on benefits to be 'fair to average earners'. Average  earners have seen their incomes rise by less tha

His way or none? Why I can't vote for Jeremy

There is an assumption that all would be well with the Labour Party if people hadn't expressed their genuine concern with what they consider the inadequacies of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. If only, it is said, the Parliamentary Labour Party and his Shadow Cabinet had supported him, instead of undermining him, all would have been fine. If they had been quiet and towed the line, then the party would not have been in the mess it is in. So, should they have stayed silent, or speak of their concerns? There comes a point when the cost of staying silent outweighs the cost of speaking out. This is a judgment. Many call it a coup by the PLP. They paint a picture of a right-wing PLP out of touch with the membership.  This is the narrative of the Corbyn camp. But Jeremy Corbyn, over the decades he has been in politics, showed the way.  It was Jeremy Corbyn who opposed almost all Labour leaders and rarely held back from speaking out, or voting time and again against the party line. As