Part 3: Advanced technology
Professor David Stuart studies the structure of viruses at the molecular level. His work is particularly focused on virus-receptor interaction and the basic puzzles of virus assembly, and he uses a range of structural biology methods to answer these questions.
Jonathan Webb: Just over a decade ago, the face of British farming changed forever, a devastating outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease led to the enforced slaughter and incineration of over 10 million livestock. This mass culling halted the spread of the disease in the UK, but the fight against Foot and Mouth continues today, predominantly in developing countries.
David Stuart: The existing vaccines that are available for foot and mouth have a number of shortcomings. The technology that's used now it was developed 50 years ago. What it involves is growing very large amounts of highly variant Foot and Mouth Disease virus and when you then inactivate the virus to produce the safe vaccine, the virus itself is rendered less stable. That means that, to be effective, you have to have a cold chain to be capable of delivering the vaccine. And that's a real issue in large parts of the world.
Jonathan Webb: Fortunately, cutting edge structural biology research is paving the way for a new vaccine, which could revolutionise farming on a global scale.
This is the 260 million pound diamond light source. The synchrotron right here in Oxfordshire. The electron beam which runs around a circle towards the middle is over half a kilometre in circumference, and the building is the size of Wembley Stadium. But this is no place for sport. It's more like an extra high powered microscope that allows biologists to zoom in on the exact three dimensional structure of proteins that are billions of times smaller than a pinhead.
Synchrotron X-rays are similar to the hospital X-rays that doctors use to check for a broken bone. Only these ones are much, much brighter. In fact, this synchrotron can produce light up to 10 billion times brighter than the sun. So rather than checking for a crack in a broken arm, synchrotron X-rays can help determine the atomic structure of just about anything, right down to the tiny proteins inside ourselves.
To produce the X-rays electrons are accelerated along here to just under the speed of light. From here, they go into the booster ring next door and from there into the main synchrotron, which is where the light is generating.
These powerful magnets vein the path of the electrons to go around the ring, and then different points around the ring, other magnets are inserted, which make the electrons wiggle or oscillate. Now, as a consequence of those changes in direction. Light is produced including X-rays which are channelled out along these huge beam lines where they can be used to study all kinds of materials, including proteins.
A visit here of a few hours, and scientists like Professor Stuart can get enough information to figure out the atomic structure of, say, a virus shell. In the case of foot and mouth disease, these structures can then be modified into redesigned particles, which are much safer than a live virus and can remain stable at high temperatures. That eliminates the need for refrigeration and those two factors will allow effective and stable vaccines to be mass-produced and shipped to farmers, all over the world.
David Stuart: It would have been impossible without a synchrotron to have determined the initial structure of foot and mouth, which we did some years ago, and it would be impossible to do the advanced design work that we're doing now.
Jonathan Webb: The work done here at diamond on foot and mouth disease is just one example of how successful research collaborations and advanced X-ray technology can and will lead to improved drug design for the future.