Diamond’s new VMXi beamline to boost advances in biomedical research

HRH The Princess Royal unveiling the plaque officially opening the VMXi beamline.
HRH The Princess Royal unveiling the plaque officially opening the VMXi beamline.
Photo | HRH The Princess Royal and Andrew Harrison, CEO Diamond, at the unveiling ceremony.

Diamond Light Source today unveils a new Versatile Macromolecular crystallography in situ (VMXi) beamline – currently the only one of its kind worldwide.

A transformation of the I02 beamline, the VMXi beamline is solely dedicated to in situ X-ray measurements and has the capacity to store and carry out thousands of user crystallisation experiments under one roof.

Boasting a fully automated environment to allow the rapid turnaround and remote interaction, it will boost advances in biomedical research.  Scientists will also be able to examine crystals at a much earlier state than previously possible and Diamond will be able to deliver increased capacity to researchers.

The first academic and industrial users from the University of Portsmouth and AstraZeneca collected the first ever data on this beamline on December 19th.

Thomas Sorensen, science leader for the VMXi beamline comments;

“We have transformed one of Diamonds original structural beamlines into a completely new ‘beast’.  The whole process of characterisation and data collection from samples has been fully automated enabling users to interact remotely with the beamline and request X-ray analysis without the need for their direct participation in the X-ray experiment. This allows for the study of crystals as they emerge and for the collection of data from all crystals, including those that are too fragile to handle and those that cannot be cryo-cooled. This beamline is a real game changer.”

Professor John McGeehan, Co-Director Institute of Biomedical and Biomolecular Science at the University of Portsmouth explains;

“Researchers from our institute work closely with Diamond on several important life science projects. Crystallisation is often a very long and iterative process where initial promising conditions are optimised until crystals suitable for the diffraction experiments are obtained. For challenging biological systems, this crystallisation process can be very complex indeed. This is where the new VMXi beamline will really help by hosting crystallisation experiments at the beamline and enable direct diffraction analysis without any additional manipulation, thus preserving the crystal integrity - and provide immediate feedback on crystal quality and parameters, even in the case of microcrystals (2-5 μm). With this insight, users like ourselves can progress their crystallisation experiments in a more rational way – and for some projects finally make some progress.”

The first users were able to demonstrate that the beamline was operating as expected in December 2016, with the beamline team now working hard to ensure the beamline functions well under a variety of operating conditions ensuring robust operation in 2017. A key part of the process will be working with the users to see how their experimental feedback can help optimise the crystallisation process. The beamline was officially opened by HRH The Princess Royal on the 8th February 2017.

David Hargreaves, Associate Principal Scientist, Crystallography at AstraZeneca, adds;

“Protein Crystallography is a valuable technique in Drug Discovery allowing chemists to design molecules and then visualise the details of their binding mode in the target protein. The new VMXi beamline will impact on the bottleneck area of crystallogenesis and optimisation by allowing novel insights into these poorly understood processes. The beamline also opens up new opportunities for the delivery of high throughput ligand bound structures without the need for traditional sample manipulation and freezing.”

CEO of Diamond Light Source, Andrew Harrison, concludes; “Over the years the beamline has generated insights into so many great structures and helped explain fundamental biological mechanisms including playing a key part earlier in the research process. We are now at the beginning of a new, faster and more accurate era for pharma related science."

VMXi (Versatile Macromolecular crystallography in situ)

This new beamline is the first of its kind solely dedicated to data collection directly from crystallisation experiments in situ – a new approach that macromolecular crystallography (MX) beamlines at Diamond Light Source have pioneered in recent years. Highly automated, it will allow users will access beamline functionality remotely.

The fully automated environment for the characterisation and data collection from samples present in crystallisation plates will also feature automated transfer between sample storage and the beamline, as well as highly automated data collection and analysis allowing crystals to can be presented in their crystallisation media, rather than being transferred to a sample holder and exposed to X-rays under cryogenic conditions.