Scientists receive £12.3m to develop biomedical Engineering Biology Mission Hub

The University of Nottingham will lead a national hub that will develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, benefiting millions of people worldwide, thanks to funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The GlycoCell Engineering Biology Mission Hub will receive £12.3 million in funding as part of an overall investment of £100m from UKRI’s Technology Missions Fund and UKRI and BBSRC’s core budgets.

The hub is one of six new Engineering Biology Mission Hubs and 22 Mission Award projects, announced by Andrew Griffith, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, that will unlock the potential of Engineering Biology.

The GlycoCell Engineering Biology Mission Hub will be led by the University of Nottingham and will be a collaboration between six academic institutions – the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Imperial College London, the University of Dundee, the Quadram Institute, and the University of Exeter and three industrial partners – Iceni Glycoscience, Synthace Limited, Incepta Pharmaceuticals Ltd.

Andrew Griffith visited the new GlycoCell Hub based at the University of Nottingham to understand how it is helping to exploit Engineering Biology to produce new vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics, by industrialising the bio-manufacture of sugar-based biomolecules crucial to their development.

Engineering Biology uses recent advances in our ability to design and build biological technologies to sustainably address current and future challenges in health, food, manufacturing, the environment and climate change. The GlycoCell team will apply these techniques to the biology of glycans, sugar-based chemicals that functionalise cells and proteins.

Glycans have a huge impact on biology, are integral to the way that our immune system interacts with pathogens, and ensure that many modern pharmaceuticals function properly. However, glycans are currently very difficult to study and manufacture and can be considered to be the “dark matter” of biology.

The GlycoCell Engineering Biology Mission Hub will bring together a range of experts from different fields to unlock the potential of glycans. This promises to accelerate vaccine discovery and production, generate new therapeutics and diagnostics, and dramatically reduce the production costs of advanced drugs.

GlycoCell will:

  • Unlock our ability to program glycan sugars, opening a world of research opportunities in biology and medical biotechnology.
  • Design, test and make many new therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines against pathogens that impact human and animal health.
  • Enhance our epidemic preparedness.
  • Counteract antimicrobial resistance by developing vaccines against bacterial and fungal pathogens, reducing our reliance on antibiotics to combat these threats.
  • Develop the technology to move production of advanced drugs to microbial hosts, considerably reducing their cost thanks to scalable production.
  • Build and deploy GlycoForge, a specialist automated facility, as a UK national asset that will routinely develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, and will be ready to deliver a 100-day rapid response to new pandemic threats.
  • Train the current generation and develop future leaders in Engineering Biology for academia, industry and the public sector.

Dr John Heap from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nottingham is the Principal Investigator and Co-Director of the Hub, working with a team of colleagues. He said: “We are delighted to receive this significant investment from DSIT and UKRI to take the GlycoCell Hub forward. It will make a leading, transformative contribution to bringing about a healthier, more sustainable, equitable and prosperous future.”

Professor Brendan Wren from the LSHTM is Co-Director of the Hub. He said: “Glycans or sugars play key roles in both fundamental biology and biotechnology. The GlycoCell consortium will exploit novel Engineering Biology approaches to produce more effective glycan-based therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines.”

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