Scientists to develop new detection technology for lifesciences research

Scientists at the University of Bath are working with industry and the Research Complex at Harwell to develop a new suite of fluorescent nanoparticles to enable a straightforward multiplexing technology for immunoassays and cell and tissue imaging.

In the short term, the technology will be primarily used by life science researchers for fundamental research, drug discovery, identifying new drug targets and biomarker studies but with potential as a tool to detect and diagnose diseases in patient samples.

Dr Sofia Pascu and Professor Tony James from the University’s Department of Chemistry are collaborating with the UK’s largest nanomaterial manufacturing and application developer Intrinsiq Materials Ltd and the world’s leading antibody supplier Abcam plc to form the NANOFLAM consortium to create the new technology.

They plan to attach fluorescent nanoparticles to antibodies, which can then be used to detect a wide range of proteins in the lab more accurately and cheaply.

The NANOFLAM team has recently been awarded funding of around £1 million from the Technology Strategy Board to help optimise and commercialise the technology over the next two years.

Dr Pascu, a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry, is leading the research project. She explained: “This research is building upon new and exciting technologies where we already have been achieving some success – fluorescent nanoparticles with targeting molecules – to produce a new generation of tools for research, diagnostics and biological imaging involving custom-built antibodies.

Dr Sofia Pascu's research group

Dr Sofia Pascu's research group

“Existing fluorescent labels are either based on dyes that have a short lifetime, or commercial particles called quantum dots, which are expensive and have problems with stability and toxicity.

“We aim to overcome these challenges by investigating new types of nanoparticles that do not interfere with biological materials in cells, and can be produced more cheaply than existing technologies.”

Dr Paul Reip of IML, Chair of the NANOFLAM Steering Committee said: “This is an excellent example of a multidisciplinary programme that is bringing together nano technology and biology, with leading edge applications and a strong market focus.

“Although the timescales are short and the target performance high, the Technology Strategy Board obviously recognised the potential benefits and the capabilities of the three partners to award this significant grant.”

Dr Mark Bushfield, Abcam’s Scientific Director, said: “We are delighted to be working with the team at Bath along with Intrinsiq Materials Ltd to progress this exciting project with many potential applications in life sciences. The project is addressing a real need for improved research tools to understand biological processes in health and disease.”

Dr Pascu has also been awarded funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to use the nanoparticles to develop a new method to diagnose difficult to reach tumours, such as those found in the colon, head or neck.

This research, in collaboration with Dr Stan Botchway at the STFC and Dr Paul Potter from the Mammalian Genetics Unit, MRC Harwell, is at an early stage but builds upon earlier STFC and MRC pilot projects by Dr Pascu.

Longer term, the technology developed may form the synthetic and imaging platforms for endoscopes able to deliver the nanoparticles to the tumours. The ambitious aim is that it will eventually make it easier for clinicians to diagnose and treat inaccessible tumours.

The team has received additional funding from a third source: the Alumni Fund, which is supported entirely by gifts from University of Bath alumni and friends. This grant will be used to buy special filters for the researchers’ fluorescent microscope.

Dr Pascu said: “I think it’s wonderful to know that these contributions by our former students are making a big difference by supporting two big projects (Technology Strategy Board and STFC) and buying essential equipment that will be used in our labs every day.”

The research project is part of the Cancer Research at Bath (CR@B) network which links scientists with clinicians to take research from the lab and use it to help real patients.

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