Three ways science-based research in Norwich is making an impact
PUBLISHED: 08:30 22 July 2020
Beth Moseley Photography
Norwich Research Park is home to a huge diversity of science-based research talent. Here are just three stories about how the scientists are changing lives and rethinking society.
Cutting-edge technology produces Covid-19 antigen to aid research into the pandemic
The global coronavirus pandemic has required the world’s scientists to put their resources into helping develop diagnostic tests and vaccines. Leaf Expression Systems, a spin-out company from the John Innes Centre, based at Norwich Research Park, has built its reputation on producing proteins such as vaccines, enzymes and antibodies in plants, so it was no surprise when they it came up with an antigen – recombinant SARS-CoV-2 N-protein.
The antigen plays a key replication role, meaning that it helps scientists to apply antiviral therapeutics and target diagnostic testing. Leaf has developed the antigen using its own expression technology called Hypertrans®.
Being a plant-based technology, it is much quicker than other established systems used for producing research proteins. This means that Leaf can quickly scale up production of the N-protein to respond to outbreaks of disease and support diagnostic and immunisation programmes.
Using DNA sequencing to find out what’s living in the River Yare
Protecting the biodiversity of river ecosystems is critical, which is why a group of researchers at the Earlham Institute and Quadram Institute on Norwich Research Park have been dipping below the surface of the River Yare in Norwich.
Using the latest DNA sequencing technologies, they’ve been able to spot the tiniest traces of any living creatures in the river simply by analysing a sample of river water.
The unique DNA signatures of every organism present in the sample are read using a hand-held device called the Oxford Nanopore MinION.
Dr Richard Leggett, group leader at Earlham Institute, said: “To be able to detect the DNA of pretty much any species in just a sample of river water shows the great power and potential of technology today.
“We can use this knowledge to unobtrusively explore environments worldwide and tackle a number of important challenges, from food security to biodiversity and soil health.”
The Earlham Institute scientists analysed water in the River Yare as part of an international project that included the Rhine in Germany, the Chena in Alaska and the Vedder Canal in Canada.
Around 400 different groups of organisms were found in the Yare; that compares to 1,139 found in the Chena River and 135 in the Vedder Canal. Bacteria made up the biggest proportion (94pc) of the samples across all rivers.
Dr Leggett continued: “The findings are a reminder that life in our rivers is largely nourished by invisible microbial communities, whose survival has a direct impact on the entire ecosystem. A loss of biodiversity can have a far-reaching impact. What we put into that system will affect its health and have knock-on effects for our own health.”
World’s first neonatal cannabis-based medicine trial pioneered by Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital
Researchers at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) have commenced a world-first trial of cannabis-derived medicine treatment at its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) that could help babies at risk of seizures and brain injury.
The trial is looking to see if the medicine is safe and effective in lessening the degree of brain injury for babies with Neonatal Hypoxic-ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE), a type of brain damage that occurs when a baby’s brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen and blood.
Professor Paul Clarke, consultant neonatologist at NNUH, said: “We are leading the way with this sort of treatment. This is the first time a cannabis-derived medicine has been tested intravenously in human babies. It is hoped that it will be good for preventing seizures and protecting the brains of new-born babies with HIE.”
Babies who take part in the trial continue to receive standard hypothermia treatment for HIE where the whole body is cooled down to 33.5 degrees. They receive a single dose of the study drug or a placebo (dummy medicine) followed by some tests to measure levels of the drug in the blood.
The first baby to be treated was Oscar Parodi of Watton, who was delivered by emergency caesarean section in March. He was unexpectedly born in a poor condition and needed to be transferred to the NICU where he was put on the cooling therapy for 72 hours.
Prof Clarke added: “As with any study of a new medicine, there may be unexpected side effects and unknown risks. With this in mind, the trial has been carefully designed to make it as safe as possible and so we are only giving the babies a minuscule dose at the beginning and we monitor them even more closely than usual.
“We have always had good support from families wanting to take part in research - they often do it from an altruistic standpoint to help benefit future babies.”
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