Science Across Borders

Diamond science and the developing world

Image Diamond science and the developing world
Science is an incredible thing: it has the power to reach out, to cross borders, and to create change around the world. At Diamond, scientists are working to improve the lives and wellbeing of people internationally, turning their expertise to some of the most pressing issues affecting the developing world, and proving that, at its best, science can be truly global.
 
In many parts of the world, diseases that should be easy to treat often prove extremely problematic. Socio-economic and industrial issues can help spread and prolong illness, but there are also gaps in medical knowledge that scientists are working to fill. Jose Brandao-Neto is a senior beamline scientist on one of Diamond’s crystallography beamlines, I04-1, and he specialises in a particularly nasty tropical disease called schistosomiasis.
 
Also known as Snail Fever, schistosomiasis is a type of waterborne parasite that’s very common in subtropical and tropical regions. An estimated 200 million people are infected with the parasite, which causes chronic infection leading to liver fibrosis, abdominal issues, and some forms of cancer. After malaria, it’s the world’s second most common parasitic disease.
 
There are treatments for Snail Fever; however the current drug, praziquantel, was designed using trial and error tests over 50 years ago, and the infection is now beginning to show signs of resistance, meaning that Snail Fever may soon become untreatable. So there’s growing need for an alternative, and that’s exactly what Jose is trying to find.
 
“It starts with proteins”, explains Jose. “Proteins are minute biological machines that power all of the activities and processes in our bodies. I’m targeting proteins inside the parasite that control its energy, replication and spread. If we can shut off these proteins, then the parasite becomes weak; it cannot spread, and so it dies.”
 
Jose uses Diamond’s bright beams to determine the atomic and molecular structure of the parasite and its proteins. This makes it much easier to create a treatment that exploits the exact shape and characteristics. No trial and error here; it’s all much more rational. A pharmaceutical company is interested in testing potential drugs that are based on the structures. If all goes well, Jose may have played a vital role in creating a treatment for one of the world most pervasive and problematic parasites.
 
Foot and mouth disease (FMDV) is one of the world’s most economically devastating diseases.
Foot and mouth disease (FMDV) is one of the world’s most economically devastating diseases.

But it’s not just human health that scientists are working on. In parts of the world, the loss of a cow or a sheep could spell financial ruin. Foot and mouth disease (FMDV) is one of the world’s most economically devastating diseases. The UK suffered outbreaks in 2002 and 2007, and the cost to the economy was an estimated £8 billion However, the disease remains endemic throughout much of the world, costing between $6-21 billion a year in lost livestock and vaccination efforts. In parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, FMDV is an everyday problem, but work at Diamond may help change that.

 
Dave Stuart is Director of Life Sciences at Diamond, and his vaccine research has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of viruses like FMDV. There is currently a vaccine for the disease, but it relies on an inactivated version of the virus itself; this is problematic, because in warmer climates and under certain conditions the vaccine has a very short shelf life.
 
However, Dave and his group from Oxford University and the Pirbright Institute have a new approach. They used Diamond to uncover the exact shape of FMDV, and then they created a lookalike: an identical copy, except there’s nothing inside. These vaccines are known as ‘empty shells’. When a live virus enters the body, the shell cracks open and releases RNA: the genetic code that causes the infected cell to produce millions of new virus particles, allowing the disease to multiply and spread. But Dave’s vaccine only looks like the virus, without actually containing any of the viral information. This means there’s no chance of the vaccine becoming infectious and, what’s more, because it doesn’t use any of the live virus, it’s quicker, easier and safer to produce.

 

This new vaccine methodology could be really significant for people living in parts of the world where FMDV is endemic. Use of an empty shell vaccine opens up the possibility of ultimately wiping FMDV out altogether, a considerable boost for agricultural economies.
Colours indicate the trace metal content in wheat grains, important information for nutrition and global food resourcing
Colours indicate the trace metal content in wheat grains, important information for nutrition and global food resourcing

 

Away from bio-medical research, chemistry also has its part to play in addressing some of the scientific challenges faced by developing nations. Andrew Neal is a senior research scientist at Rothamsted Research, the world’s longest running agricultural research station. His work looks at the humble wheat grain and its impact on malnutrition.
 
Wheat is one of the most popular foods in the world; combined with rice and maize, it comprises 60% of all human food consumption. The grains are packed with essential nutrients, but they are locked away in forms which cannot be processed by enzymes in the human gut, so much of the goodness is lost. Andrew’s work uses Diamond to explore methods of changing the way that the grains store their nutrients so that they become easier for our guts to access. This research demonstrates the potential of science to help address issues of malnutrition in the developing world.
 
Andrew explains the global significance: “Even today one billion people are still permanently hungry and millions die each year as a consequence of deficiencies of iron and zinc. Whether this is a problem of politics, production or distribution, we must explore all avenues to correct this, and basic scientific investigation has an important role to play”.
 
The work of these groups highlights the ways in which science can be an engine for change in the world. Although it’s nestled away in the Oxfordshire countryside, Diamond is equipping scientists to play their part in addressing global challenges. Science certainly doesn’t have all the answers to the issues faced by developing nations, but it can go some way to improving the quality of life for individuals; and that’s a cause worth working for. 
 
 

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