Oxford Science Blog

Jet Watch

Scientists at the University of Oxford have discovered that classical nova explosions are accompanied by the ejection of jets of oppositely-directed hot gas and plasma, and that this persists for years following the nova eruption.  Previously, such jets had only been encountered emanating from very different systems such as black holes or newly collapsing stars.

A classical nova is the name given to an explosive event in our Galaxy.  It has been known for decades that when a nova erupts, its brightness can increase by several orders of magnitude and can transform an undetectable star into an object that can be seen by the naked eye.   This huge increase in brightness happens when matter is ripped away from one star onto the hard surface of a companion star, a compact object known as a white dwarf.   The matter accreted onto the white dwarf becomes extremely hot and dense, providing the right conditions to synthesize heavier elements, a process known as thermonuclear runaway. 

It’s amazing that jets emerge from these remarkable objects, in spite of the turbulence of a nova detonation 

The Global Jet Watch, led at the University of Oxford by Professor Katherine Blundell, comprising telescopes separated in longitude around the world to follow sub-day variability in the Galaxy made this discovery possible. The team published this finding in early 2021, reporting the initial discovery of jets in a classical nova that had erupted during the pandemic lockdown of 2020 and was subsequently followed intensively with time-lapse spectroscopy with the Global Jet Watch in the days, weeks and months that followed. 

Illustration of how the speeds along our line-of-sight to the nova that detonated in July 2020 changed in the days that followed its eruptionIn a second paper published by the Royal Astronomical Society, the team has demonstrated that the exact same behaviour is exhibited by four out of four classical novae that the Global Jet Watch has been monitoring. This collection of four eruptions includes different types of classical novae (including one hybrid type) suggesting that jets are a likely outcome for the classical nova phenomenon in general.

Graphic shows: Illustration of how the speeds along our line-of-sight to the nova that detonated in July 2020 changed in the days that followed its eruption. The changing speeds along our line-of-sight are believed to be because the directions along which the jets of hydrogen are squirted change with time, a phenomenon known as precession. 

Besides now being able to study the phenomena of jets, their launch, their propagation and their precession in a new way, the discovery is also a significant advance in understanding the influence of classical novae themselves on our Galaxy, the Milky Way. The fact that they can propagate hot gas far, far away from the site of the explosion itself has implications for the enrichment of the inter-stellar medium within our Galaxy with the new elements synthesised in the course of the explosion.  Further exploration and investigation of these implications is planned.

Dominic McLoughlin, the graduate student who had been investigating the time-series nova data, said; ‘The nova that erupted in July 2020 enabled us to crack the code. Discovering jets in the immediate aftermath of classical nova eruptions means we can now study them as they start launching and precessing – it’s not understood how jets actually get launched in general, despite the fact they happen all over space.’ 

Professor Katherine Blundell, who designed and instigated the Global Jet Watch, said: 'It’s amazing that jets emerge from these remarkable objects, in spite of the turbulence of a nova detonation – and it’s also amazing that the Global Jet Watch has persisted robustly throughout the turbulent times of lockdown. This opens up a whole new way to study the jet phenomena which is ubiquitous across the Universe.’

The nova that erupted in July 2020 enabled us to crack the code

The Global Jet Watch was designed to accomplish two important goals. One of these goals was to be able to provide time-lapse spectroscopy of evolving and dynamic systems in our Galaxy, an important class of which are the so-called micro-quasars which can be regarded as scaled-down, speeded-up models of quasars in the distant Universe. These new results demonstrate its effectiveness in following different types of optical transients as well as its resilience at a time when in-person visits to the observatories are not possible.

Professor Katherine Blundell said: ‘This discovery did not come about because of detailed plans and presumptions about the way the Universe is, but instead as a fun, auxiliary project adjunct to the main research programmes of the Global Jet Watch. Being open to exploring the Universe in new ways invariably seems to produce new insights into its richness and inner workings.’

A group of students at the India school observatory (photograph taken before the pandemic lockdown of 2020)The second goal of the Global Jet Watch was to engage young people in developing countries, especially girls, into science and technology through the doorway of astronomy which is a gateway and exemplar of so many areas of high-level science and engineering. In non-lockdown times, the schools around the world that host the observatories are free to use the telescopes before local bedtime.

