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£1.7M grant to fill major gaps in our understanding of human diseases

MRC Harwell is playing a major role in a new UK endeavour that will focus on gaining a much better understanding of major human diseases, such as cancer and medical concerns such as deafness and ageing. The project is to be undertaken by an MRC-STFC consortium, thanks to a £1.7M grant from the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The project is bringing together ‘big science’ and ‘small science’, using technology developed for the study of the Universe to observe individual molecules inside living cells, and living cells inside organisms, at ultra-high definition and in 3D. It uses the adaptive optics techniques used to remove the ‘twinkle’ of a star caused by atmospheric distortion to create clearer images at the molecular level where a similar imaging challenge exists due to the distortions created by the murky environment deep inside cells. It is also bringing together experts in imaging with biological and medical researchers, allowing the fundamental processes at play in diseases to be examined much more closely than ever before.

Currently, in many cases, treatment of disease is hindered because of a lack of understanding of the way in which fundamental and highly complex biological processes influence the development of disease in individual patients. This technology will assist in bridging this gap in knowledge and should allow us to overcome problems such as drug resistance and variation of response to treatments from patient to patient. The aim is to predict and monitor the progression of major diseases and use this information to personalise therapies to a patient’s unique condition, enabling them to receive the maximum benefit – so called ‘personalised medicine’. Ultimately, this advance in understanding and treatment methods could result in greatly improved patient outcomes, and hugely reduced costs for health services.

Marisa Martin-Fernandez, project leader for STFC, said: “This project is a springboard to bring together the different biomedical imaging groups on the Harwell Oxford campus, and will create a unique resource for UK scientists to help the translation of fundamental research into the clinic.”

The grant has been awarded to a consortium based at the campus, formed by MRC Harwell, the Central Laser Facility (CLF) and the Research Complex at Harwell (RCaH) under the Next Generation Optical Microscopy call. Preliminary work funded by the Harwell Imaging Partnership (HIP) was crucial in securing the grant.

The Harwell Oxford campus is home to some of the leading UK centres in biological research and this grant will allow much closer collaboration with the adjacent MRC Harwell site, an internationally recognised centre for mammalian genetics. The UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) based in Edinburgh are also collaborators, aiding in the development of adaptive optics for the super resolution microscopes. This technology was originally designed for use in astronomy research, and although the optics have been adapted for medical use, the underlying technology remains the same – illustrating how technology can be transferred between different research disciplines.

Megan Morys, Harwell Oxford’s Innovation Manager, said “The campus is a melting-pot of expertise across many sectors and this is the latest in a series of collaborations facilitated by the close association of scientific organisations in this unique location. Imaging is a major technology strength at Harwell Oxford and we’re delighted to see this new partnership which will enable more ground-breaking research into human diseases. This is great work by all the partner organisations.”

This inter-institutional collaboration will be a vehicle for the campus to become a ‘one stop shop’ where scientists can access a multi-scale imaging platform, from the molecular scale to whole organisms. Underpinning this will be one of the most comprehensive genetic ‘toolboxes’ as well as state of the art optics and leading scientists from many disciplines. Access to this new generation of technology will make it possible to address the next steps in the molecular causes of disease and the development and function of new technologies.

STFC Chief Executive John Womersley highlighted the importance of this new award; “I am delighted to see this new initiative and collaboration in fundamental disease research – this shows the important role that our national science Campuses play in bringing together interdisciplinary teams to address some of the most pressing challenges we face”

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