Research: An academic harvest for the world

John Izbicki salutes researchers, unsung heroes whose work can bring untold benefits for humanity
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The Independent Online
Mention research and what do you think of? Most people outside the sheltered world of higher education (92.4 per cent, according to research) immediately think of medicine in general and cancer in particular. Then comes Aids, followed by heart disease and science.

In fact, research covers the humanities, sociology, engineering, technology, agriculture, mining ... you name it, and someone, somewhere is conducting research into it. Of course, vast sums of money are spent on medicine, and, despite the discovery of a drug that seems to arrest tumours in mice, we still have far to go to in finding a cure for the Big C.

However, at the University of Edinburgh, researchers are testing two precious compounds in the fight against disease: gold and platinum. Gold has been used in China for centuries to treat a variety of conditions. Even in Britain, gold compounds are now widely used for difficult cases of rheumatoid arthritis.

To understand it better, the Wellcome Trust, which funds many research projects, has presented Dr Juan Zou, from Beijing, with a travelling research scholarship worth just under pounds 34,000 to investigate. Professor Peter Sadler, of Edinburgh's department of chemistry, said: "Gold drugs are almost certainly transformed inside the body into more active species." And, when bound to albumin (protein soluble in water), gold can inhibit enzymes that break down joint tissue. Simple? Only thanks to painstaking research.

The same department has performed research into platinum anti-cancer drugs. Platinum has been known to chemists since it reached Europe in the mid-18th century from Latin America (where Spaniards called it platina, a diminutive of plata, their word for silver). Two platinum drugs - cisplatin and carboplatin - are used in the treatment of testicular and ovarian cancers, and Professor Sadler's team hopes to design new platinum compounds to fight a wider range of cancers. The Biological Sciences Research Council has awarded Dr Socorro Murdoch, a research fellow at Edinburgh, more than pounds 145,000 over three years to work on this project.

From gold to plastic. At the University of Southampton, the department of mechanical engineering has developed a remarkable gadget called the PolyAna 420 that rapidly identifies different plastics, ranging from bottle tops to car bumpers, for recycling. Plastic recycling is still in its infancy, and most companies that need to dispose of it cannot afford expensive laboratory analysers. Peter Mucci, who has led the research on the PolyAna, can advise.

And here's one for Haley and Tommy of The Archers: a fly trap for use in their pig pen. Flies cause pigs and poultry a major problem. Southampton's Dr Philip Howse - who last year developed an environmentally friendly cockroach trap that was shortlisted for the Prince of Wales Award for Innovation - has now come up with a non-toxic cardboard device, cheap to produce and biodegradable, that allows flies an entry but no exit. No longer will farmers need to use those strong toxic sprays.

Another feather in Southampton's research cap is the Wessex Ranger, a solar-assisted cycle designed to compete as Britain's only entry in the 1999 World Solar Cycle Challenge, a 954-mile race in Australia. Amazingly, it will reach a speed of 56 mph. Research was conducted within the engineering materials department in a scheme run by the Hampshire Training Enterprise Council, which links higher education institutions with small to medium- size companies.

Back up north, the University of Leeds is also awash with excellent research. Equipped with a pounds 50,000 grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Dr Peter Olmsted, a research fellow at the department of physics and astronomy, is heading a network of academic and industry experts in an attempt to discover what makes soft matter hold together. What is it that keeps shampoos, suntan cream or tomato ketchup together?

And Leeds University researchers are helping the Yorkshire Centre for Eating Disorders investigate the possibility of a genetic cause for anorexia and bulimia with a pounds 250,000 grant from the Leeds Community and Mental Health Trust. This research could make a crucial contribution to a cure, and the university is collaborating with researchers at universities here and in Australia, Japan and Germany.

At the University of Wolverhampton, Keith Cummings, reader in the university's school of art and design and internationally known for his glass creations, has collaborated with John Lewis, the California glass caster and architect, and Stuart Crystal, of Stourbridge, in researching the potential of overhead casting from an industrial tank furnace to make giant environmental glass installations. We might still be some way from the cities-in-glass-domes of science fiction, but plans for glass sculptures for environmental sites and a glass bridge are well advanced.

All that glistens on the research horizon may not always be gold or silver. But its value can be immeasurable.