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Interview: From genes to kilos
08 April 2010
Nick Turner is professor of chemical biology at the University of Manchester, UK where his research group is located in the new Manchester Interdisicplinary Biocentre. He is also Director of the Centre of Excellence in Biocatalysis (CoEBio3) and a co-founder and Scientific Director of Ingenza, a spin-out biocatalysis company based in Edinburgh. His research group are interested in; (i) the use of enzymes as biocatalysts for organic synthesis and (ii) the design and synthesis of high-affinity ligands for therapeutic proteins. He is also a member of the Chemical Communications Editorial Board.
Do you remember your first experiment?
My father worked in a polytechnic in south London. When I started to become interested in chemistry, he brought home some chemistry kit from work, which I'm sure would certainly not be allowed nowadays! The kit had glassware and chemicals, even concentrated sulphuric acid, and my brother and I used to mess around with it in the garage trying to make things.
What led you to work in the area of proteins and biocatalysis?
My childhood hero was Charles Darwin and to this day he is still my scientific hero. He lived most of his life in Down House, near to where I grew up in Kent. Inspired by Darwin, I started to get interested in this whole idea of natural history, geology, and more specifically evolution and biotechnology.
You are the director of the Centre of Excellence for Biocatalysis, Biotransformations and Biocatalytic Manufacture (CoEBio3) in Manchester. Can you tell me about this centre and why it was established?
Established in 2005, CoEBio3 is a research based centre with its headquarters at the University of Manchester and includes the University of York, Heriott Watt and the University of Strathclyde. It was set up to carry out academic research in collaboration with industry. We have an industrial club of about 16 companies who pay into a research funding centre, which can be used to fund PhD and postdoctoral projects. It is important to do basic research but also to understand what industry wants in terms of technological development. We work with companies such as Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, Merck (USA) and fine chemical companies such as BASF.
The centre has a pilot biomanufacturing facility - how important is this for both academia and industry?
It is absolutely vital as industry needs reassurance that we can take research out of the lab and translate it to a potential process. Industry is looking for the whole package from very fundamental research at the gene level to a demonstrated, validated process. Chemistry is about making chemicals on a large scale. Even if you use biotechnology, you still have to ultimately use that technology to make a product. It's really important that our industrial collaborators have access not only to the research base in Manchester but also to our scale-up facility in the north-east of England (at the Centre for Process Innovation).
If you are a post-graduate student involved with the Centre do you get to go to the scale-up plant with your product?
The facility at the Centre for Process Innovation is a facility that everyone can get access to. As a student you could take a product that you made on a one litre scale in Manchester and scale it up to 1,000 litres at the Centre for Process Innovation. The final step is where the company would turn it into a manufacturing process.
Do you feel that academia and industry collaborate successfully in the area of biotechnology?
One thing we are fortunate with in the UK is that we have very strong interactions between academia and industry. As a country we are just about the right size, as opposed to the US, for example, where it is very difficult for an academic on the East Coast to collaborate with companies on the West Coast. We have very strong links and mechanisms for collaboration, such as CASE awards where industry sponsors projects. Companies want access to technology and highly trained students. This is another reason for setting up our centre - it is very helpful for industry, particularly in a relatively new area like biotechnology, to know where to go to obtain access to technology and students.
What discovery or achievement are you most proud of?
About six years ago we started doing some research that ultimately led to some key patents. We developed a general method for making optically pure molecules from racemic starting materials using biocatalysis. This is needed to make single enantiomer compounds for pharmaceutical applications. We took research from the lab through to a spin-out company, Ingenza, which is based in Edinburgh (UK). That was fantastic for me as it was the first example of getting basic research all the way through to the market place. Ultimately the company might make a molecule that goes into a pharmaceuticals which may cure diseases. So we could see the complete pipeline from research to development to process to perhaps saving someone's life. Chemists, unlike those working in medicine and biology, don't always get the opportunity to see their work all the way through to helping people or saving lives.
If you could solve any scientific problem in any field, what would it be?
The most important problem for me at the moment is to learn to live in a sustainable fashion. Biotechnology attracts me because I think there is a real opportunity and a real challenge to use this field to solve problems of sustainability, including food and fuel production. We can't just keep using fossil fuels until they run out, we must find a solution. We can't just be a net consumer. We have to return things back into the ecosystem to achieve a sustainable way of living.
What do you think is the secret to being a successful scientist?
The one thing I've learned is to pick an interesting problem. You're probably going to end up working on that problem for the next 10-20 years so picking the right one at the beginning is absolutely vital. If you pick the wrong one, though you work very hard on it, you might not actually solve a major challenge.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you do?
In my family, we are quite interested in bird-watching and the outdoors so maybe I'd do something completely different, such as work on a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve in Scotland looking after birds and wild animals.
Micro-scale process development of transaminase catalysed reactions
Matthew D. Truppo and Nicholas J. Turner, Org. Biomol. Chem., 2010, 8, 1280
Efficient kinetic resolution of racemic amines using a transaminase in combination with an amino acid oxidase
Matthew D. Truppo, Nicholas J. Turner and J. David Rozzell, Chem. Commun., 2009, 2127
Engineering and improvement of the efficiency of a chimeric [P450cam-RhFRed reductase domain] enzyme
Aélig Robin, Gareth A. Roberts, Johannes Kisch, Federico Sabbadin, Gideon Grogan, Neil Bruce, Nicholas J. Turner and Sabine L. Flitsch, Chem. Commun., 2009, 2478
Rapid screening and scale-up of transaminase catalysed reactions
Matthew D. Truppo, J. David Rozzell, Jeffrey C. Moore and Nicholas J. Turner, Org. Biomol. Chem., 2009, 7, 395
Nick Turner's homepage
University of Manchester, UK
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