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Medical Research Revealed

The following paintings are selected from a collection of over 45 paintings by Dr Lizzie Burns aimed at revealing the secret beauty of the biological world and the fascination scientists have for their research.  In the words of Dr Tony Holder from NIMR, ‘biology makes me appreciate the beauty and complexity of life, and I never cease to be amazed’. 

This project was commissioned by the UK Medical Research Council.


This protein memorably called the Gonadotrophin Releasing Hormone (GnRH) triggers off the development of both male and female reproductive systems. It’s a minnow of the protein world and here each of its atoms are represented using standard colours in chemistry: carbon (black), hydrogen (white), nitrogen (blue), oxygen (red). 

‘only a few thousand millionths of a gramme secreted by a few nerve cells is sufficient for human fertility, and yet almost one in four couples in the developed world are infertile’ - Professor Bob Millar, MRC Human Reproductive Unit, Edinburgh


Male and female

This painting shows where  GnRH is released from the base of the brain in both men and women. This triggers off the release of further hormones (FSH and LH) which act on the gonads (pale green) to produce sex hormones: testosterone from men’s testes and oestrogen from women’s ovaries. 

The superimposed outlines of my partner and I show how sex hormones influence male and female characteristics.




Diabetes is the third most common disease in the western world and left untreated can prove fatal. In most diabetes sufferers (Type II), insulin fails to trigger uptake of sugar from the blood.  Understanding how insulin normally works brings hope for new treatments.  Here insulin is seen in action binding to the surface of a cell (pink central dot).  This triggers a spreading signal, like ripples on a pond that prompts the appearance of sugar transport molecules (green) at the cell surface to absorb sugar from the blood.

‘everyone thought phosphorylation would never be of direct medical use to anybody. Everything’s changed in the last 5 years, this is now the major area of drug discovery worldwide, about 30% of all world drug discovery programmes’  - Sir Philip Cohen, MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit in Dundee



Messages are passed between brain cells across tiny gaps called synapses.  When an electrical signal (orange band) reaches the tip of a neurone, a packet of signal molecules (pink) is released into the synapse. The molecules bind to the neurone on the other side to activate a new signal (orange).  New experiences and repeated use changes the strength of these connections, rewiring the brain as we learn new skills.

‘we are not born with a personality, we are who we are because of what we learn throughout our lives’  – Professor Graham Collingridge, MRC Synpatic Plasticity Centre, University of Bristol



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