Lab Technology

New £2m lab to be built in Liverpool

A brand new £2 million laboratory is to be built by the University of Liverpool after it was awarded £2 million in funding specifically for the project.

The education institution has confirmed the state-of-the-art DNA synthesis facility will now be constructed following a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, as part of a funding scheme set up by universities and science minister David Willetts.

Expertise already found in the university's Centre for Genomic Research and Institute of Integrative Biology will be used within the new laboratory. They will benefit from the arrival of superior facilities and tools that are urgently required to allow the institution to move to the next level of genome engineering.

The new laboratory will be known as GeneMill and is part of a nationwide focus on synthetic biology. This was recently identified by the government as one of the eight great technologies in which the UK can, in time, become a world leader.

Professor Anthony Hall, a plant biologist, is the lead academic for GeneMill and said: "This new lab will provide a resource for the whole of the north of England. It will add to a major concentration of technical expertise and facilities in synthetic and DNA technologies in Liverpool, which places the region at the forefront of research and development in this field."

Mr Willetts added that synthetic biology is a hugely important issue to the country at the moment, as it has the potential to trigger growth and lay the foundations for science jobs for many years to come.

This is without mentioning its ability to drive a low-carbon economy that can help the UK meet its green targets.

According to the university, the laboratory will be the latest piece of evidence that Liverpool is shaping up to be a major player in the synthetics and DNA technology market.

Lab Technology

Chancellor commits more funds to scientific research

George Osborne has announced plans to commit more funds to scientific research in the UK.

The chancellor outlined the government's intentions during his Autumn Statement speech yesterday (December 5th).

He confirmed that £270 million would be spent on the development of cutting-edge quantum technology research – a process that uses complex quantum physics to create various practical applications – over a five-year period. 

The UK economy has mounted a recovery in 2013 and is now growing at a faster rate than many people predicted. 

Mr Osborne said "science is a personal priority of mine" and he is keen for Britain to establish itself as a world leader in this field. 

Several UK universities – many of which already have active quantum technology departments – will now compete for a slice of the funding. 

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, welcomed Mr Osborne's announcement.

"This investment is further evidence of the government's commitment to backing science as a driver for long term sustainable economic growth," he commented. 

"There are few sectors where the UK can really claim to have a competitive advantage to build upon but science is one."

Earlier this week, the government confirmed it was investing a further £200 million in order to support greater collaboration between scientists in the UK and China – something that Mr Nurse believes is a step in the right direction.

Both countries have a great deal of scientific expertise and prime minister David Cameron is keen for the two nations to form closer ties. 

He has led a British mission to China this week, during which he has discussed the possibility of more open trade between the Asian nation and members of the EU.

The UK economy will also be boosted by a number of healthcare trade deals that have been recently agreed with the Chinese authorities and businesses. 

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the agreements will help researchers to come up with new technology and more effective treatments for drug-resistant infections, which are becoming a bigger problem.

Lab Technology

New technology enhances breast cancer detection

Digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT) can be used to improve breast cancer detection and reduce the number of patients who are called back for second screenings.

New research conducted at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has shown that DBT technology could be more effective than conventional mammography.

In some cases, standard screenings uncover "false-positive findings", or in other words, possible defects that are eventually confirmed as non-cancerous. This results in higher recall rates.

The scientists discovered the average recall rate fell from 10.4 per cent of patients to 8.78 per cent when DBT was used.

DBT is a relatively new technology and is currently used for supplemental screening purposes and is not viewed as a standalone treatment in its own right.

However, this could all change in light of these latest findings – which were presented at the recent annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Unlike standard mammography, DBT allows medical experts to create a 3D image of the breast tissue, which means they can get a more accurate picture.

Emily Conant – lead author of the study – confirmed that images from 15,633 women who received DBT treatment were compared with those of 10,753 people who underwent digital mammography the year before.

Aside from the reduced recalls, the research team found the cancer detection rate went up from 4.28 per 1,000 patients to 5.25.

"Our study showed that we reduced our callback rate and increased our cancer detection rate. The degree to which these rates were affected varied by radiologist. But importantly, the ratio of callback to cancer detection rate improved significantly for our radiologists," Ms Conant commented.

She also believes this is the most exciting improvement to mammography in her career.

With approximately 50,000 women and 400 men being diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year, according to Breast Cancer Campaign statistics, this kind of technology could have a hugely positive impact.

Lab Technology

Advanced technology could aid stroke victims

New technology has been developed that could aid recovering stroke victims.

The innovative device is designed to convert a patient's thoughts into electrical impulses that can help the person move parts of their upper body.

It has been tested in the US and the results of the study have been presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Researchers have essentially paired a functional electrical stimulation system – which is commonly used to rehabilitate stroke victims – with a neurological control interface, allowing for direct communication with the brain.

