During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the world has been transformed by new discoveries in science, technology and medicine. The power of science to improve our lives is exemplified today by the news that scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a new test for bowel cancer. This could be used for a national screening programme to tackle what is the second most common cancer in the UK.

In honour of the Queen's Golden Jubilee we have set out here just a few of our most notable scientific achievements from the last 50 years (full details of the bowel cancer test are at the end of the story).

Sir Charles Oatley, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University's Department of Engineering, leads a team which develops the first scanning electron microscope, arguably the most important scientific instrument to be developed in the last 50 years. The first microscope was designed and built in the Department and it was operational in 1951.

The major activity in electrical engineering after the war, was the development of the scanning electron microscope (SEM). Although the principles of the scanning electron microscope had already been established in Germany in the 1930s, there was a widely held belief that this technique had insufficient scientific merit and no commercial future. It was only through the determination of Charles Oatley, appointed to a lectureship at the University in 1945, that research in this field was established at Cambridge.

The first break-through to commercial success occurred in 1958 when a fully engineered microscope was constructed in the Department and shipped to Canada, to fulfil an order from the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada. This instrument is now in the National Museum of Ottawa.

The instrument was later adapted to write the masks for today's electronic chips.

Darwin's legacy lived on in Cambridge when, in 1953, an astonishing biological breakthrough was made at the Cavendish Laboratory by two young scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick. Using experimental data assembled by Rosalind Franklin, another former member of the University, Crick and Watson for the first time revealed the double helix structure of DNA.

Their discovery unlocked the secret of how coded information is contained in living cells and passed from one generation to the next - the secret of life. Their discovery opened the door to the study of an entirely new science - genetics.

Since then molecular biology at Cambridge has gone from strength to strength, with groundbreaking research from a string of Nobel Laureates including Fred Sanger and Max Perutz. The work of all these scientists on genes and proteins has led directly to dramatic advances in the treatment of human disease.

Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes develops the Cambridge Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), the first stored program digital computer to work successfully. His invention of microprogramming is considered one of the most influential contributions to computer system design. After the war, in 1958, his team introduces the valve-based EDSAC2.

The development of EDSAC and EDSAC2 underpins computer research and is central to computer science. Research continues with the introduction of a new computer, Titan, through to the experimental CAP computer of the 1970s.

Frederick Sanger of the University's Department of Biochemistry, wins the first of his two Nobel prizes for Chemistry for determining the specific sequence of the amino acid building blocks which form the protein insulin.

In 1980, Dr Frederick Sanger, Fellow of King's, becomes the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes for Chemistry, this time for discovering how to determine the information encoded in DNA - DNA sequencing.

Crick and Watson share the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for their discovery of DNA with Maurice Wilkins of the University of London. At the same ceremony, Max Perutz and John Kendrew share the Nobel prize for Chemistry for solving the three dimensional structure of proteins - the catalysts that perform most of the chemical reactions of life.

Dan Mackenzie begins publishing a series of papers which will make a major contribution to the new field of plate textonics -the unifying theory which explains how and why the continents move and the oceans open and close. In 2002 Professor MacKenzie will be awarded the prestigious Crafoord Prize for Geosciences 2002 for his groundbreaking work on the earth's evolution.

Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell make the most exciting recent observation in astrophysics by discovering pulsating stars or "pulsars" using Cambridge's Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. Their work alters the course of modern cosmology.

Trinity College, under the guidance of Dr John Bradfield, Senior Bursar, founds England's first science park on the outskirts of Cambridge. The development comes in the wake of the 1969 Mott Report which articulated the need to attract science-based industry to Cambridge.

The new Science Park would speed the development of the Cambridge Phenonmenon, as the City and its hinterland became the UK's leading centre for high-tech companies in fields such as IT and biomedicine.

Aaron Klug, of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology, collects his Nobel prize for solving complex three dimensional structures including viruses and RNA molecules.

Cesar Milstein, fellow of Darwin College, collects his Nobel prize for his work on monoclonal antibodies, the original 'magic bullets'. His method of producing unlimited supplies of highly specific antibodies opens a new route for attacking unwanted cells such as cancers - revolutionising all aspects of medicine from pure research to drug design.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge, collaborating with a local biotechnology company, identify the gene responsible for a form of diabetes, a discovery which could eventually lead to the development of new drugs to treat the condition.

