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Keele University news

The latest study and research news from Keele University

May 2011
April 2011
February 2011
January 2011


Wide-reaching report finds strong support for nurse and pharmacist prescribing

Greater powers introduced by the government to enable specially-trained nurses and pharmacists to prescribe medication in England have been successfully adopted, according to a new report.

Health service researchers from the universities of Southampton and Keele found widespread acceptance of the new powers among patients and that prescribing practices were safe and appropriate for the type of medical conditions being treated.

The Department of Health-funded report, published on 10 May 2011, gives a national ‘snapshot’ of how successfully nurse and pharmacist prescribing is being used in primary care trusts, GP surgeries, and hospitals.

‘This study is the first national evaluation of independent prescribing by nurses and pharmacists since legislation in 2006 enabled nurses and pharmacists to independently prescribe across an extensive range of medicines. Our research shows that the practice is becoming a well-integrated and established means of managing a patient’s condition.

‘We were also able to highlight areas to the government where expansion of non-medical prescribing could strengthen NHS services in order to meet health care needs of the future,’ comments Sue Latter, professor of Nursing at the University of Southampton, who led the study.

The legislation, which gave experienced nurses and pharmacists powers to prescribe medication to patients, was viewed by some as controversial when it was introduced in 2006. Specially-trained nurses and pharmacists in England are now able to manage all aspects of a patient’s treatment including diagnosis, prescription and monitoring, without supervision by a doctor.

‘Our research shows that nurse and pharmacist independent prescribers are now making a substantial contribution to patient care which is safe and of good quality,’ says Alison Blenkinsopp, professor of the Practice of Pharmacy at Keele University.

‘Commissioners of healthcare can use our findings to make the most effective use of nurse and pharmacist prescribing when they are commissioning services.’

The report also found that:

  • 86 per cent of nurses and 71 per cent of pharmacists are using their new powers after training as a prescriber
  • most nurses and pharmacists are prescribing in a primary care setting, with substantial numbers also in secondary care settings, such as hospitals
  • most patients did not mind whether they received care from a nurse, pharmacist or a doctor
  • enabling non-medical prescribing to develop further, by additional training of nurses and pharmacists to treat patients with more than one medical condition, could improve patient care and efficiency in the health service.

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Keele astrophysicist in discovery of red giant and two red dwarfs

A Keele University astrophysicist, Dr John Taylor, is a member of an international group of European, Australian and American researchers who have reported on the discovery of a unique system of stars in a paper published in the Science magazine.

The object, officially labelled HD 181068 but dubbed ‘Trinity’ by the research team, is one of the brightest stars observed by the NASA Kepler planet-hunting space telescope; at 7th magnitude it is almost visible to the naked eye. Whilst seemingly single, it is in reality a complex triple system in which three stars reside in a very special geometry, showing mutual eclipses as each of the stars passes behind or in front of the others. The most luminous object is a giant star, around which a close pair of two red dwarfs orbits with a period of 45.5 days.

The discovery of this complex system is exciting because HD 181068 is a real astrophysical laboratory which, unusually for astronomy, is changing so quickly that its evolution can be followed on a human timescale. The red dwarfs are pushing and pulling on the giant star, causing it to pulsate every 11 hours. This in turn seems to have mysteriously suppressed the much smaller and faster pulsations which almost all other giant stars exhibit.

John Taylor was personally responsible for analysis of the data from the Keper satellite, which was difficult due to the huge differences between the three stars. Whilst the giant star is over three times the mass and twelve time the size of the Sun, the two red dwarfs are both smaller and cooler than our Sun and so are hard to detect at all. ‘This is one of the most challenging objects which I have ever worked on,’ said John, ‘and if it were not for the Kepler satellite we would never even have found the two red dwarf stars in the first place.’

‘Thanks to the fortunate viewing angle from Earth, the combined light from the three stars change very characteristically: there are sharp brightness decreases with a period of 0.9 days produced by the mutual eclipses of the close pair of dwarfs, while it takes 2 days for the close pair to pass in front of or behind the red giant’ says Aliz Derekas (Eotvos University and Konkoly Observatory, Budapest, Hungary), the lead author of the paper. A mind-boggling feature of the variations is that when the red dwarfs are in front of the red giant, their short-period eclipses disappear. ‘This is because the surface brightnesses of the three stars are actually very similar, and just as a white rabbit cannot be seen in snow-fall, the red dwarfs in front of the red giant are also almost invisible, hence no light is lost when they eclipse each other.’

