University unveils ambitious international projects to tackle world’s biggest biomedical problems

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  • Innovative technology will help scientists tackle the world’s biggest biomedical issues
  • The University is set to become an international centre of excellence in imaging development
  • Projects will push the boundaries of our current biological understanding

The University of Sheffield has today (Thursday 6 March 2014) 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 Florey projects 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.

ImagineNow, 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.

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.

Additional information

Imagine: Imaging Life

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

Florey Institute for host-pathogen interactions

For more information about Florey please visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/florey

Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus aureus is a major cause of death and disease in humans. The spread of antibiotic resistance leading to viruses such as MRSA and VRSA highlights its importance. Research at the University of Sheffield has taken a number of approaches to understand the pathogenesis of the organism and to develop new prophylactic and treatment regimes. Research is aimed at determining how S. aureus interacts with its host. In particular researchers have been determining the role of human innate defences in the control of S. aureus. They have also identified a number of potential novel targets that are being exploited as vaccine components.

Streptococcus pneumoniae

Pneumonia remains a major cause of mortality, with increasing antibiotic resistance and evidence that excessive host immune responses result in poor clinical outcome. This has prompted researchers at the University of Sheffield to investigate in detail, using a range of models, S. pneumoniae. This includes bacterial manipulation of phagolysosomal maturation, proinflammatory cytokine gene activation and apoptosis pathways. The effect of viruses such as HIV-1 and Influenza A on phagocytes and lymphocytes are also being examined.

University of Sheffield

With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities. A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in. In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields. Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

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