Public Release:  Research fellowships to advance medical treatments and bring new science to market

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Two new research fellowships that will enable blood stem cells to be grown for medical use and bring science innovations to market more quickly have been awarded £2.5 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Fellowships were awarded to:

  • Dr Rob Thomas from Loughborough University £1.3 million
  • Dr Nathan Crilly from the University of Cambridge £1.2 million

Mark Claydon-Smith, Lead of Manufacturing the Future, EPSRC, said: "Manufacturing innovation has been repeatedly highlighted in the Government's strategy for growth. The EPSRC seeks to develop the research skills and knowledge needed for a successful manufacturing economy through the 21st century. A key part of this strategy is supporting individuals with the drive, vision and intellect to create and lead new research fields with the potential to transform UK manufacturing."

1. Manufacturing cells from umbilical cord blood. Dr Rob Thomas, Loughborough University, awarded an Early Career Fellowship of £1.3 million.

A research project into how to make large quantities of cells in the lab could lead to new treatments for serious diseases and produce stocks of manufactured blood or platelets for transfusions.

The project will develop tools to manufacture large quantities of medically valuable cells from umbilical cord blood. This may in turn, form the basis of a manufactured blood bio-products industry.

Dr Thomas said: "Within the next five years there will be substantial advances in treatments using cell based therapies. My proposed research will provide the manufacturing tools to enable the clinical community to deliver a new cohort of treatments for serious diseases to patients in the UK as well as support an important new economic activity in the UK. The work has evolved from projects in the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Regenerative Medicine; a national collaboration led from Loughborough, and will continue to have many synergies with Centre projects."

Currently clinicians rely on donated supplies of umbilical cords collected nationally in banking programmes, but as new medical treatments using cord blood have been found, demand is rising and stocks are limited.

Umbilical cord blood contains immature cells with powerful properties to repair the human body. Cord blood is increasingly used instead of bone marrow to treat childhood blood cancers such as leukaemia as there are fewer problems with rejection of the material. It is effective, or being trialled, to treat other serious conditions such as organ failure, childhood brain damage or diabetes.

Cord blood cells could also potentially be developed to generate large numbers of high value red blood cells or platelets for transfusion, or immune system cells for immunotherapies. The project, 'Engineering Biological Science - Processes and Systems for Haematopoietic Stem Cell Based Therapy Manufacture' will use an engineering approach to grow blood cells in a controlled environment, test how physical conditions and chemical additives affect cell growth, and understand the relationships between cell development.

The aim of the study is to determine conditions required to grow cells in large, clinically useful numbers, and determine how tolerant the manufacturing process is for the repeated production of safe and effective cells.

Dr Thomas is a Senior Lecturer in Biomanufacturing at the Wolfson School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Loughborough University.

2. Turning new scientific technologies into manufacturing reality. Dr Nathan Crilly, University of Cambridge, awarded an Early Career Fellowship of £1.2 million.

Science-based innovations have the potential to drive UK economic growth but developing product ideas and commercial uses can pose design challenges.

To address this problem, the EPSRC has awarded a 5-year fellowship worth £1. 2 million to Dr Nathan Crilly, from the University of Cambridge, to develop design guidance for scientists, technologists and engineers working with emerging technologies.

Dr Crilly said: "The projected markets for emerging technologies are enormous, and the UK is in a strong position to lead technology development and commercial exploitation. However, realising these opportunities depends on the capacity to translate scientific advances and technological developments into product ideas that are suitable for manufacture, distribution and use. Developing flexibly applicable design guidance is key to enhancing that capacity."

The project will examine a variety of scientific developments, ranging from nanomaterials constructed at the atomic level through to smart infrastructures enabled by the internet and other complex systems. Factors that contribute to the successful development and operation of such technical systems will be identified, structured and communicated.

Dr Crilly said: "Developing actionable design guidance is challenging because there is uncertainty over which of the many rapidly emerging technologies will be commercialised, and which different types of system these technologies will be composed of."

"The research will combine industrial case studies with an analysis of how different types of system function. The common factors that contribute to the performance, efficiency and robustness of these systems will be communicated to practitioners through collaboration with specialists in digital media."

Dr Crilly is a Lecturer in Engineering Design at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow in Engineering at Clare College, Cambridge. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in Design Research.

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Notes to editors:

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. www.epsrc.ac.uk

EPSRC Early Fellowship grants provide support to world-leading individuals who are delivering the highest quality research to meet UK and global priorities. The awards will develop the next generation of researchers with the greatest potential at early stages of their careers. Fellowship grants are also awarded at postdoctoral and established career stages.

Media Contacts: Grace Palmer at EPSRC Press Office
Email: pressoffice@epsrc.ac.uk Tel: 01793 444 404. Images available of cells in the process of manufacture, and images of Dr Thomas, and Dr Crilly.

Academic contact details: Dr Rob Thomas, Loughborough University.
Email: R.J.Thomas@lboro.ac.uk Tel: 01509 227601.

Academic contact details: Dr Nathan Crilly, University of Cambridge
Email: nc266@cam.ac.uk Tel: 01223 748244 (available Wednesday 13:00 - 17:00)

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