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3D ‘mini-organs’ offer window into human disease and drug discovery

Winners of festive science image competition announced

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Winners of our second Festive Science Image Competition, run in partnership with the Medical Research Council (MRC), have been announced today.

The 1st place image - 'Ornamental organoids' – shows liver organoids, reminiscent of Christmas baubles. Organoids are tiny, lab-grown 3D structures which mimic human organs. They are used in medical research to investigate how genes cause disease and to test new drugs.

This annual competition invites Foundation and MRC-funded researchers, staff, and students to produce a science image with direct relevance to medical research, combined with a festive theme. The competition’s judges, who work in science, medical research, communications, and public engagement, were looking for eye-catching, high-quality images, along with a clear explanation for non-scientific audiences.

Three winners were selected, with the 1st place image chosen to feature on the Medical Research Foundation and MRC's joint Season's Greetings card for 2023. The cards can be ordered online, with a suggested donation to the Foundation.

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Michaela Raab Michaela Raab from the MRC Human Genetics Unit, University of Edinburgh.

1st place - "Ornamental organoids", by Michaela Raab, PhD student, MRC Human Genetics Unit at the Institute of Genetics and Cancer, University of Edinburgh

Ornamental organoids on Christmas tree branch

"To understand how organs in our body grow and work, we use organoids, which are like 3D mini-organs in a dish,” says Michaela Raab. “We can label specific parts of cells in organoids and use powerful microscopes to visualise organoid shape and characteristics, as shown by images of liver organoids that are reminiscent of festive Christmas baubles."

"Not just pretty to look at, organoids are also very useful in medical research as they can be used to ask how genes cause disease and test new drugs. This means organoids have great potential in helping to discover new treatments for human disease."

To create her image, Michaela first grew cells from liver tissue samples in the lab. Under the right lab conditions, these clusters of cells can self-organise and grow into organoids, which recreate the architecture and physiology of organs in vivid detail. Once the organoids had reached a certain size, Michaela used fluorescent dyes to visualise the different cell components, before taking high-resolution photos through a microscope.

Nick Gatford Nick Gatford from the University of Oxford.

2nd place - "O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are your dendrites!" by Nick Gatford, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford

Dopaminergic neurons in the shape of a Christmas tree

"This image shows dopaminergic neurons generated from human stem cells,” says Nick Gatford. “Dopaminergic neurons are the main cell type that deteriorates in Parkinson’s disease. We use these cells to understand neurodegeneration and develop new drugs to slow their degeneration. The findings from such experiments will provide new Parkinson’s disease treatments.”

Nick’s image was acquired using a super-resolution microscope “consisting of multiple tiles stitched together, showing a large area of neuronal connections”. Nick adds: “An intensity-based filter has been applied to highlight neurons in festive colours, electron microscopy structures of a complete proton pump represent decorations, and the star is a single human neuron."

Nathalie Lovgren Iain Tullis Nathalie Lövgren and Dr Iain Tullis from the University of Oxford.

Highly commended - "Starry Winter Night" by Nathalie Lövgren, MRC DPhil Student, and Dr Iain Tullis, Senior Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford

Christmas tree card design with flash radiotherapy

"Radiotherapy is one of the main methods used to treat cancer,” say Nathalie and Iain. “FLASH radiotherapy is an emerging technique offering the same damage to tumours as standard radiotherapy, whilst potentially reducing side effects."

"A tree of lead, attached to a water flask, were both exposed to FLASH radiation,” Nathalie and Iain explain. “The dazzling image resembles the starry nights bringing us light during the cold winter months. The lead blocks most of the radiation, and the colour specs are due to the radiation interacting with the camera sensor. The blue glow is Cherenkov radiation, which appears when charged particles move faster in water than light itself."