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Biomedical research in the UK to benefit from a £25.5m cash injection

20 Feb 2013

Three of the UK's research councils - the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – have invested £20.1m, £2.4m and £2m respectively, to establish 17 microscopy platforms that will bring about ground breaking advances in biological and biomedical research.

Many of the initiatives funded combine different and sometimes entirely new microscopy techniques to answer crucial questions about biological processes. The revolution in microscopy builds dramatically on the previous limits of electron and light (optical) microscopy. Electron microscopy has very high resolution but can not be used to image living cells or organisms. Traditional light microscopy can look at living materials but has far lower resolution.

The new generation of imaging techniques are now able to greatly increase the resolution – sometimes too close to molecular level – when studying an intact and living cell. These structures are some of the smallest things that scientists have been able to visualise. For example, a cell membrane is about 6-10 nanometres (a nanometre is 1 millionth of a millimetre).

As well as increasing the magnification, researchers are now able to study live biological processes as they are taking place at fractions of a second. Being able to visualise these tiny biological structures, such as the proteins involved in cell function and the biological and chemical processes in which they are involved, will allow researchers to understand more about what causes disease.

Professor Steve Hill, who chaired the expert panel which assessed the proposals, said:

“Microscopy is one of the most important tools scientists have for discovery-based research but the high costs associated with this technology are often a barrier to expansion. This funding is crucial to help the UK capitalise on the latest technologies and maintain its internationally leading position in biological and biomedical research.”

“This type of microscopy relies on scientists in very different disciplines coming together to solve very specific imaging problems. All seventeen projects were able to demonstrate extremely strong partnerships between biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, technologists and equipment manufacturers.”

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said:

“These substantial funding awards will bring together the UK’s world-class research base and industry to keep our life sciences sector at the forefront of discovery. Through exploring innovative new uses for microscopy they will improve our understanding of disease and ultimately deliver benefits for patients.”

The cross-Council Next Generation Optical Microscopy initiative was launched in May 2012 and received 34 applications of a very high standard. An international panel of experts awarded funding to seventeen cutting edge microscopy projects in November 2012.

Some examples of the seventeen awards:

  • Scientists at the University of York are combining both electron and light microscopy techniques. One application will be to find out more about neurodegenerative disease by visualising the processes in a nerve cell which govern learning and memory.
  • A partnership between biological researchers at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre and physicists at Imperial College London to visualise fundamental biological mechanisms and benefit on-going research in areas such as the behaviour of chromosomes in developing reproductive cells, the function of nerve cells and the regulation of gene expression.
  • At the University of Leeds, researchers will be building a new microscope to observe the internal structure of cells and gain insights into the development of conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In the last few years, new techniques have emerged in microscope technology which exceed the previous limits on what researchers can see. Optical resolution had previously been limited to 200 nanometres (nm) but recent breakthroughs, particularly in fluorescent microscopy which uses the light from fluorescent molecules to break the 'diffraction limit', can achieve resolution of just tens of nanometres. For a couple of great analogies explaining the size of a nanometre, watch this very short film from scientists at Nottingham University.

A selection of images is available here. Further details about the individual projects including lay and technical summaries of the different projects, is available on request.

To contact the MRC, please call Carmel Turner on 020 7395 2273, email carmel.turner@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk or visit www.mrc.ac.uk.

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