Bringing major health discoveries to our doorstep

Bringing major health discoveries to our doorstep

1 Sep, 2017

By Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel

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We hear from Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel on the game-changing potential of a new GW4 shared facility for microscopy, and how it will accelerate cutting-edge research projects across the Great West.

Molecular processes decide whether we’re healthy or not. To really understand the cellular function or malfunction behind human health or disease, we need to be able to see the exact molecular processes at work – their modes of action and architecture.

Electron cryo-microscopy (known as cryo-EM) is a vital part of determining and analysing these intricate molecular processes.

The South West England and South East Wales region has long been home to notable and complementary expertise in human health and imaging, but not the state-of-the-art cryo-microscopy equipment needed to study molecular processes at this level of detail. Today, that all changes with the launch of the GW4 Facility for High Resolution Electron Cyro-Microscopy.

Joining the revolution

Electron cryo-microscopy has made incredible advances recently, with scientists hailing the “cryo-EM revolution” in accelerating insights into human health and disease.

Major improvements in microscope hardware, data-collection strategies and software have converged to catapult cryo-EM technology to a new level of precision. Molecular processes can be visualised at near-atomic resolution, opening up exciting new avenues for studying structure and function in unprecedented detail, from atoms to cells.

This means that researchers investigating biological function today must be provided with the opportunity to make use of cryo-EM technology if they want to advance their studies on regional, national and international levels.

Making the case

I joined with colleagues across the GW4 Alliance – from a variety of disciplines and academic/professional services roles – to develop collaborative proposals for support. The process of putting together these proposals identified clear complementary strengths in imaging and molecular biology as well as opportunities for research collaboration that would be created by shared access to cutting edge cryo-EM technology.

We were delighted to receive support from Wellcome and BBSRC and co-investment from our institutions to develop a GW4 Facility for High Resolution Electron Cryo-Microscopy. Their support demonstrated an overarching ambition that future scientific discovery will be a collaborative enterprise, and we are delighted to make this ambition a reality for our region.

A regional facility for the Great West

Today’s ceremony celebrates the installation of this state-of-the-art cryo-microscopy facility that will open up this technology to researchers across the South West and Wales. The event will bring together globally-renowned microscopy experts, doctoral students and senior university staff to discuss the future of imaging and share best practice and leading-edge techniques.

The GW4 facility will represent an important regional node to feed into the Wellcome-funded national facility for High-Resolution Cryo-EM at Harwell. We hope our high-profile resource for the Great West, together with the national facility, will entice researchers from diverse life-science areas and disciplines to join the cryo-EM revolution and generate new and exciting research.

Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel is a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol.

Christiane led two bids to develop the GW4 Facility for High-Resolution Electron Cryo-Microscopy, alongside Professor Phil Ingham at the University of Exeter who led the third bid to support the facility.