Research Round-up – March 2021

Welcome to the latest instalment of our monthly feature series throwing the spotlight on our research success stories.

The strength of our research is in making a real and telling difference to the world around us, by working across traditional boundaries to find innovative solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing society today.

Here we highlight some of latest projects being pioneered by the expertise and efforts of the highly talented research community at Leeds.

From grant awards to examples of outstanding interdisciplinary work and best practice, we're keen to showcase your research achievements. See the foot of this article for details of how you can get involved.

Featured in this month’s round-up:

Lightning in the middle of a dark sky.

Leeds researchers have established that lightning strikes contributed to developing life on Earth

Lightning strikes played vital role in origins of life on Earth

Lightning strikes were just as important as meteorites in creating the perfect conditions for life to emerge on Earth, geologists say.

Minerals delivered to Earth in meteorites more than four billion years ago have long been advocated as key ingredients for the development of life on our planet. Scientists believed minimal amounts of these minerals were also brought to early Earth through billions of lightning strikes.

But now Leeds researchers have established that lightning strikes were just as significant as meteorites in performing this essential function and allowing life to manifest.

They say this shows that life could develop on Earth-like planets through the same mechanism at any time, if atmospheric conditions are right.

The research was led by Benjamin Hess during his undergraduate studies in the School of Earth and Environment.

Mr Hess and his mentors were studying an exceptionally large and pristine sample of fulgurite – a rock created when lightning strikes the ground. The sample was formed when lightning struck a property in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, USA, in 2016, and donated to the geology department at nearby Wheaton College.

The Leeds researchers were initially interested in how fulgurite is formed but were fascinated to discover in the Glen Ellyn sample a large amount of a highly unusual phosphorous mineral called schreibersite.

Phosphorus is essential to life and plays a key role in all life processes, from movement to growth and reproduction. The phosphorous present on early Earth’s surface was contained in minerals that cannot dissolve in water, but schreibersite can.

The School of Earth and Environment funded the project under a scheme that enables undergraduate-led research using high-end analytical facilities.

Dr Jason Harvey, Associate Professor of Geochemistry, and Sandra Piazolo, Professor of Structural Geology and Tectonics, both in the School of Earth and Environment, mentored Mr Hess in the research project.

Read the full story

A landscape of mountains.

Leeds researchers link glacier-fed rivers with higher plant matter decomposition, a major contributor to carbon emissions

Melting glaciers could speed up carbon emissions

Melting glaciers could be triggering a ‘feedback process’ that causes further climate change, according to new research.

An international research team led by Leeds has, for the first time, linked glacier-fed mountain rivers with higher rates of plant material decomposition – a major process in the global carbon cycle.

As mountain glaciers melt, water is channelled into rivers downstream. But with rivers have warmer water temperatures and are less prone to variable water flow and sediment movement. These conditions are then much more favourable for fungi to establish and grow.

Fungi living in these rivers decompose organic matter, such as plant leaves and wood, eventually leading to the release of carbon dioxide into the air. The process – a key part of global river carbon cycling – has now been measured in 57 rivers in six mountain ranges across the world in Austria, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United States.

Lead author Sarah Fell, of Leeds’ School of Geography and water@leeds, said similar patterns and processes were discovered worldwide.

She added: “We found increases in the rate of organic matter decomposition in mountain rivers, which can then be expected to lead to more carbon release to the atmosphere.”

The retreat of mountain glaciers is accelerating at an unprecedented rate in many parts of the world, with climate change predicted to drive continued ice loss throughout the 21st century.

Read the full story

Close-up of the human eye

Scientists have taken a significant step forward in their search for the origin of a progressive eye condition that can cause sight loss

Genetic study uncovers hidden pieces of eye disease puzzle 

A new study into keratoconus by an international team of researchers, including a Leeds group led by Chris Inglehearn, Professor of Molecular Ophthalmology in the School of Medicine, has for the first time detected DNA variations that could provide clues as to how the disease develops.

Keratoconus causes the cornea – the clear outer layer at the front of the eye – to thin and bulge outwards into a cone shape over time, resulting in blurred vision and sometimes blindness. It usually emerges in young adulthood, often with lifelong consequences, and effects on average one in 375 people, though in some populations this figure is much higher. 

It’s more common in people with an affected relative, leading scientists to believe there could be a genetic link.

Glasses or contact lenses can be used to correct vision in the early stages. The only treatment is ‘cornea cross-linking’ – a procedure where targeted UV light is used to strengthen the corneal tissue. In very advanced cases, a corneal transplant may be needed.

Professor Inglehearn said: “This multinational, multicentre study gives us the first real insights into the cause of this potentially blinding condition, and opens the way for genetic testing in individuals at risk.”

