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Interdisciplinary research generates bright ideas

25 April 2008

Chemistry experiment

A major research grant, awarded to scientists at Cardiff University, will further the development of a novel tool to understand the causes of human diseases.

Proteins, which are synthesised using information from genes, are the central building blocks of cells. Interactions between proteins determine how an organism develops, functions and responds to its environment. Recent mapping of the interactions between proteins in cells has confirmed that such complex events underpin all cellular processes. This presents a major challenge because scientists lack the tools to control specific protein interactions in individual cells.

Professor Rudolf Allemann, Cardiff School of Chemistry, will lead a team of researchers to explore the use of light to ‘fine-tune’ protein interactions - switching an interaction on or off in single cells by remote control. The interdisciplinary research involving the University’s School of Medicine, the Welsh School of Pharmacy and the School of Physics and Astronomy has won a £1.76M Basic Technology grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Professor Allemann said: "This is a particularly exciting time to be working in the area of protein science. Recent advances in the physical and life sciences have led to a scientific convergence that will generate new approaches to the study and manipululation of cells.

"Our research at Cardiff will ultimately allow scientists to programme changes in defined protein-protein interactions through the introduction of small interfering molecules engineered to be switched on and off by light."

Such ‘Intracellular Biophotonic Nanoswitches’ will allow researchers to switch or programme the state of master regulators in live cells to test the consequences on the whole system - for example the interference with the critical decisions to commit to cell division - revealing the operation of internal molecular pathways. The research could ultimately deliver medical advances for example in cancer research or with wound healing in the body. Applications in drug delivery, surface chemistry, astronomy, particle physics and medical diagnostics are also envisaged.