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«TECHNOLOGY TOUCHING LIFE - JOINT BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC CONSULTATION INTRODUCTION Building on our track record of working together to support ...»

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Building on our track record of working together to support interdisciplinary research across the

physical, life and biomedical sciences, BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC are at an early stage in scoping a

joint strategy to foster more diverse, fundamental, interdisciplinary technology development

research. This is a new theme provisionally titled ‘Technology Touching Life’ (TTL). As part of the initial scoping exercise this consultation is being sent to universities/institutes, individual researchers, learned society contacts and industry representatives to garner views from the scientific community in order to inform the development of the TTL theme.

Discussions on TTL across the three Research Councils were initially stimulated by the EPSRC report 'The importance of engineering and physical sciences research to health and life sciences', published in May 2014. Fundamental breakthroughs in the life and biomedical sciences are often based on new physical science-based research technologies, which in turn often open up longer term opportunities for the economy and society. The TTL strategy aims to stimulate and support interdisciplinary collaborations to explore novel technologies and approaches that address application-driven challenges. By enabling joint working and two-way flow of ideas between life scientists and engineers/physical scientists we expect that TTL will ensure the UK leads future waves of foundational technology discovery for the life and biomedical sciences, and create new opportunities for commercial development.


The consultation consists of six free-text response questions. You have been provided with a unique link to capture your response; please note only a single response can be submitted using this link. Your response may be returned to and edited at any point prior to submission. The deadline for submissions is Friday 28 March 2015.

Alternatively, your response can be submitted as a Word document to peter.burlinson@bbsrc.ac.uk.


If you have any queries please feel free to contact:


Peter Burlinson John Hand Heike Weber Peter.burlinson@bbsrc.ac.uk; John.Hand@epsrc.ac.uk Heike.Weber@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC thank you in advance for your time and input.



Within the broad scope of 'Technology Touching Life':

1. What are the ‘sweet spot’ areas where there is high potential for closer alignment across physical sciences and life sciences to lead to major advances?

There are many areas where development and application of physical science techniques and understanding will lead to advances in life sciences research. Fundamental developments from the

physical sciences promise to advance the following areas among others:

(i) The drive for better molecular understanding of biological processes means that making molecules will become ever more important. Generating new probes and lead compounds is dependent on advances in synthetic chemistry to deliver novel molecules and to find more efficient ways to make them. Physical and in silico compound collections of structurally diverse molecules, coupled with high throughput screening technologies, will accelerate research in molecule-dependent sectors such as pharmaceuticals, materials and agrichemicals. For example, wide screening of biological targets is now feasible due to miniaturisation of assays, increased computational power and precise biological analysis. Clearly, organic chemistry is a key discipline and was recently identified in a Department for Business Innovation & Skills economics paper as the area where the UK has the greatest revealed technological advantage.1 (ii) Ever-improving chemical understanding will drive more specifically targeted interventions at the genetic, metabolic, cellular and organ levels, ranging from nanoscale drug delivery and gene therapy to stratified medicine and tissue engineering. Modelling and computational approaches will be required to complement these endeavours in, for example, systems biology research and its applications in personalized medicine.

(iii) The past decade has witnessed spectacular advances in spectroscopy, imaging and other analytical techniques, including DNA sequencing, real time PCR and single molecule studies. The latter was recognised by the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.2 Such advances, in particular from the physical sciences, will continue to accelerate, and impact on, the now more routine fields of proteomics, genomics, metabolomics but also emerging areas such as metagenomics and in the elucidation of an individual’s microbiome. There is an ever growing demand for new chemical probes and highly site-specific, low cost contrast agents which will facilitate higher resolution and more selective imaging of, for example, tumours, ischaemia and neurodegeneration.

(iv) Advanced materials will enhance diagnostic capabilities and accelerate the development of self-healing and other smart materials for medical applications such BIS Economics paper No. 18: Industrial Strategy: UK Sector Analysis, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, September 2012 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2014/ as delivery devices and prosthetics. For example, haptic (sensing) materials comprise a touch response facility interfacing with novel electro-active or piezoelectric polymers. Further innovative chemical design to advance haptic materials is strongly needed, especially at the microdomain level. As a further example, the interfaces between prostheses and body tissues, or biomedical implants require the optimisation of many material properties, key amongst which are biocompatibility and softness. Satisfying such conflicting demands requires innovative molecular design to make materials that are biocompatible, hard-wearing and possess appropriate viscoelastic properties, and calls on an intimate knowledge of synthetic chemistry, polymer chemistry, the physics of macromolecules, tribology and lubrication among others.

(v) Physical sciences are also intimately involved in many developments across the agri-sciences. Apart from the obvious relevance of the chemical sciences to the development of selective, potent pesticides and fertilizers that do not harm the environment and ecosystem, the chemical sciences also strongly contribute to other areas. For example, soil science, crop protection and efficiency in nutrient use are all areas underpinned by chemical sciences research. Routine application of the results of metagenomic analyses of local soils will enable a proper understanding of the important chemistry that needs to be put in place to maintain the health and sustainability of localised soil and ecosystems. It will also inform adequate life cycle assessment procedures to test the viability of proposed agricultural innovations at a localised or national scale.

