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We study signals inside cells, particularly calcium ions. Changes in the calcium levels inside cells are one of the key controllers of what cells are doing second-to-second. We are also looking at how these signals are altered in disease states, particularly diseases associated with free radical production like pancreatitis. The main technology we use is high-powered light microscopy, combined with loading fluorescent probe molecules into the cell to 'read out' what is going on.


B.Sc. Chemistry Bristol

Ph.D. Physiology University College London

Lecturer in Physiology, University of Manchester

Visiting Researcher, University of Sydney, Australia.

Visiting Research Scientist, Gene Therapy and Therapeutics Branch, NIDR, NIH, Bethesda, U.S.A.

I originally came to Manchester in the late 80s as a specialist in biomedical NMR spectroscopy NMR was very fashionable at the time in metabolic biochemistry and physiology. The special power of NMR was that it allowed minute-by-minute measurements of things like intracellular pH and ATP levels in intact living tissues. I had first come across NMR as an undergraduate studying chemistry and biochemistry, and then did a Ph.D. applying NMR to skeletal and cardiac muscle. After coming to Manchester I switched to using fluorescent probes to make non-invasive measurements of intracellular ion levels. This was mostly because fluorescent probes offered many of the same advantages as NMR, but could measure a much wider range of parameters. The first major topic we tackled with fluorescence was transport of bicarbonate ions by salivary gland secretory cells - ever wondered why your saliva is alkaline?

(Answer: Because of secretion of bicarbonate ions into the saliva. Very useful for stopping food acids from rotting your teeth.)

Since about 1990 the major focus of my work has been calcium signals in living cells, going down to the single cell and subcellular level (see above). We have moved into fluorescence imaging to do this, so we do most of our experiments sitting in small dark rooms.

In 1997-8 I spent a Sabbatical year at the NIH in Washington DC trying to re-train a bit in molecular biology. Doing experiments again was quite a shock, but I certainly learnt something. I would like to apply molecular techniques more in my research in the future, especially using viral gene delivery (gene therapy) methods to change the phenotype of differentiated cells.

Regarding teaching, as a lecturer in general physiology I have taught all kinds of things, from muscle biophysics to the heartbeat to the details of how cells signal to one another. Teaching a wide variety of subject areas is a good recipe for keeping an active brain, since you have to keep learning new areas. It also means lots of different challenges. For instance, covering the whole of the immune system in a 1-hr lecture is a lot different to giving four detailed lectures on [Ca2+]i signalling in the pancreas!

Research interests

Calcium signalling, divalent cation transport and stimulus-response coupling in mammalian cells

All mammalian cells receive information in the form of extracellular chemical signals - hormones and transmitters. These `instructions' must then be signalled to the cellular machinery to produce a response - the opening of ion channels, the secretion from the cell of a hormone, transmitter or enzyme, the activation of ion pumps or carriers. We are investigating this stimulus-response coupling in a range of cell types. In particular, we study the changes in intracellular free calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) which are a primary intracellular signal in tissues as diverse as cardiac muscle and epithelial cells. We are also interested in other intracellular signalling molecules, such as diacylglycerols and reactive oxygen species, and and have a special interest in the actions of metal ions (such as iron and heavy metals) in biological systems. Major current areas of investigation in this laboratory are:-

Calcium sensing and transport in epithelia

Apart from being a key intracellular regulator, calcium can also be an extracellular signal, acting on cell surface cation-sensing receptors. In epithelia, a further level of complexity is that calcium transport into and out of cells is organised and regulated to produce, in effect, transfer of calcium ions from one side of the epithelium to the other. We have worked extensively on Ca signalling in a number of such epithelia, including pancreatic acinar (digestive enzyme-secreting) cells, pancreatic ductal (HCO3--secreting) epithelia cells (with Dr Martin Steward), and human placental epithelium (with Professor Colin Sibley and Dr Sue Greenwood in the Faculty of Health Sciences). We are particularly interested in Ca sensing and the control of Ca influx at the luminal side of epithelia. In pancreatic ducts, this may form part of a mechanism of Ca sensing that helps prevent the formation of pancreatic stones.

In human placenta, luminal Ca entry is particularly important as it is the first step in the movment of Ca ions from the mother to the growing baby. We are trying to identify the calcium channels that mediate this Ca entry, and work out how they are controlled. The placenta, uniquely among the bodys organs, has no nerve supply of its own, and the question of what hormones regulate Ca channels and Ca signalling in this tissue (in the absence of neurotransmitters) is particularly interesting.

We are pursuing these investigations using a range of techniques, particularly microscope-based Ca imaging, but also standard molecular methods (RT-PCR, western blotting) and immunocytochemistry

Alteration of calcium signalling by pathological processes

Agents or treatments which interfere with Ca signalling profoundly alter cell function, are implicated in many diseases. We are particularly interested in reactive oxygen intermediates, which are probably important in the pathogenesis of pancreatitis, a serious and sometimes fatal inflammatory disease of the exocrine pancreas. Together with Dr Jason Bruce we are currently measuring oxidative stress in single living cells using fluorescent dyes, and trying to use this to learn how cells "defend" themselves from oxidative damage.

Heavy metals - iron and cardiac myocytes

Heavy metals, most commonly transition metal cations, are typically toxic in biological systems, although some, such as iron and zinc, are necessary for normal cell function and are only toxic in excess. Heavy metal cations are interrelated with Ca signalling as the ions often mimic Ca, being transported by Ca channels and other Ca transport proteins.

We are currently looking at iron transport and the effects of iron in heart muscle cells. Iron-mediated damage to the heart is a major cause of death in patients with Beta-thalassaemia, who become overloaded with iron through the repeated blood transfusions that they need to survive. In collaboration with Dr Mary Diaz of the University of Edinburgh we are trying to work out both how iron enters heart muscle, and how it causes cell damage and death. This work uses fluorescence microscopy to measure Ca transients and contractions in single cardiac cells, and RT-PCR and immunocytochemistry to identify iron transporters.


cell physiology; general physiology; cardiovascular and respiratory system; science communication;

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being

External positions

Visiting Scientist, National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)

30 Sept 199730 Sept 1998

Areas of expertise

  • QP Physiology
  • RM Therapeutics. Pharmacology


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