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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 May, 2004, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
'Mrs Muscle' moves science world
Jean Hanson
Picture of Jean Hanson, courtesy of King's College, London
As the world gears up for this summer's Olympics, scientists are celebrating the work of a British woman whose research contributed to a better understanding of how muscles function.

It is the 50th anniversary of the internationally-renowned "sliding filament" theory, developed by Professor Jean Hanson and her colleague Professor Hugh Huxley.

The ground-breaking discovery uncovered the finer processes involved in muscle contraction and is regarded as "revolutionary" by her followers.

Her theory was a "milestone in muscle research", according to biophysicist Dr Pauline Bennett from King's College, London, where Professor Hanson was based for most of her working life.

"We are still looking at how these filaments slide past each other and still looking at the details 50 years on," said Dr Bennett.

The work that she started still has ramifications today
Dr Pauline Bennett, biophysicist, King's College
Professor Hanson joined the university's biophysics department in 1948 and in the early 1950's started to break down muscle cells into smaller units called myofibrils.

When she observed these myofibrils under a powerful microscope, she noticed different bands of tissue, which changed shape as the muscle contracted.

She took her findings to America, when in 1953, she accepted a Rockefeller Fellowship to work for a year in FO Schmitt's Laboratory at Boston's Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During her time at the institute, she met and collaborated with Professor Hugh Huxley, whose work with x-rays revealed there were two sets of filaments in the muscle fibre, not one as had been previously been suggested.

Royal Society honour

He deduced that muscle contraction was due to the reordering of the larger structural units in muscle, the thick (myosin) filaments and the thin (actin) filaments.

Professor Huxley and Hanson's combined efforts led, in May 1954, to publication of the theory that the muscle worked by the sliding of two sets of filaments, relative to each other.

The work of Professor Hanson and her colleagues, particularly in discovering the structure of actin, indirectly opened the way to a better understanding of the role of proteins in the human body.

By discovering how muscles work at the cellular level, Professor Hanson's work has allowed injuries and degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy to be treated with greater success.

Dr Bennett said: "The work that she started still has ramifications today.

"She had a real love for science and took pleasure in other people's successes.

"She was a warm, generous and enthusiastic colleague, collaborator and teacher.

"She has been an example to her many friends and is a role model to emulate."

On returning to the UK, her research led her to make further important scientific discoveries about muscles and in 1966 she became Professor of Biology at King's.

She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967 - one of only two women in the history of King's College to achieve this honour.

In 1970, she took charge of the Muscle Biophysics Unit at London University, a post she held until her death in 1973.

Scientists converged on King's College this week for a two-day conference celebrating the sliding filament theory and discussing current research in the field.

Coincidentally, Professors Hanson and Huxley were not the only UK research team to publish work on the sliding filament theory in 1954.

A second team, based at Cambridge University, published independent work in the very same journal, Nature. One of those researchers, Professor Andrew Huxley (no relation) went on to receive the Nobel prize for his contribution to understanding the role of nerves in the process.

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