Fixing world’s biggest biomedical issues

The University of Sheffield has unveiled two ambitious research projects to address some of the world’s biggest biomedical problems

The University of Sheffield has unveiled two ambitious, signature research projects, which will address some of the world’s biggest biomedical problems.

The ground breaking, multi-million pound Imagine and Floreyprojects were revealed at a conference in Tokyo where the University is looking to attract international collaborators and world-leading partners to help them tackle one of the biggest global health issues – protecting us from infectious disease.

In 1941, Sir Howard Florey, former Chair of Pathology at the University of Sheffield, conducted the first ever clinical trials of penicillin – a drug which would go on to save more than 82 million lives worldwide.

Now, over 73 years later and inspired by Florey’s pioneering work, the University of Sheffield’s Florey Institute will strive to make life-saving advances in understanding how infectious agents interact with their hosts to cause disease and to translate these discoveries into new treatments and prophylaxis.

The Imagine initiative will harness the development and application of novel biological and medical imaging approaches to help scientists discover new insight at resolution never previously possible.

With significant investment from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust, the Wolfson Foundation and the University itself, of more than £6 million, the institute will install state-of-the-art equipment and bring together a unique combination of technology, specialist skills and academic expertise.  

Understanding how cells function requires the ability to be able to see the components that make up the cell, determine their localisation and establish how they move in relationship to each other – the next step, which the University is leading on through the Imagine project, is the ability to use super-resolution microscopy techniques to look deeper and further into cell structures to understand interactions.  

Uniquely, the Imagine project will combine three fundamentally different – but very complementary – advanced imagining techniques to push the boundaries of our biological understandings at a molecular level; making Sheffield a leading University in the world with this level of technology and application.

Professor Simon Foster, Imagine Project Director, said: “The thing that will make Sheffield unique is actually our ability to bring these different imaging methods together – because we are already really strong in the three different areas and what we want to be able to do is correlate these. We will be unique in terms of technologies but also of course we will be developing technologies with the applications absolutely in mind so we can ask difficult biological and medical questions.   

“A big challenge, particularly in microscopy is resolution – our ability to see very small objects. Until relatively recently a big limitation has been being able to get through something called the diffraction limit. Now various technologies have been developed which allow us to get round this problem and take it to the next level, so we are really beginning to be able to see things which have never been seen before.”

He added: “With an organism like MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus), an infectious agent that is very small, until now the current technology has only been able to show where molecules are inside a cell but has not been able to properly localise them or to look at their dynamics.

“The new technologies will allow us to gain an understanding of what underpins the life of that organism. When you understand the life of that organism then you have the capabilities of actually determining and developing new drugs which are able to inhibit those life giving processes and therefore you have new antibiotics.”

The aspirations of Imagine will reinforce the University as a truly international centre of excellence in imaging development and its application. The project will be supported by the appointment of eight senior researchers across a range of disciplines with expertise in single molecule biophysics; super resolution microscopy; the newly discovered fields of cell biology; and radical 3D imagining techniques in the fast-changing world of electron microscopy.

Through the innovative Florey Institute for host-pathogen interactions, world leading scientists will further advance the global issue of infectious disease and anti-microbial drug resistance, by striving to better understand the interaction between infective bacteria and our own immune systems.  â€¨â€¨It will also create a leading international hub for new approaches to the understanding and treatment of infectious disease and provide a platform for their clinical translation.

Professor David Dockrell, Florey Project Director, said: “I think the collective expertise that we will really be able to bring to this project is going to be very exciting and I think it is going to energise a lot of people working in this field.

“Our plans for the Florey Institute are that we will have a variety of individuals co located working together on multidisciplinary projects. These will range from students and post doctors to principal investigators working in teams on individual projects but with an overarching aim to understand the microbiology and clinical challenges of Streptococcus pneumoniae (S. pneumoniae) and Staphylcooccus aureus (S. aureus) infections.”

The long-term aim is to develop new approaches to tackle two major bacterial pathogens, S. pneumoniae and S. aureus which currently kill hundreds of thousands of people across the world every year.

Professor Richard Jones, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation, said: “We have forgotten what it is like to be under constant threat of infectious diseases, but this is something we are seeing more and more as we are finding that the pathogens that cause diseases are becoming resistant to antibiotics. “

This now represents a serious issue for global health and, in the UK, strategies to deal with disease outbreaks due to resistant organisms have been included by the Chief Medical officer in the remit of the Government’s Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA) Committee.

Moira Whyte, Head of the Department of Infection and Immunity at the University of Sheffield said: “As a clinician my ultimate goal has to be to make a difference to patients. I think a huge achievement of this centre would be if we look back in 10 years’ time and say that what we discovered, what we developed and took forward into the clinic, has actually changed the way that we treat patients with infections. That would truly be a significant achievement.”   

The University has a long-term commitment to invest into resources to support its ambitions; including investing in infrastructure, recruiting the best students and academic researchers and developing productive partnerships with other world-leading universities and external partners.

These two ground breaking projects are the first in a number of revolutionary, long-term initiatives launched by the University which is growing in scale and ambition of its research activities as a world-leading institution in a range of disciplines.

To find out more about Imagine please visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/imagine

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