The work has brought science a step closer to earlier diagnosis and potentially new therapeutic targets, offering hope to current and future keratoconus patients.

Read the full story

A man standing in front of the digital screen.

Every year, more than 3,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in Yorkshire

Funding boost to tackle bowel cancer ‘postcode lottery’

Bowel cancer patients in Yorkshire will continue to benefit from improvements in diagnosis and treatment following a £2.1 million funding boost from Yorkshire Cancer Research.

The charity’s Bowel Cancer Improvement Programme – led by Leeds – will be extended for a further five years, so researchers can continue to work towards their goal of bringing gold-standard care to every part of the region.

Every year, more than 3,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in Yorkshire. Although survival rates are improving, four in 10 patients will die within five years of being diagnosed.

Since 2015, researchers funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research have been analysing data from hospitals in the region, identifying areas of improvement and working with healthcare professionals from a wide variety of medical disciplines to implement changes in practice.

Philip Quirke, Professor of Pathology at Leeds’ School of Medicine, leads the study.

He said: “There is currently a postcode lottery in terms of treatment for bowel cancer. Our vision is to improve treatment for people with bowel cancer and ensure more of them survive.

“We want to offer the latest medical advances and make Yorkshire the best place for managing patients with bowel cancer. We also want to make Yorkshire the best place to do bowel cancer research so people in Yorkshire can benefit first.”

As well as working to address variations in treatment across the region, the research team has looked to Denmark to find ways of improving healthcare standards. Denmark has a similar sized population to Yorkshire, but survival rates are higher. In Yorkshire, seven in 10 people survive for at least two years after a bowel cancer diagnosis, compared to eight in 10 in Denmark.

By achieving the same standards as Denmark, up to 300 lives could be saved in Yorkshire each year.

Read the full story

Medical instruments on the shelf with surgeons on the background.

Leeds researchers help train rural surgeons in India to perform a simple but lifesaving procedure

Opening up keyhole surgery

Fifteen million keyhole surgeries are performed each year around the world.

Nearly one-third of these operations takes place in the USA alone, despite the country accounting for only about four per cent of the world’s population. Less pain, less risk of infection and quicker recovery are some of the key benefits of the keyhole surgery.

Laparoscopy – the official name for keyhole surgery – takes longer, costs more and is more technically demanding than open surgery. One of the main limiting factors is carbon dioxide. This gas is pumped into a patient’s abdomen to create the physical space for the surgeon to do their work. In lower-income countries, the gas can be unavailable or its supply is unreliable, which could put a patient at risk mid-operation.

Procedures such as gall bladder, appendix removal, hysterectomies or biopsies are considered surgically simple but can be potentially lifesaving.

To enable the use of keyhole surgery for simple procedures, surgeons working in remote, rural parts of India have been pioneering an alternative way of mechanically lifting a patient’s abdomen to carry out laparoscopy, without the need for gas.

Dr Jesudian Gnanaraj, a pioneering urologist at Karunya University in Coimbatore, has been leading this drive. He partnered with the Leeds’ NIHR Global Health Research Group to help train rural surgeons in the technique. But the equipment they were using was cumbersome, difficult to maintain and hard to sterilise. Leeds researchers put together a team of surgeons, engineers and designers from the UK and India to see if together, they could take a fresh look and design a new system that was easier to use.

The team started to work on the prototypes and, after numerous online meetings and a few trials, the team designed a working prototype, called retractor for insufflation-less surgery (RAIS). RAIS is lighter than the original equipment, has its own box for easy transportation, can fit into an autoclave for full sterilisation, and can be assembled and manipulated by the surgeon alone, without the need for other clinical staff.

Read the full story

Three pictures with three different people standing on the same background that says 'I am an artist'

Led by Dr Jade French, the research team brings together a range of skills and expertise across visual art and social care

Arts and Humanities Research Council funding

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £246,000 to alumna Dr Jade French to innovate new methods to support the professional development of learning disabled artists and curators.

Since February, the project ‘Irregular’ Art Schools has been co-developing and piloting different professional development opportunities with learning disabled artists in the Leeds City Region, testing how existing structures, such as artist-led spaces, universities, publishing and social care, can better serve learning disabled individuals.

Dr Jade French, a Research Fellow in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, said: “I am so delighted we’ve received this funding.

“This research aims to test, in very practical ways, inclusive opportunities co-designed by artists who’ve struggled to access traditional creative opportunities.

“One issue I’m particularly interested to investigate is how social care provision can be better connected with the arts in order to produce social care packages that more effectively support these artists.”

