There are over 100 Fellows at King's. They carry out a huge variety of research, from investigating the origin of the Universe to uncovering the classical world.
This page contains the profiles of two researchers from King's - biologist Dr Elizabeth Murchison and engineer Dr Cesare Hall. More research profiles will be added. In the meantime, you can find brief summaries of the research done by King's Fellows by following the 'webpage' links on the Fellows page.
Curing the devil's cancer
Dr Elizabeth Murchison, Post-doctoral Fellow, Cancer Genome Project, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Photo: Wellcome Trust
King's Fellow and biologist Dr Elizabeth Murchison is trying to save the Tasmanian devil from an unusual cancer. Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is an infectious cancer that appeared in the 1990s and has wiped out 60% of the devil population. 'At the current rate of decline,' Elizabeth says, 'the devil will be extinct in 35-50 years.'
Elizabeth comes from Tasmania and grew up with Tasmanian devils around her. 'We heard them when we were camping and saw them crossing roads', she said. 'But it was only when I was doing a PhD in the States in 2003 that I heard about DFTD. The news was just breaking, and I was already a biologist so I was keen to help.'
Studies in Tasmania had revealed that the devil’s cancer chromosomes bore an uncanny similarity to each other. This suggested that the tumours all arose from the same cell line. Normally a tumour grows in a host animal, the host animal dies and its unique cancer cell line dies with it. The chromosomes implied that the devils weren't developing unique cancer cells. Instead, they seemed to be passing the same cancer cells on to each other.
The Tasmanian devil was declared an endangered species in May 2009
Elizabeth analysed the DNA from the tumours of infected devils and confirmed that the tumours did indeed come from the same cell line. 'People don't expect cancers to be infectious', she says, 'so it was surprise.'
The cancer spreads when Tasmanian devils fight. An infected animal bites a healthy animal and injects it with cancer cells. For reasons still unknown, the new host animal has no immune response to these cells. The disease takes hold and the new animal passes the cancer cells to another animal when it fights, before dying of the infection. It is likely that the whole epidemic started with just one animal’s cancer.
Elizabeth started to investigate which genes are expressed in the devils’ cancers, and what mutations could be causing the cancer. 'Along the way', she says, 'I learned about another cancer similar to the devil's cancer - canine transmissible venereal tumour (CTVT). It's a sexually transmitted cancer in dogs, which is also spread by live tumour cells.'
Genetic studies show that this canine cancer is probably thousands of years old, and also originated from a single cell line. 'It's probably the oldest cell line in the world', says Dr Murchison, 'and the fact that the disease occurs in dogs helps biologists. We have tools for dogs that we don't have for devils. We have the complete genome sequence for dogs. By looking at what genes are expressed and what genetic mutations occur in canine cancer, we can get clues as to what causes devil cancer.'
In her latest research, Dr Murchison has sequenced the genes that are expressed in devil cancer and found where the tumours start. The results are published in the New Year and will provide clues as to how the cancers grow.
These clues could lead towards a vaccine or therapy to treat or cure DFTD. 'I want to discover something that will save the devil', she says, 'but the clock is ticking.'
Developing green flight
Dr Cesare Hall, University Lecturer in Turbomachinery
King's Fellow Dr Cesare Hall is researching an aeroplane engine that uses less fuel and therefore emits less CO2. Dr Hall is working with Rolls-Royce to develop an open rotor engine.
Current aeroplanes use turbofan engines, where the rotor blades are covered by an engine cowling. Open rotor engines have no cowling. The rotor blades are left uncovered, which makes them lighter, more aerodynamic and more fuel-efficient.
Open rotor engines are also larger in diameter, which Cesare says also reduces fuel consumption. 'There's a potential for fuel reduction comparative to current aircraft of about 20%.'
An open rotor engine
These bigger engines will need new aeroplane designs, though. Either the wings will have to be set higher to accommodate the engines, or the engines will have to be put around the tail.
One disadvantage of the open rotor engine is that it has no cowl to muffle the noise, so further research needs to be done to decrease noise levels.
Nevertheless Cesare is optimistic this problem will be solved and aeroplanes using these engines will soon take to the skies. 'I'd expect that in the next 10 years or so they'd be entering service,' he said, 'hopefully around 2020.'
You can hear an interview with him on the Business Daily programme of the BBC World Service.