The team in Wisconsin asked eight volunteers who had suffered a stroke to use the device over a period between three to six weeks.

They also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion tensor imaging before, during and after the experiments, which gave the scientists a good idea of how much progress was being made.

It emerged that patients who had a stroke of "moderate severity" displayed the biggest improvement in motor function after using the device for a prolonged period.

People whose strokes were described as "mild" and "severe" also found it easier to complete everyday tasks after using the gadget.

According to the Stroke Association, around 152,000 people suffer a stroke every year in the UK and there are approximately 1.1 million patients living with the after-effects of a stroke. This underlines the point that this kind of technology – if it is eventually rolled out on a wide scale – can make a huge difference.

Vivek Prabhakaran – director of functional neuroimaging in radiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – said 50 per cent of US citizens who suffer a stroke tend to have lasting mobility issues in their upper body.

"Our hope is that this device not only shortens rehabilitation time for stroke patients, but also that it brings a higher level of recovery than is achievable with the current standard of care," he commented.

"We believe brain imaging will be helpful in both planning and tracking a stroke patient's therapy, as well as learning more about neuroplastic changes during recovery."

Lab Technology

X-ray lasers can generate 3D protein models

Researchers have hailed the results of a recent international study that showed X-ray lasers can be used to map out the structure of various proteins from scratch.

The team conducted the lion's share of their work at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where they discovered the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser and sophisticated computer analysis tools could be used to generate a 3D model of a protein.

They utilised the equipment to create an accurate replica of lysozyme, which is an enzyme found in egg whites.

Crucially, the scientists found that they could create these models without having any prior information on the protein in question.

This, researcher Thomas Barends said, could prove to be a vital breakthrough.

A staff scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Germany, Mr Barends was one of a number of experts to work on the project. 

"Determining protein structures using X-ray lasers requires averaging a gigantic amount of data to get a sufficiently accurate signal, and people wondered if this really could be done," he commented. 

"Now we have experimental evidence. This really opens the door to new discoveries."

The findings – which have been published in the November 24th edition of Nature – show the concept of X-ray crystallography has been used for over a century and has produced results that have led to Nobel Prizes. 

John Helliwell, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester, said the use of computers to automate the X-ray process is a "triumph". 

It is hoped that LCLS can now be used to identify the structure of enzymes that are prominent in a wide range of diseases. 

The research team said more than half of all new drugs currently in development are aimed at targeting membrane proteins, which provides further evidence as to how important these latest discoveries could be in the long run. 

With drug R&D costing huge sums of money and providing no guarantees of success, it is vital that scientists garner as much information on proteins and enzymes as possible. 

Lab Technology

Patients should have earlier access to drugs, Expert Group says

Innovative medicines should be made available to patients at the earliest possible stage.

This is according to the Expert Group on Innovation in the Regulation of Healthcare and the body wants to see an acceleration in the distribution of drugs if there is an unmet medical need. Legal flexibilities already exist in this area, but it does not believe they are being used effectively. 

Instead, the Expert Group thinks the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – the body responsible for regulating all medicines and medical devices in the UK – should be pressurising the European Medicines Agency to call for adaptive licensing at the earliest possible opportunity. 

By doing so, companies would be able to put forward pilot products to use these flexibilities – as a result the group supports the proposed UK early access scheme for unlicensed medicines.  

It also believes the government should consider accommodating within the system a process whereby a product can be identified for a potential candidate for the early access scheme.

Dr Ian Hudson, chief executive of the MHRA, said: "The MHRA is committed to playing its part in creating an environment that will encourage innovation and help patients get faster access to new, innovative medicines and treatments.

"We want to see improvement in the health of millions of people. There are a range of regulatory tools that can be appropriately used to allow innovative products to be developed in an optimal way for the benefit of public health."

He added organisations can get in touch with MHRA to get both scientific and regulatory advice. 

A report created by the Expert Group has now been passed on to the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who are set to consider it before making an announcement about the next course of action. 

Lab Technology

Brain technology could aid the recovery of stroke victims

New technology that relies on 'virtual reality hands' could help stroke survivors regain the use of their limbs.

A small scale study has been carried out by the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and it suggests a brain-computer interface can help the physically impaired make a better recovery. 

Presented as part of the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2013, the investigation sought to ascertain how important it is for people to practice mental imagery if they are struggling to move their hands and arms. 

Alexander Doud, lead author on the research project, revealed the virtual reality hands are controlled by stroke survivors' thoughts. 

He added: "During rehabilitation, usually a therapist will move the patient's hand or arm in the desired direction while asking that patient to imagine they are making the movement. In this practice space, the patients can control photorealistic hands by thinking about using their own hands without actually moving at all."

Statistics from the Stroke Association show that there are over 152,000 strokes in the UK every year, while there are approximately 1.1 million stroke survivors. This demonstrates how significant this study could be if it helps people regain the use of their limbs. 

