In their own words: NSMI-funded scientists on their groundbreaking work

Research , Wade Conference Centre

North Staffordshire Researchers undertake innovative brain injury study involving surgeons and scientists

In a new study started in 2017, a North Staffordshire research team has succeeded in keeping adult human brain tissue alive in a dish outside of the body, using samples of tissue donated by living patients undergoing surgery for a brain condition called ‘Chiari malformation’.

Clinical lead for the study, consultant neurosurgeon Mr Nikolaos Tzerakis explained: “The Chiari malformation is a fairly common problem in Neurosurgical practice. Simply put, the part of the brain at the back of the head which is called the cerebellum, lies lower than the normal level.

“This creates crowding in a tight bony space called foramen magnum, which then causes some difficulty in the circulation of the brain fluid. Patients with Chiari malformation present with headaches mostly during coughing, laughing and straining.

“When surgical treatment is required the usual operation is called Foramen Magnum Decompression, during which we remove a small part of the bone at the back of the head and the spine. On a few occasions, some cerebellar tissue has to be removed to allow adequate decompression and circulation of the brain fluid.

“This sample would have been of no use until now because according to the classical surgical protocol it is removed and disposed. However, this tissue has living nerve cells and they can be grown in the laboratory without any additional risk to the patient.”

Patients with Chiari malformation are widely believed to have essentially healthy (viable) tissue because the brain tissue is misplaced rather than diseased. In the past, scientists studying the human brain have been limited by the difficulty in obtaining tissue for such studies.

Their options have been limited to samples removed post mortem – which can quickly die – or tissue from cancerous or diseased brains.

Proving the successful use of Chiari tissue in a dish has the potential to be a very useful new scientific development, which could help in the study and discovery of new treatments for brain injuries and diseases which could be investigated using such a model.

Before they could start their research, the scientists went through a three-year planning process including an exhaustive review within the NHS to make sure their methods were ethical.

They sought consent from a number of patients, some of whom agreed for their cerebellar tissue to be kept for the research study, rather than be incinerated, as would be the normal practice.

Clinical Lecturer Mr Jon Sen, a neurosurgeon, said: “It made me think ‘why has no one thought of doing this before?’ The simplest ideas are often some of the best ones, but it still took a lot of banging our heads together in the neurosurgery department to reach the idea of trying to obtain tissue from our Chiari patients.

“A key issue is that Chiari is the only surgery we ever do where we take out brain tissue that we could consider within a ‘normal’ enough limit that we could develop a meaningful tissue injury model from.”

The study – supported by a grant from the North Staffordshire Medical Institute – is being led by Professor of Neural Tissue Engineering at Keele’s medical school, Divya Chari.

This new scientific advance also has the potential to reduce the need for animal testing, and could allow the Keele University scientists to simulate the effects of injuries on brain tissue in a laboratory environment.

Prof. Chari said: “I feel passionate about the need for models to reduce animal experimentation. In my early training, I learned to reproduce brain and spinal cord injuries in rodents so I know first-hand the major ethical and technical difficulties these have.

“In animal models there’s potential for substantial suffering – they can lose movement and bladder control, become quadriplegic.

“Our aim is to develop a successful dish model for use in laboratories, that’s relevant to human injuries. We’ve previously proven we can develop models in a dish using tissue derived from rodents, but this is the first time we’ve done it using human tissue.

“Make no mistake, this is a huge undertaking and the success of the work relies on collaboration of a big team working across the hospital and laboratory units. This includes neurosurgeons Mr Nikolaos Tzerakis and Mr Rupert Price, research nurse Holly McGuire and scientists Dr Jacqueline Tickle and Dr Christopher Adams at Keele University.”

The study was a long time in the planning, however, the process accelerated rapidly when the team finally received their first tissue sample this summer.

Researcher Dr Jacqueline Tickle said: “The time for collection from the patient and processing in the laboratory was less than an hour. It has to happen very quickly so there’s less time for the tissue to die and it remains viable.”

The tissue samples were cut into slices of varying thickness to examine the tissue survival and observe major brain cell types.

At first the researchers had no idea what to expect.

Prof. Chari said: “The fact that we have seen tissue survival for well over two weeks made us excited because we had no idea whether we could get it to remain viable for even 24 hours. The fact that we can detect the major cell types present in the brain is very positive”

When an incision was made in one of the samples to replicate an injury, the researchers believe they can see some changes that are typical of genuine brain injuries.

