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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/T03419X/1
Title: Transforming molecular biophysics with mass photometry
Principal Investigator: Kukura, Professor P
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Oxford Chemistry
Organisation: University of Oxford
Scheme: EPSRC Fellowship
Starts: 01 April 2021 Ends: 31 March 2026 Value (£): 1,768,065
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Analytical Science Biophysics
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
21 Apr 2020 EPSRC Physical Sciences - April 2020 Deferred
01 Jun 2020 EPSRC Physical Sciences Fellowship Interview 2 and 3 June 2020 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Understanding how biomolecules, drugs and other molecules work together is one of the most important areas of study in the life sciences - central to our understanding of basic biology and to developing new drugs. However, it can be difficult to obtain accurate information about these different interactions. To make this possible, we need tools that have three key features. They should be: i) highly sensitive and accurate, ii) able to capture changes over time rather than only static snapshots, and iii) able to operate in the natural environment of proteins or in comparable conditions. In recent decades, much work has gone into developing such tools and researchers have made huge progress in this area. Still, none of the tools available now encompasses all three of the features we urgently need.

Our group has developed a completely new tool that could solve this problem, with the potential to revolutionise how we study molecular interactions. We call the approach 'mass photometry' (MP) because it uses light (in a microscope) to measure the mass of molecules in a liquid sample. From the amount of light scattered by a molecule, we can calculate its mass with a very high level of accuracy. This technology amounts to only the third way of measuring mass, after gravity-based methods and mass spectrometry.

MP has already attracted high levels of interest from fellow researchers working in universities and in the pharmaceutical industry. It has also led to the creation of a successful spinout company, Refeyn.

Still, for the potential of this cutting-edge technology to be fully realised, we need to make critical improvements. For this fellowship, we have set objectives to improve four key aspects:

1. Measurement resolution;

2. Measurement precision;

3. The range of sample concentrations for which MP is applicable; and

4. How we analyse the data and process the images we obtain.

It is these improvements that will transform MP into a potentially revolutionary approach for studying biomolecular structure and function. We will conduct this work over five years at the University of Oxford's Department of Chemistry. Our team will consist of the fellowship holder, who will guide and oversee the study, and four postdoctoral researchers, who will lead research on each of the four objectives alongside two PhD students.

Our ultimate goal is to advance MP from a proof-of-concept technology to a well-accepted, transformative tool for researchers working across the life sciences - from those doing biological discovery research to those developing drugs and clinical diagnostics. In support of that goal, we will also engage in two major collaborative/outreach activities for the duration of this fellowship. First, we will work with a major pharmaceutical company, exploring how MP can support their drug development work. Second, we will operate a MP facility in our university department, which will be open to all fellow researchers to use in their own projects at minimal cost. These two activities will help us validate our techniques, test MP on different applications, gather feedback from MP users, and spread the word about our technology and what it can do to the broader research community.

This fellowship will enable Philipp Kukura to build on what he has been working towards since becoming an independent academic a decade ago: changing our perception of what we can measure with light, and opening up new inroads in diagnostics, biological discovery and drug development. Bridging the advanced optics and life sciences communities, he will use this fellowship to solidify his position as the global leader in this field, share his vision with the next generation of researchers, and create an MP powerhub in Oxford. Ultimately, this will not only benefit the research community, but the UK economy as well, with the creation of local jobs, boosting the UK's prime life sciences industry and advancing health.
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Organisation Website: http://www.ox.ac.uk