The Global Jet Watch uniquely combines excellence in science with empowerment for school students, around the world; astronomy is a gateway to science for so many

The experience of controlling the telescopes, operating the cameras and exploring and capturing the night sky has proved to be a pivotal experience for many. Already some of the first students to have used the telescope at their school have gone on to study science and/or engineering at colleges and universities in their countries.  

Brian Schmidt, the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University and Nobel Prize winner in 2011, said: ‘This discovery will change the way we think about classical novae. The Global Jet Watch uniquely combines excellence in science with empowerment for school students, around the world; astronomy is a gateway to science for so many.’

A group of students control the telescopeA group of students control the telescope
Steven Lee, the Instrument Scientist on the Global Jet Watch, who designed and built its spectrographs which were essential to making the high-fidelity detections of the phenomenon, said: ‘Although we didn’t expect this discovery, tracking these jets is in fact exactly what the Global Jet Watch was designed to do. The design of our instruments was entirely driven by the main science goals of the Global Jet Watch - and their capabilities mean they could take this discovery in their stride.’ 

 

For a short video about the Global Jet Watch, please see: https://www.globaljetwatch.net/news/what-is-the-global-jet-watch/

King rat snake (Elaphe carinata) on sale in Huanan seafood market prior to the closure

By Professor David Macdonald

To date, over 3.5 million people have died from Covid-19. Understanding its origins, with a view to preventing any future such pandemics, is therefore of global importance. Covid-19, known formally as SARS-CoV-2, is a coronavirus, and historically these have come to afflict humans through spill-over from wildlife sources. This was the case with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2002, spilling-over from dromedary camels, killing 858 people; similarly the SARS-CoV epidemic (for which there is still no cure) that began in Guangdong in 2002 and killed 744 people, spilled-over from palm civets as an intermediary, transferring infection from cave-dwelling horseshoe bats.

We had been gathering data collected from across Wuhan’s wet markets…which put our team in the right place at the right time to document the wild animals sold in these markets in the lead up to the pandemic

Not surprisingly then, the finger of blame has been pointed at wildlife trade in the wet markets of Wuhan, Hubei, China, where this Covid-19 outbreak seems to have originated. Candidate species include bats, which are definitive hosts brewing coronaviruses, and both pangolins and palm civets as potential intermediaries; although the most recent genetic data suggest that the variant found in these latter species isn’t quite similar enough to the human variant to be a totally convincing source. Nevertheless, through 14th Jan to 10th Feb this year the World Health Organization (WHO) sent an investigative team to Wuhan, where part of their remit was to try to ascertain, post hoc, what animals were being sold in markets prior to closures. Their report was inconclusive, but drew attention to the particular need to monitor bat and pangolin trading.

Our investigation found that both bats and pangolins had an alibi – neither was there!

Working with our colleagues based at China West Normal University, Nanchong, and Hubei University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Wuhan, Xiao Xiao and Zhao-Min Zhou on the ground in China, the WildCRU team had been gathering data collected from across Wuhan’s wet markets through May 2017 and November 2019. This research, begun before Covid-19 focused a spotlight on these markets, was actually motivated by a study of tick-borne (no human-to-human transmission) Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome, which put our team in the right place at the right time to document the wild animals sold in these markets in the lead up to the pandemic. Our investigation, published today in Nature-Scientific Reports, found that both bats and pangolins had an alibi – neither was there!

Marmots in cage above a cage containing hedgehogs, Huanan seafood market Caged marmots above a cage containing hedgehogs, Huanan seafood market prior to closure
Bats are actually rarely consumed in Central China, where market photos generally depict Indonesia. Pangolin trade is still a significant issue in other Chinese cities and trading nodes, but not in Wuhan. What were there, however, were 47,381 individuals from 38 species, including 31 protected species, all kept in dreadful conditions and teeming with all kinds of other infectious diseases, ready to be slaughtered on demand, if not sold as pets. While pork retails for the equivalent of c. $5.75 /kg in Wuhan, a marmot would cost $25. Slightly cheaper were badgers and raccoon dogs at $15-20, or a snack of hedgehog for $2-3. Amongst birds, peacocks were popular at $56, or if reptiles were the order of the day, sharp-nosed viper could be had for $70 /kg. Pets included everything from squirrels ($25) to myna birds ($300). Clearly then this is not subsistence bushmeat, but a costly delicacy.