Patients taking part in the study achieved an 81 per cent accuracy when it came to reaching out for a glass of tea or water with the virtual hands. They had only be given three two-hour sessions before being tested. 

Mr Doud remarked the system can be personalised quite easily, so specific motivating goals can be achieved. He thinks the next step is to have the same set of results replicated in a much larger study.

However, the expert is confident about the system's usefulness, as it encourages stroke survivors to exercise parts of the brain that have been damaged or weakened, while it can be used alongside traditional rehabilitative therapy. 

Lab Technology

New drug development technique could be revolutionary

Scientists may have come up with a new technique that has the potential to revolutionise the drug development process.

A team of researchers from the UK, US and Italy have honed a process that enables them to engineer specific functions into a protein.

Led by experts at the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences and Department of Biochemistry at the University of Leicester, the group have proven the new system works by taking a protein normally found in the human body and evolving it to a form that can block a molecule involved in blood vessel growth and inflammation.

Research leader, Professor Nick Brindle, said the theory behind this new technique is not new, but it has been difficult to develop it for the number of complex proteins required to create more targeted drugs – until now.

Mr Brindle claimed it was a bonus that the team were able to develop the protein – known as a ligand-trap – as it targets a molecule that is involved in "a whole range of health problems".

It is hoped the process can be used to tackle heart disease, inflammation and other illnesses.

"In addition to medicine, these specifically evolved 'designer proteins' have a wide range of applications in the chemical, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries," he remarked.

"This is a big step forward. We are hoping that, over the next five years or so, this new protein can be developed into a form that could be used to treat inflammation and other conditions."

Heart disease is still one of the biggest killers in the UK, so any treatment that can improve survival rates will be welcomed by medical professionals.

According to figures compiled by the British Heart Foundation, around one in six men die from coronary heart disease, while the same can be said of one in nine women.

Approximately 74,000 people die from this condition in the UK every year – an average of 200 deaths every day.

Lab Technology

Scientists to benefit from new cancer database

Scientists looking for new cancer treatments will soon be able to take advantage of a new database.

The CanSAR system will make 1.7 billion experimental results available to researchers in one easy-to-access location. Special technology will also be used to try to predict potential targets for anti-cancer drugs in the future. 

One of the main benefits of the scheme is that it will let scientists from different countries work together almost seamlessly, as they can share the same information regardless of their location. 

Nell Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK's, which has funded the system, said: "The clues we need to tackle cancer are hidden in data like this and by making it freely available we can boost our progress and make breakthroughs sooner." 

The development is comfortably the biggest disease database of its kind in the world. To put its size into perspective, it is capable of holding more information than the Hubble space telescope would gather in a million years of use.

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, each with a specific set of causes, symptoms and treatments, and so this database has the potential to revolutionise research and development. 

Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani, team leader at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, stated the database "can spot opportunities for future cancer treatments that no human eye could be expected to see". 

Advances in DNA sequencing have made the development possible, while information will also be available on nearly one million testable drugs and over a thousand types of cancer cell.

A smaller-scale prototype was previously launched and it attracted some 26,000 users in over 70 countries. Thanks to the scheme, 46 previously overlooked drug treatment possibilities for cancer molecules were discovered.

Professor Paul Workman, deputy chief executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, said: "This is an extraordinary time for cancer research, as advances in scientific techniques open up new possibilities and generate unprecedented amounts of data."

Lab Technology

New technology helps scientists assess ‘junk DNA’

Scientists have made a significant breakthrough that enables them to analyse an entire genome for the first time, which in turn means they can discover the cause of a genetic disease dubbed 'junk DNA'.
Teams led by the University of Exeter Medical School and Imperial College London carried out a comprehensive study that found junk DNA is most commonly the result of mutations that occur in a newly identified gene element in a particularly remote part of the genome.
Thanks to the latest advances in genetic sequencing, this part of the genome can now be explored for the first time.
Results from the study were published in Nature Genetics and the experts behind the research discovered the condition is the result of mutations in genomic dark matter. This dark matter is made up of the large stretches of DNA that contain no genes and make up about 99 per cent of a human's genome.
Instead of holding genes, this dark matter is responsible for making sure that genes are "switched on" at the right times and in the part of the body where they are required.
Of particular interest is the fact that it was only the recent development of advanced genetic sequencing laboratory technology that made the study and subsequent findings possible.
Dr Mike Weedon, lead researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: "This breakthrough delves into the dark matter of the genome, which until recently, was very difficult to systematically study. 

"Now, advances in DNA sequencing technology mean we have the tools to explore these non-protein coding regions far more thoroughly and we are finding it has a significant impact on development and disease."
A host of bodies came together to fund the project to ensure the study could go ahead. These included the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute for Health Research Exeter Clinical Research Facility and the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme.