Western Mail Profile: Dr Bill Wilkinson, Cardiff University

‘The team working in the present to make our future a healthier one’

Dr Bill Wilkinson is a research associate at the School of Biosciences, Cardiff University.

Basic biomedical research, which I and many of my colleagues undertake in Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, is an important part of the process of improving human health and the treatment of diseases.

On the whole, we do not directly test treatments on patients – we investigate the microscopic details of the causes of disease, so more effective treatments can be designed by clinical researchers and pharmaceutical industries in the future.

My current interest is in understanding how the pancreas works. I’m currently working alongside Professor Ole Petersen who was recently appointed the director of the School of Biosciences and is a world-leader in the field of pancreatic research.

Together, we are investigating which members of the purine family of receptors, which bind a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), are involved in the secretion of digestive enzymes by the pancreas and how these receptors change in early childhood as the pancreas matures.

We hope that by understanding the development of the pancreas in early life, we might have some clues as to how to assist the pancreas to repair itself in adults suffering from diseases such as alcoholic pancreatitis.

The potential impact of work such as mine is great but the real effects on human health may be years in the future.

One reason for this is that the purine family of receptors have only been discovered relatively recently. We’ve only known about their existence for around 30 years – a seemingly long time perhaps, but a short time in the history of medicine.

The future of this family of receptors as targets for drugs is bright as they appear to play important roles all over the body. However, these receptors have had a rocky past.

Purine receptors bind ATP and chemically similar compounds.

You may recall ATP from your school biology lessons since it is made by every cell in the body and is the energy source for most cell functions.

In the early 1970s, a British scientist working in Australia – Geoff Burnstock – proposed that ATP was also released by cells to send messages to other cells.

He worked hard to prove his theory but was treated as a scientific heretic, with many researchers thinking it unlikely such a common molecule with an important role providing cellular energy would be released and found outside cells.

By the end of the 1970s, Burnstock was proved correct, and there are now hundreds of scientists around the world researching the importance of purine receptors in a variety of diseases.

In November, purine researchers from Cardiff, including myself, are hosting a meeting of the UK Purine Club, where around 100 UK researchers, including Geoff Burnstock, will present their latest research and discuss ideas for future research.

This meeting is important for our research and is a fantastic showcase for Wales. We will use hotel and conference facilities in Cardiff and show off our fantastic city to researchers from across the UK.

To contact Bill please email wilkinsonwj@cf.ac.uk.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 3rd October 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.