With these huge concentrations of diverse species under one roof, while we discovered no evidence supporting original spill-over from candidate bats or pangolins in Wuhan, it would seem but a matter of time before some other unwelcome disease might skip into the human population. Indeed it is estimated that around 70% of all diseases afflicting people originate in animals, think Avian Influenza, HIV, Ebola, etc.

Commendably, with this risk in mind, on the 26th of Jan 2020, China’s Ministries temporarily banned all wildlife trade as a precautionary step until the COVID-19 pandemic concludes. Subsequently, on 24th Feb 2020, they permanently banned eating and trading terrestrial wild (non-livestock) animals for food. These interventions, intended to protect human health, redress previous trading and enforcement inconsistencies, will have collateral benefits for global biodiversity conservation and animal welfare, and will hopefully prevent some future tragedies.

Professor David Macdonald is Director of WildCRU, part of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

23andMe personal genetic test saliva collection kit, with tube, box and instructions

By Dr Liz Ormondroyd

Genetics and genomics are increasingly in the news. People can buy genetic tests on the internet, without providing a medical reason or involving a health professional. But how useful is personal genetic health information, and are there any downsides to buying tests?

I am a researcher in the Radcliffe Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a genetic counsellor working with patients with inherited cardiac disease and their families. I see at first hand the benefits of genetic testing in the NHS, but also the variety of questions people want to discuss before going ahead with a test.

Buying a ‘direct to consumer’; (DTC) genetic test is different from an NHS genetic test in many ways, so when the UK Parliament announced an inquiry into Commercial genomics in 2019, I submitted written evidence along with many health professionals and academics, commercial providers and other interested parties.

The ‘Research & Public Policy Partnership’ scheme opened in late 2019 and seemed a good opportunity to start to build a programme of research that would have policy input from the start, ensuring its relevance for policy. The University Policy Engagement Team suggested approaching Dr Peter Border at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).  Together with a General Practice and ethicist colleague, Dr Andrew Papanikitas, we put together a proposal outlining how we would work together and what we wanted to achieve.

We wanted to consider a range of perspectives about three sources of personal genetic health information: the NHS... commercial genetic testing... and research testing

We had planned an event bringing together a range of stakeholders in April 2020 in Oxford, but due to the COVID 19 pandemic it was quickly clear that could not happen. Pivoting quickly, one of our first spends was a subscription to an online meetings platform, and in fact the team has never met in person. We spent some time thinking about how we could adapt, and arrived at a plan to hold a series of online meetings with the people whose views we were interested in hearing. 

We wanted to consider a range of perspectives about three sources of personal genetic health information: the NHS, which offers genetic testing to people with a rare disease or cancer and at risk relatives, commercial genetic testing which can be bought by anyone who has the financial means, and research testing.

We reached out to commercial providers, NHS professionals, genomic scientists, patient representatives, legal experts, charities funding medical research, and ethicists and other scholars with expert knowledge. Fortunately most people contacted agreed to take part; perhaps an advantage of the adapted setup meant that people could more easily commit to a shorter (90 minutes) meeting from home.

The meetings felt quite intense because we covered a lot of ground, but our mild worries that witnesses might clash were not realized – everyone was good-natured

All meetings were recorded and professionally transcribed. After each meeting the team analysed the transcript, met to discuss in depth and agree areas of further interest. This process allowed us to direct the next discussion, by posing key questions to one or two ‘witnesses’, and encouraging other witnesses to offer perspectives. The meetings felt quite intense because we covered a lot of ground, but our mild worries that witnesses might clash were not realized – everyone was good-natured.

Our learnings fed into a summary document for POST which contributed to the parliamentary inquiry.

We have successfully bid for more funding with an additional policy partner, Health Education England Genomics Education Programme to develop inclusion of ethical considerations, including those identified in our partnership, into health professional education.