Led by Dr French, the research team brings together a range of skills and expertise across visual art and social care. This includes staff and artists from supported studio Pyramid, members of artist-led space Assembly House, staff from Leeds City Council’s Adult Social Care Team and Co-Investigator, Dr Katie Graham, Lecturer in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York.

The team will explore a range of the areas during the next two-and-a-half years, including examining social care policy with workers; leading two national think tanks on artist-facilitation; and experimenting with inclusive academic publishing processes.

Find out more

Rasher of bacon on a hot grill.

The researchers were exploring whether there’s a link between consumption of meat and development of dementia

Eating processed meat could increase dementia risk

Eating processed meat has been linked with an increased risk of developing dementia.

Scientists from the Nutritional Epidemiology Group at Leeds used data from 500,000 people, discovering that consuming a 25g serving of processed meat a day – the equivalent to one rasher of bacon – is associated with a 44% increased risk of developing the disease. 

But their findings also show eating some unprocessed red meat, such as beef, pork or veal, could be protective, as people who consumed 50g a day were 19% less likely to develop dementia. 

The researchers were exploring whether there’s a link between consumption of meat and development of dementia, a health condition that affects 5-8% of over-60s worldwide. 

Lead researcher, Huifeng Zhang, a PhD student from School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds, said: “Worldwide, the prevalence of dementia is increasing and diet as a modifiable factor could play a role.

“Our research adds to the growing body of evidence linking processed meat consumption to increased risk of a range of non-transmissible diseases.” 

The research was supervised by Professors Janet Cade and Laura Hardie, both at Leeds.

According to the study, some people were three to six times more likely to develop dementia due to well-established genetic factors. However, the findings suggest the risks from eating processed meat were the same, whether or not a person was genetically predisposed to developing the disease.    

Read the full story

Solar panels covering the roof of a house

There has been little understanding of how much consumer demand there is for new low carbon energy tariffs 

Energy switching decisions could widen social inequalities

New energy tariffs designed for a low carbon future could leave people on bad deals even worse off, research has found.

The Leeds-led study found new types of contracts could benefit all types of customer, with opportunities to sell excess energy from solar panels or incentives for using energy at off-peak times.

However, many people were unlikely to choose them because they were disengaged from the energy market, didn’t trust energy companies or already feel satisfied with their current tariffs.

Those people likely to adopt them first are younger, with higher incomes and higher education.

Energy companies are already starting to offer these contracts, but there has been little understanding of how much consumer demand there is for these new models, and how consumers may be affected by them.

The study, carried out by a team that included researchers from UCL and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, shows consumers who already trust the energy market – with higher incomes and positive attitudes towards technology – are likely to do well out of contracts that help energy system decarbonisation. 

But consumers in lower income and lower education groups may be too cautious to gain the benefits of early adoption, be too disinterested in switching supplier, or find the market too untrustworthy to engage with. This could lead to them defaulting to more expensive, less tailored, or even more risky contracts.

Principal investigator, Dr Stephen Hall, from the School of Earth and Environment, said: “These new energy contracts are really important for low-carbon energy systems, and are already appearing on price comparison sites. 

“The findings of this research suggests that gap is likely to widen without intervention because smarter and more flexible tariffs worsen the divide between who benefits from the market and who loses out.”

Read the full story

A photo of the MRI scan of the brain.

Scientists are recognised for bringing together cutting-edge insight and therapies to patients

Brain tumour care and research excellence recognised

Leeds has been recognised as a Centre of Excellence in the way it integrates research and treatment for difficult-to-cure brain tumours.

The award has been made by the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission and is a tribute to the way scientists at the University and clinical staff at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTHT) work together to bring cutting-edge insight and therapies to patients.

The team is led by Susan Short, Professor of Clinical Oncology and Neuro-Oncology in the School of Medicine.

She said: “We’re immensely proud of the excellent care delivered by the whole neuro-oncology team in Leeds and are very pleased to be able to contribute to a national effort to improve the experience of all brain tumour patients through designation as a Tessa Jowell Centre of Excellence.”

LTHT is one of nine trusts to be awarded centre of excellence status after undergoing rigorous expert-led assessments by the mission.

It was measured on a range of criteria, including its excellent clinical practice and training opportunities; emphasis on patient quality of life; providing access to clinical trials and offering a high standard of research opportunities. 

Led by a committee of experts in the field and virtual site visits, the assessments were backed up by patient feedback about the care they received.

Read the full story

Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation.
Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, celebrates how Leeds has taken its place in the global community fighting covid-19

Helping shape our post-pandemic world

In his latest Inside Track feature, Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, explores how universities provided expertise to drive the global response to covid-19, and how they will also help create a more sustainable, equitable world in the future.

