The Derriford Research Facility

Our life-changing medical research facility

<p>Derriford Research Facility<br></p>
<p>Derriford Research Facility<br></p>
<p>Derriford Research Facility<br></p>

Dr Claudia Barros draws back the curtain of one of the cubicles to reveal a postgraduate and an undergraduate student examining a tissue sample through an advanced confocal microscope. On the screen next to them, magnified several hundred times, is a brilliant red image, as stunning as it is vivid.

“Our research group is highly dependent on imaging,” says Dr Barros, Lecturer in Neuroscience, and an expert in neural stem cells. “So one of the key advantages of the Derriford Research Facility is that it has enabled the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry to create a much larger imaging suite. And not only that, it has upgraded the equipment, such as this new confocal microscope. It means that we, as researchers and teachers, can conduct new experiments and make the facilities accessible to more students, often simultaneously.”

These are sentiments that you hear echoed across the University’s medical, biomedical and dentistry community when you ask about the Derriford Research Facility (DRF) and the difference it makes. With a footprint of 2,300 square metres, and a location adjacent to the John Bull Building and the neighbouring University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, the DRF has transformed the landscape, both architecturally and for those research networks both within the faculty and with clinical colleagues at Derriford.

“It’s a very significant development,” says Professor Oliver Hanemann, Director of the Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine (ITSMed), which is headquartered in the building. “It’s a platform for research that can be used by scientists from our faculty, scientists from the hospital, and scientists from across the University. 

“Here we focus on three core themes: cancer, infection/immunity/inflammation, and clinical neuroscience. We are at the forefront of a number of areas of research, such as antimicrobial resistance and brain tumours and they need translation. So it’s really important that we have many clinical scientists coming to the building, and that our proximity to the hospital enables us to conduct research that is close to the patient.”

That philosophy of ‘bench to bedside and back again’ is key to the work of ITSMed, from brain tumours to vaccines; tissue regeneration to hepatitis; Parkinson’s to innovative therapies for cancer. And since the completion of the DRF at the start of the 2017/18 academic year, many of these research areas have been brought together for the first time.

“Previously several biomedical elements of the faculty were on the main campus,” says Dr Barros. “It meant that staff and students had to travel back and forth to access equipment such as some molecular biology machines. Now, most is here – including staff providing support – so if we have any issues, they’re on hand to help.” 

For Dr Barros, the ability to move quickly between laboratories and facilities such as the imaging suite is vital to both the in vivo and in vitro aspects of her team’s work. The development has also brought proteomics and genomics equipment under the same roof as her for the first time.

“I think of it all as one building, a shared facility, where we can talk, exchange ideas and materials,” she adds. “New ideas flourish more easily. When people who are interested in science work in close proximity you tend to draw connections and find common interests – and that is why you bring a faculty together like this.”

Dr Barros is proof; after moving to her new office, she has struck up a research interest with her ‘office mate’ Dr Charles Affourtit, Associate Professor (Reader) in Mitochondrial Biology.

“When I was writing this research proposal on a project looking at tumour-initiating cells, Charles was interested in it and we began to talk about the mitochondria aspect,” she says. “Without Charles being here, it’s unlikely that we’d have initiated that potential partnership.”

<p>Derriford Research Facility, Princess Royal</p>
<p>Derriford Research Facility, Princess Royal<br></p>

In May, a curtain of a different kind was drawn by HRH The Princess Royal, as she unveiled the plaque at the DRF’s official opening. It may have come some eight months after the operational launch, but it was a fitting moment to reflect upon the progress of the wider medical school since its launch in 2013 (so too was the very successful scientific symposium that followed 24 hours later). And the royal opening enabled HRH to meet a number of the academics who are very much part of its thriving future. 

Among them was Professor Mat Upton, whose work around antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the focus of a new University commercial spinout company, working to develop and bring to market a new strain of antibiotic.

“700,000 people die every year due to AMR and drug-resistant infections,” Professor Upton says. “If we don’t do something to address it, that figure could be 10 million by 2050. So the potential of what we’re doing is immense.

“Developing new antibiotics is, however, a long and expensive process, and we currently have one lead candidate that is more advanced than any others in our collection. We’ve been running this in animal infection models, and a single dose of this antibiotic is as effective as six doses of the current standard. If that translates into activity in humans then it could completely change the way we treat patients.”

The drug, Epidermicin, is two years away from testing on humans, and a further three from the marketplace. So, alongside the development work, Professor Upton is overseeing a continuous search for new sources of antibiotic in the environment around us, from the sea bed to the soles of our shoes.

“The DRF genuinely has the feel of a research institute,” he adds. “And it has opened opportunities to work with other clinicians that we’d maybe not have come across otherwise. In our search for bacteria in the environment that may hold the key to future antimicrobials, we’re also working more closely with our marine scientists, and with the Diving Diseases Research Centre, which is located very close to our labs.”

Whether it is Professor Simon Rule, and his work on mantle cell lymphoma; Professor Matthew Cramp, and his research into liver disease; Dr Shouqing Lou, and his analysis of Huntington’s disease; or the Brain Tumour Research team, whose Centre of Excellence is based there, the DRF is now home to some of the most life-changing research projects in the country.

“In both education and research, we are recognised for our outstanding qualities and achievements,” says Professor Hisham Khalil, Interim Dean of the faculty. “We cannot and will not stand still though – and DRF demonstrates our commitment to inspiring our students, to supporting our brilliant staff, to attracting new talent, and together, to finding the solutions to some of the biggest medical challenges in the world.”