Looking to the future, we will use what we’ve learned to articulate areas requiring further policy-directed research.

This has been a new way of working for Andrew, Peter and me. The practical issues raised by needing to work collaboratively yet remotely seemed very challenging at the start, but have perhaps been balanced by the advantages offered by setting up a structure for accessible meetings.

The three of us have very different professional backgrounds, and that has sometimes meant listening and adapting to unfamiliar ideas and ways of thinking. The content of the outputs we’ve generated is very different from those I had expected, and have highlighted new areas of interest for me. The new project is testament to the value we’ve derived from the partnership.

Dr Liz Ormondroyd is a BRC funded researcher based at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine. Her partnership with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology was funded by the University of Oxford Research & Public Policy Partnership Scheme.

Panel from sleep comic

By Dr Manuel Spitschan and Coline Weinzaepflen

We are very excited to share our new comic book "Enlighten Your Clock: How your body tells time". The main protagonist is a cat – a pet species notable for seemingly sleepy behaviour – guiding the human character. As the biological clock underlies many aspects of our physiology and behaviour, the book addresses a key need to explain how the environment impacts on our brain and our body. 

We designed this book for teens and above who are curious about circadian rhythms, sleep, and the effects of light on our body and brain.

Panel from sleep comic

The editor - Dr Manuel Spitschan

In my research, I investigate how light helps us see and controls our biological clock. We’ve known for a while looking at a bright light at the wrong time - specifically in the evening and at night - can upset our circadian clock.

Over the past few years, the importance of a good night’s sleep has moved into the focus of many people’s attention, and it is something that might feel difficult to attain while a global pandemic is happening around us.

When Coline started her internship with me as part of her Master’s project, and I learned that she was an illustrator, I proposed the idea of a comic book to her.

I’ve always been fascinated by how to best communicate complex scientific messages to a clear message that is accessible but doesn’t “dumb down” the content. I hope the book becomes a valuable resource for teenagers, parents, teachers, and everyone interested in this topic across the UK and beyond.

Panel from sleep comic

The writer and illustrator - Coline Weinzaepflen


I’ve always enjoyed making meaningful drawings in illustrations or comics. Making science accessible as much as possible to people can be a significant challenge for the scientific community.

That’s why I had a lot of enthusiasm working on this comic book. This project merged two things that I love: explaining biological concepts that I am fascinated by, and drawing (cat) cartoons.

The idea was to develop a format enjoyable for teenagers and adults, giving all the keys to understanding better sleep and what happens in their bodies and brains during the day and at night.

When I approached Manuel initially to do an internship in chronobiology, I had no idea that I would be able to combine these two interests of mine.

Making the comic book was exciting because we didn’t want something too complicated or too obvious. Part of the process involved the precious help of students from Cherwell School, who helped make the comic as accessible and engaging as possible.

I hope we’ve accomplished our mission: that this bit of science will enthral many people and hopefully give them the desire to know more!

Dr Manuel Spitschan, who wrote the comic book, is a University Research Lecturer, in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

Coline Weinzaepflen, who illustrated the comic book, is a neuroscience student and Illustrator

The comic book was developed within the Sleep, circadian rhythms and mental health in schools (SCRAMS) network, which Dr Spitschan is a member of, and was funded by an MRC/AHRC/ESRC Engagement Award in the Adolescence, Mental Health and the Developing Mind (MR/T046317/1: Sleep, circadian rhythms and mental health in schools (SCRAMS)).

The comic book (licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND license) is available for free as a PDF on https://enlightenyourclock.org/.

Professor Martin Landray

Imagine saving a million lives. While the world was in the first throes of the pandemic and paralysed in the face of the seemingly unstoppable spread of the coronavirus, two Oxford professors, Peter Horby and Martin Landray, started a trial which is estimated to have saved around one million lives with a £5 medicine that is available across the world.

The No18 bus played a role in the storyIn an interview for Science blog, Professor Landray explains that he mooted the idea on 28 Feburary 2020, in an email to Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of Wellcome. A few days later, they discussed it on a No 18 bus to Marylebone. Sir Jeremy suggested he join forces with Professor Horby, an expert in infectious diseases and epidemiology and a nodding acquaintance from Oxford’s medical science community. And the rest really is history.

