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Scientific breakthroughs on Scottish university campuses

Science research in Scotland - Image credit: iStock

Scientific breakthroughs on Scottish university campuses

Scottish universities are at the cutting edge of scientific breakthroughs and Holyrood features some of the more unusual appliances of science

University of Stirling

Using technology to promote social connectedness

Social isolation is a growing challenge. Older people are more likely to be living alone, and loneliness is associated with anxiety, depression, cognitive dysfunction, and heart disease. While Covid-19 highlighted how technology can keep individuals connected, Dr Louise McCabe and colleagues at Stirling found that older people in Scotland who are least socially connected may also be least likely to use technology to connect with others.

The team developed an online toolkit providing recommendations for organisations and individuals thinking about using technology to support social connectedness. Different technologies can be more suited to specific users, and careful evaluation of the potential user is central to the successful adoption of technology-based solutions. Headline themes include recognising potential users as individuals and avoiding assumptions, communicating risks in a balanced way to inform individual choice, involving individuals in project planning, assessing systems in terms of usability, and providing appropriate support and training.

University of Dundee

Kissing undruggable diseases goodbye

Professor Alessio Ciulli’s mission in life is to deliver a ‘kiss of death’ to disease-causing proteins previously been regarded as ‘undruggable’.

Professor Ciulli, based at the University of Dundee, is a pioneer in the field of proteolysis-targeting chimeras (PROTACs), a new pharmaceutical approach with the potential to revolutionise drug discovery in fields as diverse as oncology, dermatology, immunology and respiratory diseases.

While most conventional drugs inhibit cellular targets, PROTACs actually destroy them by manipulating the cell’s natural system for clearing unwanted or damaged proteins. In doing so, it opens up opportunities to target disease mechanisms that have been difficult to reach with existing modalities.

Professor Ciulli’s award-winning work has led to collaborations with leading pharmaceutical companies from across the globe and the establishment of Amphista Therapeutics, an exciting spin out built on the ground-breaking science taking place at Dundee’s School of Life Sciences.

University of Aberdeen

Pioneering the development of MRI technology

The University of Aberdeen has a legacy in the development of MRI technology dating back more than 40 years. In the 1970s a team at the university built the first full-body MRI scanner and in 1980 they used it to obtain the first clinically useful image of a patient. Today the institution is pioneering the next generation of ‘fast field-cycling’ (FFC) MRI, described as having the power of ‘100 different MRI scanner in one’.

Aberdeen is lead partner in the EU-funded Horizon-2020 research project "IDentIFY" (Improving Diagnosis by Fast Field-Cycling MRI) to develop more powerful imaging technology and bring it closer to widespread use in hospitals. Current MRI scanners use a large magnet along with pulses of radiowaves to create detailed pictures of a patient’s anatomy and operate on a single strength of magnetic field. FFC MRI scanners are able to extract much more information by switching the strength of the magnetic field during the scanning procedure

The first ever patients were scanned in Aberdeen using FFC in 2017 and the newest incarnation of the machine will soon be housed in its own custom-built imaging suite within Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, enabling more patients than ever before to be scanned. 

Robert Gordon University

Eliminating harmful algal toxins

In 2018, Professor Christine Edwards and Professor Linda Lawton, researchers from Robert Gordon University’s (RGU) School of Pharmacy and Life Sciences, were awarded over £3.5m from UKRI, towards their work on the detection and elimination of harmful algal toxins. Toxic strains of algae occur in fresh and seawater worldwide and are known to contaminate drinking water and seafood, leading to illness and diseases. The professors have also led the delivery of a rapid field test, so shellfish growers can easily detect and eliminate toxins. Professors Edwards and Lawton also secured almost £2 million to conduct research focused on developing an easily scalable, bio-based strategy to eliminate the toxins found in Sri Lanka’s drinking water which cause disease in humans and animals. The duo was awarded fellowships from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, in honour of their ongoing work in Sri Lanka and their support for upgrading the country’s scientific research standards.

Heriot-Watt University

New MedTech cluster

COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of medical technology and its potential to help transform and deliver effective healthcare services worldwide. Heriot-Watt University is utilising its expertise in physical science, engineering and robotics to drive the development of next generation medical technology and a new medical technology cluster.

Confidence in this leading research is underlined by a recent UKRI-EPSRC grant of £6.1m to develop deep ultraviolet light therapies in the U-Care project. The Medical Device Manufacturing Centre will address prototyping and manufacturing challenges in miniature systems for micro-endoscopy and micro-surgery – making advanced medical devices smaller, smarter and cheaper. A major proposal is also being spearheaded to build a multi-million-pound Centre for Regulated Bio-Manufacture in collaboration with the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, the University of Edinburgh and biomedical companies.

This concentration of research, innovation and collaboration will be instrumental in addressing these, and other, unfulfilled clinical and industrial needs ahead.

University of St Andrews

Shining a light on an old technology

Using a combination of computer simulations and live human safety studies, an interdisciplinary collaboration involving researchers from The University of St Andrews and Ninewells Hospital in Dundee is studying far-UVC lighting as a means of safely inactivating viruses in occupied spaces.

Conventional ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) is proven to reduce the transmission of airborne diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, and influenza, but operates at a wavelength of 254nm that is hazardous to skin and eyes, so must be deployed safely in shielded upper room installations.

The St Andrews-Ninewells team have shown that new filtered far-UVC lighting coming to market operating at 222nm can be deployed safely because proteins in the surface layer of the skin strongly absorb the light providing a natural protective barrier.

University of Glasgow

Making medicine personal

The University of Glasgow is delivering a medical game-changer in the form of the Living Laboratory for Precision Medicine, an internationally leading project focused on translating cutting-edge science and innovation into a real-world clinical setting. With government funding of £38m from UK Research and Innovation’s flagship Strength in Places Fund, the Living Laboratory will be centred around the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus in Glasgow.

The project – worth £91m in total and made possible by a consortium of public and private partners – will enable the creation of a global centre of excellence for Precision Medicine, building on the existing world-leading ecosystem already in place. Working together, the consortium will create a facility which will have unparalleled interactions between academia, industry and the NHS.

By facilitating cross-sector collaborations, the Living Laboratory will address the biggest challenge currently facing Precision Medicine: the translation of research innovation into clinical practice for the benefit of patients. The Living Laboratory is projected to deliver healthcare benefits for patients, create 446 high-value jobs and £136m GVA over an eight-year period, and deliver savings for the NHS.

University of Edinburgh

Finding treatments for COVID-19

Up to 150 researchers from the Centre for Inflammation Research are being re-deployed to work on a project that aims to test existing and experimental drugs to find a treatment for COVID-19.

The new project – STOPCOVID – will focus on the inflammatory pathways that lead directly to lung injury, which is associated with the most severe aspects of COVID-19. Excessive inflammation is causing the lungs to fail, leading to death.

Researchers will test drugs to see if they can block this and other damaging types of inflammation in the early stages of the disease to change the course of infection and prevent the need of a ventilator.

The team are collaborating with pharmaceutical companies from across the world and will work closely with regulatory experts to fast track any potentially successful work while following due diligence. Any drugs that provide positive early results will be fast tracked into national and international clinical trials.

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