UK university partnership wins £1.8m for drug discovery research


A team from Aston University and the University of Warwick has secured a £1.8 ($2.2) million grant to engineer microbial cell factories to produce membrane proteins which will support future drug screening and sustainable chemical production.

The Engineering Biology Mission Award was given by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Membrane proteins are crucial molecules on the surface of cells with numerous biological functions, such as sensing hormones or cell communication. The top ten selling medicines worldwide and multiple vaccines, including those for Covid-19, hepatitis B and whooping cough, target membrane proteins.

However, engineering production of high levels of functional membrane proteins is challenging due to biological and technological roadblocks – with complex processes of membrane production placing large amounts of stress on cells. This limits the efficiency of drug screening and reduces the identification of new drugs.

The research team will focus its efforts on two of these challenges: the identification of cellular production bottlenecks and cellular stresses; and the membrane environment that surround the proteins.

Microbial cell factories

By combining advanced computational whole cell models and molecular dynamics simulations with new molecular biology and biochemistry tools, the team will engineer microbial cell factories which can self-regulate their protein production in response to stress and have the optimal membrane environment to support protein function. Together these new technologies will increase yields of high-quality functional proteins, simplifying and shortening the time required to produce key biomedical proteins for drug screening.

Dr Alexander Darlington, Project Lead and Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick School of Engineering, said: “Incorporating these engineering concepts into cellular manufacturing platforms will enable cells to balance their own health against production of our desired proteins and enable us to achieve higher yields of important drug targets for future research.”

The grant will help to support the work of the newly founded Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence (AIME), which combines the areas of membrane protein biochemistry and polymer science to create an innovative solution to global challenges.

Dr Doug Browning, Lecturer in Biosciences at Aston University , said: “This funding, in conjunction with our industrial partners, will enable us to design and construct new expression systems that will produce high-value membrane therapeutics, which can be used in the fight against many important medical diseases.”

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