Issue date: 03 December 2002

A student from the University of the West of England, Bristol, has been awarded one of the European Commission’s top undergraduate science prizes for her research into the anti-bacterial properties of breast milk.

An Archimedes award worth 44,000 euros will be presented at the European Patent Office in Munich on 5 December to Maria Cristina Ovejero-Boglione. The awards are aimed at encouraging young people to explore science and research as potential careers.

Wendy Purcell, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences at UWE said:

“This is a real triumph for Cristina and the Faculty. This shows how research carried out by our students can produce exciting benefits for the community.”

Cristina’s research showed how enzymes in both human and cow’s milk are able to inhibit the activity of the bacteria Escherichia coli. Her project was entered for the prize under the theme of ‘the structure and function of macromolecules’, and was one of ten successful research projects entered from throughout Europe. The research involved working in collaboration with staff and students from UWE’s Faculty of Applied Sciences and the University of Bath.

Cristina said she was delighted to hear that she had won the award, and explained that her interest in this subject was due to her initial intention to work in medicine.

“This meant I was keen to study humans, and in particular the function of a specific enzyme - xanthine oxidoreductase or XOR - in human milk.

“It is interesting to note that XOR levels are exceptionally high in the few weeks following birth – precisely the period when antibacterial activity is most necessary for a new baby. A possible reason for higher levels of gastrointestinal infections among formula-fed infants compared with breast-fed infants in developing countries could be the absence of XOR in formula feed.”

Cristina has another reason to celebrate – she is planning to study for a PhD. The Archimedes award will enable her to continue her medical research by paying for materials, tuition fees and attendance at conferences. Her next project will also be of benefit to human health – she will be studying ways in which damaged optic nerves could be regenerated following injury or surgery.


Editor’s notes
1. Cristina’s award-winning project was undertaken while studying for a BSc in Applied Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at UWE’s Faculty of Applied Sciences.

2. The presence of XOR in milk has been known for over a century, and it had been noted that high levels of the enzyme led to a decrease in bacteria counts. This project involved setting up a real-time monitoring system to study directly the effects of the enzyme on the bacteria. The temperature and oxygen conditions in a newborn’s digestive tract during milk ingestion were simulated. The effects of milk on E.coli bacteria, which contained bioluminescent markers, were then observed by measuring the fall in light emission.

3. Launched in 2000, the Archimedes prize is open to individuals or groups of students who have developed novel scientific ideas related to one of a set of themes proposed each year. Students must be able to demonstrate how the prize will further their careers.

4. Other team members were: Dr John T Hancock, Dr Vyv Salisbury and Robert Cherry of UWE; Dr Catherine Hoare, Professor Robert Eisenthal and Professor Roger Harrison of University of Bath.

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