Treatments for COVID-19 were urgently needed in early 2020, since there were no known treatments when the virus took hold. Oxford colleagues had quickly begun working on a vaccine, but Professor Landray, an expert in heart conditions and drugs trials, suggested that a trial be conducted with hospitalised patients to see if any existing medicines could be used in the fight against the worst effects of the virus. Speed was of the essence; treatments were needed rapidly whilst vaccines were being developed and rolled out – and they are still a crucial piece of the jigsaw needed to complement preventative measures and save lives.   

Within days, with backing from Oxford colleagues, they had set up and gained approval for the ground-breaking RECOVERY trial. By 19 March, they had recruited their first participant. Three months later, they had found the first proven effective treatment.

Simplicity was the key, according to Professor Landray, ‘Patients were very sick and we couldn’t burden the NHS with demands on their time....a streamlined clinical trial which was integrated with clinical care was the only way.’

Within days...the pair had set up and gained approval for the ground-breaking RECOVERY trial. By 19 March, they had recruited their first participant. Three months later, they had found the first proven effective treatment.

So, clinicians were asked to enter basic patient details on the trial website and, initially, the system randomly allocated one of four carefully-chosen drugs, each offering the potential to tackle the disease, or no additional treatment alongside oxygen and ventilator treatments. It was a classic randomised controlled trial – including a control sample who received no additional treatment beyond the usual care in their hospital – but one which had not been used in such circumstances before.

The medical profession in the UK responded with alacrity and enthusiasm, eager to help beat the virus. More than 4,000 medical professionals in every acute NHS hospital in the country took part and nearly 40,000 patients have now been enlisted.

A triumph for collaboration and research, by mid-June, dexamethasone, a commonly-available steroid, was found to be effective

‘Many clinicians grabbed the opportunity to help find solutions to this crisis,’ says Professor Landray. ‘And we couldn’t have done it without their support.’

A triumph for collaboration and research, by mid-June, dexamethasone, a commonly-available steroid, was found to be effective in patients on ventilators and those receiving oxygen. ‘It had very clear benefits,’ says Professor Landray, remembering the excitement around the finding. ‘We’d never seen anything like it.’

Many clinicians grabbed the opportunity to help find solutions to this crisis...and we couldn’t have done it without their support

Professor Martin Landray

It was not a cure, but it prevented 30% of deaths and it quickly became standard care around the world – reversing previous thinking which had suggested that it shouldn’t be used because it was ineffective or might even be harmful. In early June, another drug, hydroxychloroquine, which had been hailed as a miracle cure, was found by the trial to be useless for hospitalised patients.

They announced the dexamethasone news at 1pm on 16 June 2020, says Professor Landray. He was still talking to the media at 11pm. Professor Horby travelled to No10 to present the news alongside the Prime Minister at a Government briefing.

‘He was wearing my tie as didn’t have one with him,’ laughs Professor Landray, who takes no chances. ‘I had brought in two.’

A triumph for collaboration and research, by mid-June, dexamethasone, a commonly-available steroid, was found to be effective in patients on ventilators and those receiving oxygen

As the Deputy Director of Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, Professor Landray knows about large numbers. He is delighted by the success of the trial, especially the key role played by doctors, nurses, and patients in hospitals from the Western Isles to Truro, but he says, ‘What matters is that in 100 days, with all the people involved in the trial, a treatment was found.’

It has been a stunning success, and the professors were last week honoured to be elected as fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences, alongside a host of Oxford colleagues, for their exceptional contributions to the advancement of medical science, an accolade that recognises the impact of RECOVERY and the importance of their previous work.

The building which houses Oxford’s Big Data Institute and part of the Nuffield Department of Population Health exemplifies Professor Landray’s streamlined approach, which is not surprising, since he was involved in the design - very modern, with clean, geometric lines, light wood panels and open offices. In usual times, it is alive with 500 data scientists, ethicists, philosophers, and population health experts, all under one beautiful roof.

