the early stages of Alzheimer's or heart disease
is not research you'd expect to find in a
physics laboratory. But at Leeds, equipment
more commonly used to study the physical properties
of metals or other inorganic material is enabling
scientists to 'see' the toxic structures formed
in the brain of Alzheimer's sufferers, or
watch the molecular interactions as a blood
£1.7m from the HEFCEs science
research infrastructure fund (SRIF), Leeds
new biophysics research laboratories are now
unrivalled in the UK, with state-of the-art
equipment opening up exciting new areas of
research around a key theme in the Universitys
research agenda: the interface between the
physical and life sciences.
uses physical principles to gain new insights
into biology, and at Leeds strong links have
been made between the department of physics
and astronomy and researchers in the life
sciences looking at the causes and properties
of human diseases.
main facilities have been developed: a laboratory
equipped with six atomic force microscopes
(AFMs), one unique in the UK; a new laser
laboratory; and a surface science laboratory.
Dr Alastair Smith, who led the bid for SRIF
funding with Professor Sheena Radford, is
pleased with how the project has progressed.
light work Chris Gell (top) with the
new laser equipment and (above) Alastair Smith
and Sheena Radford with the atomic force microsopes
facilities enable more extensive collaboration
and internationally competitive research,
he said. Were opening up collaborative
possibilities with biochemists and clinical
researchers within this University and with
other institutions as well. Earlier this month
we hosted the first joint UK/Japan biophysics
workshop, funded through the BBSRC.
facility has a resource manager who will,
alongside their own research, train and support
academics from other disciplines to use the
manager for the atomic force microscopes,
Dr Simon Connell, explains the equipments
capabilities: These microscopes provide
a three-dimensional image of a surface at
an incredibly high resolution. As well as
showing height and depth, the microscope can
measure magnetic, molecular or electrostatic
forces. One of our microscopes unique
in the UK is integrated with an optical
microscope to allow researchers in cell biology
to locate areas of interest in large samples,
and then zoom in at very high resolution.
Connell (right) is partly funded by leading
manufacturer of AFMs, VEECO. Head of molecular
vascular medicine, Professor Peter Grant is
using the equipment to study blood clot formation.
interest is in fibrin, from which clots are
formed, said Professor Grant. The
AFM has allowed us to see the growth of fibrin
at a molecular level in real time the
first time anyone has been able to watch
a clot form. Understanding how and why fibrin
forms will help our understanding of the causes
of heart disease and strokes."
the AFMs, senior lecturer in pathology Dr
Leslie Bridges is also able to watch the formation
of the material hes studying: the toxic
fragment of a protein which kills brain cells
in Alzheimers sufferers.
Abnormal metabolism associated with
Alzheimers disease causes proteins in
the brain to form as fibrils, said Dr
Bridges. These are toxic to healthy
cells. Under the AFMs, we can grow
fibrils, watch as they form, and can introduce
drugs or change conditions to see what inhibits
their production. Its a first step towards
finding possible treatments for the disease.
Steve Evans biophysics research is gold-plated.
His team are studying the intricate signalling
systems at the cell membranes which regulate
cellular activity, and to do this they attach
cell membranes to gold or silicon surfaces.
gold or silicon acts as an electrode so signals
can be measured, said Dr Evans (left).
Cell membranes and the proteins active
within them are vitally important for how
the body recognises disease, or hormones.
Its very difficult in the laboratory
to make them function as they would in normal
biological conditions, but in our system they
of our senses are linked to these proteins,
and Dr Evans believes his research could lead
to biotechnology which has the ability to
touch, taste, see or smell. It could also
be used for medical trials of new drug treatments.
third area of new expertise which the SRIF
funding has opened up is in laser spectroscopy.
Chris Gell is the resource manager for this
facility, now among the best in the country
for studying structural molecular biology.
lasers enable us to analyse biological structure
in great detail, and measure biological events
which happen very quickly, but at what can
be a crucial moment in cell development,
said Chris Gell. For example, using
the laser, we can monitor the ultra-fast interaction
between proteins and nucleic acids which normally
takes place within a cell, but which is a
critical step in the reading of the genetic
of our research within biophysics takes place
at the level of single molecules, said
Professor Radford. Its often incorrect
behaviour at the molecular level which is
the cause of disease, but conventional experiments
use concentrated solutions, studying billions
of molecules simultaneously. This provides
an average result which can mask minute, but
important, differences between molecules behaving
correctly and those that can cause disease.
biophysics refurbishment is part of £49m
SRIF funding to support scientific research
at the University.
Simon Connell will take up his post as SRIF
SPM manager on 15 January 2003. He is currently
involved in a collaboratoive project between
Dr Smith's group in physics and astronomy
and the oral biology in the Leeds Dental Institute
funded though an MRC ROPA grant.