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From synthetic biology to global health challenges

Press release issued: 28 March 2017

The University of Bristol is at the forefront of synthetic biology research, teaching and innovation.

This emerging discipline combines our growing understanding of biology with cutting-edge design and engineering to deliver new solutions for social and global challenges. 

It is one of the Government’s eight 'great technologies', and part of its strategic plan for science and technology.

The new Bristol Biodesign Institute (BBI) builds on a £70 million investment in synthetic biology at the University, which includes a synthetic biology research centre and a centre for doctoral training.  

The BBI will be the focal point for interdisciplinary teaching and training, research, local and international engagement, and commercialisation in synthetic biology and biodesign.

The BBI is underpinned by world-leading research spanning the life and physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics.  It will foster multidisciplinary approaches to advance basic science and to develop applications in biotechnology, health, and food security. 

This will be done in an environment of responsible research and innovation, engaging postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, academics, policy makers and industry, and the general public.

More specifically, research in the BBI includes making red blood cells to deliver pharmaceuticals more effectively, developing variants of wheat to improve crop productivity, designing platforms to deliver better vaccines, and exploring new ways to make new antimicrobial agents.

Vaccines have been pivotal in developing modern medicine.  They have been used to effectively eradicate previously common diseases such as smallpox and polio.  Nonetheless, certain bacteria and viruses are recalcitrant to vaccine development, and new approaches are needed.

Professor Dek Woolfson, Dr Andrew Davidson and Dr Caroline Morris in the BBI are using synthetic biology to plot a new path to vaccines.  Their platform is based on the design and discovery of self-assembling peptide cages. 

These so-called SAGEs comprise thousands of small protein modules that co-assemble to form spherical particles.  These resemble viruses in size and shape but without the infectivity. 

The team have shown that SAGEs designed to look like the flu virus are recognised by immune cells in the lab and produce antibodies, which are the first steps to making vaccines.  

They are currently working to optimise the SAGEs to tackle tropical diseases without vaccines such as Dengue, Zika and Chikungunya.

Turning to antibiotic resistance, since the discovery of Penicillin in 1928 we have been locked in an arms race with bacteria, which are capable of rapidly mutating to resist such antibiotics.  Scientists tackle this by developing new antibiotics or modifying existing ones. 

However, this pipeline is drying up, leading to estimates that 10s of millions of people per year could die from lack of antibiotics by 2050.

Work on antibiotic resistance in the BBI is led by Dr Paul Race and Professor Chris Willis

They are searching for novel antibiotic drugs in areas of untapped biodiversity and using synthetic biology to enhance their effectiveness. 

The team collaborates with other researchers who have unique access to bacterial collections from inside deep-Atlantic sponges.  In this way, they have already identified promising antibiotic signatures.

On both of these fronts, scientists from Thailand have recently visited Bristol and the BBI in an event co-organised with BristolBridge to discuss new collaborative approaches to develop vaccines and to tackle antimicrobial resistance.

Further information

Bristol BioDesign is one of seven newly created Specialist Research Institutes designed to reflect Bristol’s strength and depth in key specialisms. They catalyse research collaboration and partnership, providing outstanding academic training. Our institutes position the University among the world’s leading research-intensive universities, making it the topdestination for students and staff internationally.

Bristol BioDesign Institute builds on the previous investments by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the Synthetic Biology Research Centre (BrisSynBio) and Synthetic Biology Centre for Doctoral Training (co-hosted with the Universities of Oxford and Warwick).

BioDesign, a cross-sectoral engineering approach to biology, looks at how molecules can be engineered in a biological context. Bristol BioDesign Institute places the University of Bristol among the forerunners of a competitive new specialism.

With wide ranging applications, from health to food security, our work embeds pioneering synthetic biology practice in biological and bioengineering research. We link the boundary-breaking research of the BrisSynBio synthetic biology network with postgraduate and postdoctoral training; cement links with academia, policy makers and industry, while engaging the public with emerging solutions to global challenges.

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