Professor Landray credits the strength of the medical community at Oxford for much of his success. ‘We are very fortunate in Oxford. There is huge strength and depth. There are the people at Oxford who have written landmark papers, the headline people from conferences. I am very lucky to have had people to help, support and mentor me.’ He adds, ‘Richard Doll (the man credited with proving that smoking causes lung cancer) was here when I first moved to Oxford.’

There are the people at Oxford who have written landmark papers, the headline people from conferences. I am very lucky to have had people to help, support and mentor me

Professor Landray credits the strength of the medical community at Oxford 

Professor Landray is an Oxfordshire local, who grew up and still lives in a village some half an hour’s drive from the city. He literally married the girl next door – although to be precise, of course, he says, ‘She lived about 50 yards away.’

Professor Landray knew early on that he wanted to be a doctor. ‘Medicine was all around us, my mother was a part-time anaesthetist, my father was the local GP – very much in the James Herriot style.’

Some of his earliest memories are of patients coming to the house and lying on the family sofa, so his father could examine them.

‘I never thought about doing anything else,’ says Professor Landray. Life as a local GP was not to be, though, since after medical school at Birmingham University, the young doctor never did take over from his father, becoming instead a clinical pharmacologist and heart specialist.

In fact, until the pandemic, he had not taken much of an interest in infections since 1980, when the young Martin wrote an article about germs for the local children’s newspaper. Clearly amused, he says, ‘It’s in the Bodleian, complete with a picture of a germ I drew myself. I didn’t publish another paper on infections until 2020.'

the professors were last week honoured to be elected as fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences Professor Peter Horby (tieless) and Professor Martin Landray were last week honoured to be elected as fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Photo by John Cairns.
His interest focused more on clinical trials and chronic conditions than general practice. After qualifying and then teaching at Birmingham, while commuting from his Oxford village where his young family was based, the then Dr Landray moved to Oxford as a junior researcher.

He joined the group led by Professor Sir Rory Collins and Professor Sir Richard Peto, whose work on clinical trials for heart attack he had admired as a student.

‘I remember reading the results of their trial of aspirin and clot buster drugs for patients suffering a heart attack,’ he says of the Second International Study of Infarct Survival (known as ISIS-2). ‘It changed the treatment of heart attacks overnight.

‘It was so simple, so elegant, and so powerful.’

It made a massive impression on the young medic. Professor Landray’s enthusiasm is palpable as he talks about the potential for other trials in other diseases, building on the success of the RECOVERY trial.

RECOVERY has shown that, by combining scientific rigour with large numbers of participants and streamlined processes that make it easy for clinicians and patients to participate, it is possible to find which drugs work best rapidly, even in the context of a pandemic. According to Professor Landray, the potential of these kind of trials could be enormous for the fight against disease, but it runs counter to the ways trials are currently conducted.

‘Trials often cost $1 billion,’ he explains. ‘It’s a massive investment....even for big pharma, it’s a big cost. [Unlike RECOVERY] many trials are too small, too short, and too complex.’

Trials often cost $1 billion. It’s a massive investment....even for big pharma, it’s a big cost.. many trials are too small, too short, and too complex...RECOVERY has changed all that....So many areas need better treatments, we need to work out what works...It has to be the future

Professor Landray

And, because of that, a lot of areas of medicine rely on the opinions of doctors, who sometimes prescribe treatments based on ‘educated guess work’, rather than the hard data provided by a RECOVERY-style trial.

Assessing treatments as part of a randomised controlled trial enabled the team to see which yielded positive results – and which did not. In some situations, doctors do not have access to such information. Professor Landray says, ‘There is a real risk in throwing drugs at people if we don’t know if they’re going to work.’

He hopes, ‘RECOVERY has changed all that....So many areas need better treatments, we need to work out what works...It has to be the future. It’s possible to do much better on a much larger scale,’ he says. ‘You need scale for the data.’

Research may occupy him, but Professor Landray is every inch the sort of reassuring doctor you would want to see if unwell. Treating patients is important to the professor, who spends a morning in clinic each week, seeing members of the public.

‘Everything starts and finishes with patients,’ he says.  

For more of the story, listen to: Inside Health, Recovery Trial, BBC Radio 4.