The authors discovered this interesting system in June 2010 and had to obtain additional ground-based observations to help interpret the nature of the object. ‘The spectroscopic measurements revealed the periodic motion of the largest star in the system with the wide orbital period of 45.5 days. The two-day long eclipses are so similar at first sight that we thought that the outer orbital period is 22.7 days. Only after having obtained the whole radial velocity curve, we realised the tiny differences in the long period minima and that the real period was actually double this.’ says Laszlo Kiss (Konkoly Observatory), the second author of the paper.

Further observations using interferometry were used to measure the angular size of the red giant. ‘Combining the angular diameter with the known distance of the system we were able to measure the absolute radius of the red giant, which was a great achievement given its large distance of 800 light years’ – adds Daniel Huber (University of Sydney, Australia), who led the interferometric observations using the Center for High-Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) at Mount Wilson Observatory in California, USA.

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£1m MRC award to fight malaria

A major new award of £1m from the Medical Research Council African Research Leader Scheme will support links with Africa, bringing together the medical entomology teams of Dr Frederic Tripet, of Keele University’s Centre for Applied Entomology and Parasitology, and Dr Abdoulaye Diabate, of the Centre Muraz in Burkina Faso.

The objective of the project is to better understand male mosquito mating behaviour, enabling new strategies to eliminate malaria. The project will support eight staff for five years with significant fieldwork in villages in Burkina Faso and lengthy visits of staff to Keele’s laboratories in the Research Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine.

Malaria remains a major cause of mortality in many parts of Africa. The control of mosquito populations remains one of the most efficient ways of decreasing the incidence of the disease. Understanding mosquito swarming and mating behaviour may lead to new tools for controlling mosquito populations by targeting swarms with traps or insecticides. Male mating behaviour is also crucial for vector control programmes aiming to release sterile male mosquitoes that mate with wild females and induce their sterility, and for future programmes aiming to introduce genes of refractoriness to malaria into mosquito populations, via genetically-modified mosquitoes. So far laboratory-reared male mosquitoes have been unable to mate with wild females effectively, thereby casting doubt on the efficiency of mosquito releases.

An important first part of the research programme will thus focus on understanding what determines swarm size and location in view of vector control. The second part will focus on the ecology and molecular basis of mate choice and mating success in swarms, with the goal of improving the mating performance of laboratory-reared mosquitoes. The proposed research studies will include ecological experiments in specially designed large outdoor cages and selected villages in Burkina Faso and will also benefit from the latest molecular advances in the laboratories at Keele.

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Swearing relieves pain but don’t over do it

Swearing can relieve pain – but only for people who swear infrequently. This is the finding of a study by Dr Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland of Keele University to be presented at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Glasgow (4-6 May).

Previous research conducted by Dr Stephens and Claudia Umland from Keele University found that swearing can reduce the feeling of pain. This study examined whether people who swear more often in everyday life get as much pain relief from cursing as those who swear less frequently.

Seventy-one participants aged 18 to 46 completed a questionnaire that assessed swearing frequency. Pain tolerance was assessed by how long participants could keep their hands in icy water. Findings revealed that the more often people swear in daily life, the less extra time they were able to hold their hand in the icy water when swearing, compared with when not swearing.

Dr Stephens said: ‘The important message from this latest study is interesting because, while saying that swearing as a response to pain might be beneficial, there is evidence that if you swear too often in everyday situations the power of swearing won’t be there when you really might need it.’

‘While I wouldn’t advocate the prescription of swearing as part of a medicalised pain management strategy, our research suggests that we should be tolerant of people who swear while experiencing acute pain. Indeed, I occasionally receive letters from members of the public recounting episodes in which they, as adults, have been chastised for swearing during a painful episode. They feel that my research findings vindicate their actions.’

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Keele to lead major UK-India project on low carbon technologies

Professor Mark Ormerod, Keele University Research Institute for the Environment, Physical Sciences and Applied Mathematics, is heading a collaborative team of six leading research groups from the UK and India that has been awarded around £1.35m from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Indian Department of Science and Technology, funding a collaborative three-year research project entitled, ‘Modelling Accelerated Ageing and Degradation of Solid Oxide Fuel Cells’.