The identified gene, called PPAR gamma (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor), is responsible for a rare form of diabetes, also associated with early onset hypertension or high blood pressure. The team identified two different mutations in the gene, in two families with the disease.

The Universty team was led by Stephen O'Rahilly, Professor of Metabolic Medicine, and Krishna Chatterjee, Professor of Endocrinology, in the Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge, who worked with Incyte Pharmaceuticals (Europe) on the study.

Professor Ron Laskey from the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research Campaign Institute and the University's Department of Zoology, with colleagues Dr Gareth Williams and Dr Nick Coleman, from the University's Department of Pathology, develop a prototype screening test, called the Campaign Test, to detect cancerous and pre-cancerous changes in the bowel, lung, breast, bladder, mouth and cervix.

The new test uses specific antibodies that home in on any abnormal cells found in the samples. These antibodies work by attaching themselves to specific proteins (called Cdc6 and MCM5), which are found in rapidly dividing cancer cells. The antibodies are then labelled with a fluorescent or coloured dye, highlighting the location of the abnormal cells so that experts can see them more easily. Finding rapidly dividing cells in areas where they should not be would be a warning sign for cancer.

The Campaign Test has potential to be used on cells found in a range of easily accessible patient samples, such as urine, faeces or sputum, as well as on cervical or oral cell smears and could be used to detect cancerous and pre-cancerous changes in the bowel, lung, breast, bladder, mouth and cervix.

New test for bowel cancer developed

A new test for bowel cancer has been developed by scientists at the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Cancer Research UK. The new technique could potentially be used for a national screening programme to diagnose bowel cancers earlier.

The research team, led by Dr N
ick Coleman at the MRC Cancer Cell Unit in Cambridge, and supported by a Cancer Research UK grant, published the findings in the The Lancet on Friday 31 May 2002.

Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK after lung cancer, but when detected early it is a highly curable disease. In the UK, 34,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year.

The new test is rapid, reliable and, importantly, avoids discomfort to patients. At the moment, patients are examined through endoscopy, an invasive procedure that may involve taking cells from inside the colon - the main part of the large intestine. The approach used by the team is similar to one that they and colleagues have developed for improved screening for cervical cancer, and which is currently undergoing extensive investigation.

The test works by identifying abnormal colon cells from stool samples. The cells are naturally shed from the lining of the colon and can be detected in faeces. The cells are tested for the presence of a protein called Mcm2. Mcm2 cannot be found in most normal cells in the body, but is present in cancerous cells in sufficient quantities to be detected by specific antibodies.

The research team worked with doctors and patients at Addenbrooke's Hospital. Justin Davies, a surgeon at Addenbrooke's who carried out much of the research, said:

"We found the Mcm2 protein in the stool samples of 37 out of 40 patients with bowel cancer, but not from any people in a control group of healthy volunteers."

Dr Nick Coleman, a Group Leader in the MRC Cancer Cell Unit in the Hutchison/MRC Research Centre, said: "We're very pleased with the results so far. The next step is to see if the test proves successful in large-scale clinical trials. If so, we hope the test could be routinely used to diagnose patients earlier and help save lives."

Professor Sir George Radda, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, said: "These results are very exciting and hold real promise for earlier diagnosis of bowel cancers. The aim of the MRC Cancer Cell Unit is to build on new discoveries in basic cancer research and focus on their potential to provide new treatments and methods of diagnosing and preventing cancer. This work is a major step forward in tackling this common disease."

Sir Paul Nurse, Interim Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: "This test builds on the methods successfully introduced for analysis of screening samples in cervical cancer. It holds considerable promise for screening for early bowel cancer and could potentially be combined with other screening methods. Larger studies will now be needed to assess the value of the test more precisely."

The research was funded by the MRC and Cancer Research UK with support from the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR), Addenbrooke's Hospital Endowment Fund, the Peel Medical Research Trust and the Louis-Jeantet Foundation for Medicine.

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