He said: “Universities are a force for good. This is a sentiment often espoused by those within the sector, and just as frequently challenged by certain outside parties, who see us as ancient monoliths that don’t represent the whole nation.

“However, the covid-19 global pandemic has demonstrated unequivocally that this statement is true. Without the army of university-trained clinical staff of all disciplines, without our selfless staff and student volunteers, and without the disruptive research and innovation undertaken by these institutions, we would have been in a much worse place to meet this global challenge.

“I want to celebrate how Leeds has taken its place in the global community fighting covid-19. Through excellence in research and innovation, student education and knowledge exchange, we’ve helped shape both the response to the current crisis and our future world as we emerge from the pandemic.”

See For Staff for the full article

Inside Track | Why funding cuts won’t stop us working with the Global South. March 2021
We have worked on many multi-institution and multi-country initiatives that have had a significant positive impact on our world

Why research funding cuts won’t stop us working with the Global South

In an Inside Track feature, Vice-Chancellor, Professor Simone Buitendijk, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Nick Plant, explain why the Government announcement to cut ODA funding won’t stop us working with the Global South on vital research projects.

They said: “Universities are uniquely placed to be agents for progressive change. To drive down inequalities and make our world a fairer, more humane place with greater equality of opportunity for all.

“That belief is at the heart of our new strategy for the next 10 years. And that’s a key reason why we, like many colleagues across the University, were dismayed when the Spending Review in November announced a reduction in Official Development Assistance (ODA) from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI). Amongst many other things, this money supports research that benefits some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. So, these aren’t just figures on a spreadsheet. This will have a telling impact on the lives and life chances of vast numbers of people across the globe.

“Our new University strategy proudly states ‘Universal Values, Global Change’. You may ask if this latest episode undermines our ability to ‘harnesses our expertise in research and education to help shape a better future for humanity, working through collaboration to tackle inequalities, achieve societal impact and drive change’? The short answer is that we won’t let it. That mission is too fundamental.”

See For Staff for the full article

Impact of covid-19 on cultural sector jobs

The Centre for Culture Value based at Leeds is leading a national research project exploring the impacts of covid-19 on the UK cultural sector.

38,000 fewer freelancers are working in creative occupations since the start of 2020, new findings from the Centre’s covid-19 research have revealed. Freelancers working in music, performing and the visual arts are at the epicentre of the crisis, with a trend of decline continuing throughout 2020.

Freelancers are more vulnerable than their securely employed creative counterparts as they’ve not had the same types of direct support. Therefore, freelancers have been the subject of high-profile concern and campaigns due to the lack of support they have received from the Government compared with those furloughed from secure employment.

The Centre’s latest findings also show that particular demographic groups of freelancers – notably younger people and women – appear to have been disproportionately affected by the crisis.

Professor Ben Walmsley, Director of the Centre for Cultural Value, based at Leeds, said: “This research is bringing together important evidence about the impacts of the pandemic on the UK’s cultural and creative sectors.

“Local and national governments and cultural sector organisations need to do much more to support the freelance workforce if there’s to be any building back better as the economy and society reopen in 2021.

“Whether you’re a cultural worker or an audience member, our research is showing that your age will be the biggest determining factor of how covid-19 is impacting on you. Younger creatives are more likely to have lost work while younger audiences will emerge from the pandemic with less disposable income to spend on cultural activities but with an increased appetite for digital-first content.”

Discover more

Centre for Cultural Value launches podcast

Reflecting Value is a new podcast where the Centre for Cultural Value brings together a range of guests to ask the big questions relating to cultural value.

The first series focuses on culture, health and wellbeing.

Hosted by Dr Robyn Dowlen, from the School of Performance and Cultural Industries, it shares the successes and challenges of communicating cultural value, bringing together a range of thought-provoking contributors for discussion and reflection.

The first series consists of four episodes that are now available on the Centre’s website.

LITE Fellowships 2021 – call for applications

Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE) embodies the University’s commitment to excellence and innovation in education through its investment in a community of Fellows, giving colleagues the opportunity to develop and implement projects and establish a culture of high-quality teaching innovation, scholarship and leadership.

Both academic and professional service colleagues who are interested in fulfilling a project on teaching innovation, scholarship or pedagogy are invited to apply for a 2021 LITE Fellowship.

In addition to projects exploring new and emerging ideas of benefit to students at Leeds, proposals are particularly welcome that align to the Curriculum Redefined Project and the taught student experience.

Fellows will have access to a wide range of support to carry out and disseminate their projects, including Student Engagement Facilitators and LITE research support staff.

Find out more

How to feature in future research round ups

Please contact Internal Communications if you or one of your colleagues would like to appear in this monthly feature.

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