The Keele-led project is aimed at obtaining a greater understanding of the factors which affect fuel cell performance and durability, particularly in relation to using readily available fuels, including waste biogas.

It is one of three proposals funded under the new RCUK UK-India Low Carbon Technology Initiative, and includes Keele, Birmingham and Loughborough universities as UK partners, and three Indian Institutes of Technology, IIT Madras, IIT Delhi and IIT Hyderabad.

The initiative is particularly aimed at establishing collaborative research between internationally leading UK and Indian researchers in low carbon technologies, placing considerable emphasis on collaborative visits and exchange of researchers.

The project will fund nine senior research scientists from India, as well as research students, who will make extended research visits to the UK partners.

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Folic acid supplementation in pregnancy, DNA methylation and birth weight in newborn babies

Groundbreaking work by a team of UK scientists has identified, for the first time, a link between changes in the DNA of newborn babies, folic acid supplementation during pregnancy, and birth weight.

This state-of-the-art ‘epigenetic’ study, from scientists at Keele and Nottingham Universities together with doctors at University Hospital of North Staffordshire and Derby Children’s Hospital, led by Professor William Farrell, Professor of Human Genomics, Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine at the University of Keele, and funded by the World Cancer Research Fund, showed that the levels of a critical metabolite of folic acid, homocysteine, in the blood of newborn babies is linked to modifications of their DNA (DNA methylation) in key genes and that such modifications might be used to predict birth weight.

Supplementation with the vitamin, folic acid during pregnancy is known to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It also protects against low birth weight, which has numerous short- and long-term consequences. It has been suggested that folic acid, though its metabolism to chemicals such as homocysteine, might secure these clinical effects via DNA methylation.

The Fetal Epigenomics Group, comprising; Professor Anthony Fryer, Keele Professor of Clinical Biochemistry, University Research Institute of Science and Technology in Medicine/University Hospital of North Staffordshire, Dr Richard Emes, Associate Professor in Bioinformatics, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science; University of Nottingham, Dr Khaled Ismail, Consultant and Senior Lecturer in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Keele Research Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine/University Hospital of North Staffordshire, Dr Kim Haworth, Keele Research Institute of Science and Technology in Medicine, Dr Charles Mein, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry; Genome Centre, Dr William Carroll, Consultant Paediatrician, Derbyshire Children’s Hospital, and Professor Farrell, examined the relationship between folic acid supplementation and its metabolites on DNA methylation in human blood from the umbilical cord, using a state-of-the-art ‘microarray’ techniques which simultaneously examines methylation at 27,578 sites in the DNA.

Professor Farrell said: ‘It has been known for many years that folic acid supplementation is essential for women during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects and low birth weight delivery. However, we had little idea as to how this worked. This study is the first to suggest that methylation of particular genes in the baby’s DNA may be the key to unlocking the secret of the action of folic acid.

‘Now we have identified which genes might be the link between folic acid and birth weight, we have opened the door to research that may allow doctors to predict the likelihood of low birth weight with greater certainty. Furthermore, it sheds light on the underlying causes of low birth weight and offers the potential to intervene earlier to prevent poor pregnancy outcomes such as premature delivery and pregnancy loss.’

The work, some of which was published recently in the scientific journal Epigenetics, illustrates the potential of DNA methylation ‘microarray’ technology to identify a new generation of clinical markers that will have a major impact, not only on the development of new therapeutic agents, but also on the way we manage a wide range of medical scenarios. (Journal citation Anthony A. Fryer, Richard D. Emes, Khaled M.K. Ismail, Kim E. Haworth, Charles Mein, William D. Carroll and William E. Farrell. Epigenetics Volume 6, Issue 1 January 2011, pages 86–94)

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Keele signs agreement of co-operation with Chinese university

Representatives of Nanjing Xiaozhuang University, including the President, Professor Li Hongtian, have visited Keele University to sign an agreement of co-operation reached with the Faculty of Natural Sciences for a 3+1 study arrangement for students.

Xiaozhuang University has received Ministry of Education approval in China for 40 students to progress on to the final year of Keele’s BSc in Environment and Sustainability, after undertaking 3 years of their degree at Xiaozhuang.

The first cohort of students has already started in China and will come to Keele in September 2013. After a meeting with the Dean of Natural Sciences, Professor Pat Bailey, the delegation toured the Faculty to view the facilities, including the new state-of-the-art MULTY laboratory in the Lennard-Jones Building.

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