2. What trends or developments in engineering and physical science technologies are already emerging which you think will have impact in the life and biomedical sciences?

The UK Government identified priority areas for technological advancement (‘eight great technologies’).3 Of those, the engineering and physical sciences will be play a vital role in driving forward advances in energy storage, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, advanced materials and agri-sciences.

No list of current emerging technologies is likely to be exhaustive, but some specific emerging

technologies for use, or that will have impact, in life and biomedical sciences are:

(i) Miniaturisation and new assay platforms for analysis and biological interventions will continue to offer improved diagnostics and therapies – facilitating point-of-care testing and more targeted therapies from better and faster diagnosis which have the potential to be used by non-experts ‘handheld’ in the field or in the clinic.

(ii) High throughput screening and spectroscopic techniques are already being employed in life sciences fields including ‘omics’ and imaging, and these trends will surely accelerate.

(iii) Separation and detection techniques for single cell analysis and identification of multiple biomarkers (particularly of major diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s).

(iv) Advances in modelling and visualisation tools including new contrast agents and refinement of imagining techniques.

Eight great technologies, Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, October 2013 (v) Molecule-driven research and advances in synthesis will enable development of DNA assemblies, chemically modified nucleotides, artificial proteins and enzymes, nano-science and natural products.

(vi) Materials chemistry for medical devices, especially prosthetics (see also 1(iv) above).

(vii) Nanotechnology for chemical agent delivery in human health, agriculture and in the environment (e.g. bubble shell technology for the delivery of active ingredients).

(viii) Data analysis and statistical methods are vital tools that cut across all disciplines and are essential to maximising the rigour and impact of excellent and well-informed research.

High quality interactions between the disciplines must be facilitated by encouraging proper data handling/analysis skills. For example, the Dial-a-molecule ESPRC Grand Challenge network recently ran a workshop aimed at informing chemists of the power of statistical methods in design of experiment and the need to link with statistical scientists.

(ix) Energy and manufacturing technologies (e.g. photovoltaics, 3D printing and improved energy storage) will serve to power medical devices and facilitate developments in personalized medicine impacting on low resource, point-of-care settings and so present opportunities to develop bespoke biomedical solutions.

(x) Renewable materials as alternatives to fossil fuel-derived chemicals and fuels will increasingly provide an industry ‘pull’ for research in this area. The increased use of more environmentally friendly processes, known as ‘green chemistry’, highlights the contributions that the chemical sciences make to manufacturing. An example is the scale up in the synthesis4 of Pregabalin, a drug used to treat neuropathic pain. New catalysts will, in their own right, enable previously impossible chemical transformations relevant to bioprocessing renewable chemistry and across the pharmaceutical research landscape.

3. What important areas in the life and biomedical sciences are currently limited by existing technologies and require new technology developments to ‘unlock’ discovery opportunities and deliver a 'step change' in understanding?

Some illustrative examples where further developments would unlock discovery opportunities and

increase understanding are given below:

(i) -omics (including genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, glycomics etc.) require chemical expertise to deliver a better understanding of the mechanisms that drive cellular processes.

This will come through further improvements to high-throughput analytical technologies and an improved appreciation of the molecular interactions which link changes within any biological system. Genomic advances are reliant on improved and affordable sequencing technologies which will facilitate application towards increased understanding of the relationships between gene expression and cellular differentiation.

(ii) Precision medicine using molecular understanding to redefine diseases based on individual genetic and molecular causes. This will help to target delivery of molecules to specific cell-types and organs as well as examine metabolic pathways to increase our understanding of complex interrelated biological processes.

(iii) New relevant drug target identification is a key challenge which will draw on both predictive and “wet” lab approaches. Many of the new target classes being tackled by UKbased research groups are less well understood. For example modulators for protein-protein interactions (PPI) show great potential and it is predicted that the market value of PPI small Organic chemists reducing impact on the Environment, 2012 molecule modulators will exceed €600 million in the next 5 years.5 Advances were initially made by attempting to probe the fundamental chemistry involved in protein-protein complexes using analytical, structural and computational chemistry. Using synthesis and peptide chemistry, small molecule and peptide interventions of protein-protein interactions were identified.

(iv) Tackling antimicrobial resistance will require a range of disciplines to better understand the development of resistance and accelerate the development of new therapeutics, diagnostics and alternatives, and in particular to exploit information provided by the microbiome. For example, medical diagnostics rely on improved and more cost-effective means of chemical measurement to provide data faster, cheaper and at the point of care.

However such advances in the clinic are dependent on developments in for example, miniaturized power sources (energy storage), new materials and biomarkers.

(v) Support for agri-sciences in particular in relation to crop protection technology, minimising environmental impacts, improving water efficiency and increasing photosynthetic efficiency.

Resistance to many active ingredients used in crop protection is a major issue, for example there are a lack of chemical tools to understand fungal metabolism. Addressing these challenges will draw on a number of scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry, toxicology, ecology and genetics.

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