Reporter 415, 23 February 1998

Collaborative centre aids drugs mission to ‘search and destroy’

A new £4 million Centre for Biological Science providing state-of-the-art housing for fundamental scientific research at the University was opened on February 11.

Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – a major funder of research at the Centre – Professor Raymond Baker FRS, opened the building. “Biological science is the science of the 21st century,” he said. He commended the interdisciplinary approach taken within the building, saying: “Collaboration across the sciences is the only way forward.”

The opening ceremony was also attended by 1997 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry Dr John Walker, accompanied by his daughter Miriam, a second year undergraduate at the University.

The building is named after William Astbury who was born one hundred years ago and performed pioneering research into X-ray crystallography at the University.

The opening coincided with a two-day symposium held by the Centre, attended by leading national and international researchers.

As part of one of the largest biology faculties in the UK, and with an international reputation currently attracting funding of £5.1 million, the Centre will house cutting-edge research.

The new Astbury Building will capitalise on the existing alliance between the departments of chemistry and biology which have enjoyed internationally renowned reputations for decades. As well as providing general office and laboratory space, specialised areas will house new equipment designed for DNA sequencing, robotics and computing.

Research is set to revolutionise healthcare

Researchers at the University’s new Centre for Biomolecular Science are combining to study the molecular structure of living organisms, a field that promises to revolutionise healthcare in the next millennium. Scientists from across the disciplines are using state-of-the-art technology to help to develop the next generation of medical drugs. They hope to devise ways of killing bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells by targeting and inactivating specific proteins found in them.

Professor Simon Phillips, director of the £4 million centre, says that the sophisticated techniques of X-ray crystallography and leading edge computer graphics have been combined to aid the invention of new and more effective drugs. By studying molecular structures of proteins and DNA, researchers can help pharmaceutical companies to design drugs which are better targeted at the specific elements which go wrong in our bodies.

Until recently, this nascent field of ‘structure-based drug design’ depended on knowing the structures of molecules that are far too small to see even with a microscope. As many as 100 billion protein molecules could fit on one pinhead.

But the molecules can be seen by using X-ray crystallography. This involves shining an X-ray beam through a crystal of the target protein, resulting in the beam being scattered into many smaller beams. These can be measured, and the results transformed into a computer-generated 3-D image of the protein molecules many millions of times actual size. The resulting knowledge of molecular structures allows drugs to be designed that target and ‘take-out’ those elements which cause disease.

“This area of study has had a very long period of gestation, but it is only in the last few years that it has really taken off,” explains Professor Phillips.

“Before the advent of powerful computers, researchers would spend a very long time on complicated calculations which now take only seconds, and they would have to translate them into models made out of hundreds of thousands of bits of wire. Now that X-ray crystallography and computer-generated graphics have combined with biomolecular engineering, it points the way to the future of healthcare.”

Already this type of research has raised hopes of finding an effective treatment for the AIDs virus HIV, using a combination therapy of drugs. Working side by side in the centre are bio-physicists, molecular biologists, chemists and membrane biologists. Current projects include improved treatments for diabetes, cancer, sleeping sickness and arthritis. Work at the centre could also lead to more effective strategies for dealing with so-called ‘superbugs’, proteins that are resistant to antibiotics.

“This multi-disciplinary approach is crucial to the Centre’s work,” adds Professor Phillips.

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