Prof. Chari and Mr Sen added: “This is still very, very early. We’ve only got the tissue from two patients so far. Getting the tissue depends on many factors- whether the patient consents to donating the sample, whether the surgery goes ahead as planned, and ultimately whether the surgeon makes the decision to remove the tissue.”

“So we are in it for the long haul, but we all believe it is worth the effort, because the first results are pretty exciting. The main outcome at this stage is that we’re confident that the tissue can remain viable for a relatively long time, if the conditions are kept right.  It suggests that we could make an injury model in these tissue samples and then look at responses to therapeutic manoeuvres.”

Professor Shaughn O’Brien, chairman of the North Staffordshire Medical Institute, said: “This is an outstanding research project and a unique and clever approach to the study of neural/brain tissue which will attempt to replicate the real life situation in human tissue but without being in any way additionally invasive for any patients.”

The North Staffordshire Medical Institute is a charity funded by public donations that provides grants for vital medical research in the Staffordshire area.

To find out more about their work, visit

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Physics star Jim Al-Khalili is a quantum hit at the North Staffs Medical Institute

Events , Wade Conference Centre

By Meg Jorsh

TV physicist Jim Al-Khalili revealed the baffling world of quantum biology in a talk at the North Staffordshire Medical Institute.

The BBC star – best known for his Radio 4 show The Life Scientific – joked if the insanely complex subject did not give his listeners a headache, he would not have been doing his job.

Professor Al-Khalili spoke to a sold-out audience of 150 at the medical research charity’s 48th annual Wade Lecture.

He told them: “If you haven’t got a headache then clearly you don’t understand quantum mechanics. If you think ‘maybe I’ve got it’ then you haven’t. It’s meant to be confusing.”

Prof Al-Khalili explained that the quantum theory of physics, when applied to biology, could potentially reveal how the atoms in animals and plants behave differently to those in inanimate objects.

But he admitted the new field – which looks at the behaviour of subatomic particles – was a controversial topic for many traditional biologists.

He added: “Quantum biology is still in its infancy; it’s still speculative. Quantum mechanics is weird and very sensitive, it’s hard to understand and biology is complicated enough as well.

“There’s still widespread scepticism among biologists, mainly surrounding the question of ‘so what?’

“It does seem that there are some mechanisms within living cells that need some help from the quantum world, but we don’t know how this happens.

“To observe quantum mechanics in the non-living world you need to cool things down to near-absolute zero in a vacuum and even then the quantum effects don’t last very long.

“Has nature hit upon shortcuts to give it an advantage? Can we learn from nature to develop new or more efficient quantum devices?”

Having wrapped up his hour-long presentation, the popular scientist stopped to sign autographs and take selfies with dozens of fans.

Prof. Al-Khalili, who was awarded an OBE in 2008, explained that respect for his audience was key to his success as a science broadcaster.

He said: “I’m of a generation when I first started doing science communication it was just becoming acceptable for science researchers to talk to the public. Before that you had to do one or the other.

“Richard Dawkins, brilliant though he is, once he wrote The Selfish Gene he was no longer seen as an academic. But people like me and like Professor Brian Cox, I still spend half my time at the University of Surrey, I still have PhD students, I still publish papers. It was still only my generation that it’s become acceptable to do both.

“Public engagement in science acknowledges that it has to be a two-way process. Part of that is acknowledging that the audience you talk to is no less clever than you, they’ve just not devoted their lives to studying this stuff.

“I couldn’t perform an operation – I can’t even do my own bank statements.”

The professor, who still spends half of his time teaching at the University of Surrey, later joined Institute members, staff and supporters for a formal dinner.

He decided to attend in part because he had never visited Stoke before.

“So far it’s been very pleasant,” he added. “If tonight is indicative of the good people of Stoke then it’s a lovely place.”

Institute bosses hope to welcome Professor Al-Khalili back in 2021 to speak at a series of talks planned for the Year of Culture.

The event on Thursday, October 5th, came just a week after the Institute’s annual awards evening, at which more than £100,000 was handed over to top local researchers.

The money will be used to fund groundbreaking studies into a range of health conditions, including childhood asthma and sleep apnoea, lung disease and brain injuries.

Experts in prostate and bladder cancer, bowel disease and health literacy will also profit from the funding injection.

The North Staffordshire Medical Institute, based on Hartshill Road, Stoke, is a medical charity funded by public donations and the revenue from its purpose-built conference facilities.

For more information about their work, visit, like them on Facebook @nsmedicalinstitute or follow them on Twitter @nsccentre.

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