Dr James Wilton-Ely CChem FRSC
Winner: 2021 Dalton Division mid-career Award: Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson Award
Imperial College London
For contributions to the application of metals in biological sensing and medical imaging.
Celebrate Dr James Wilton-Ely
Carbon monoxide (CO) is known for its toxicity by inhalation, so it is perhaps surprising that it is actually generated in the body as a gaseous messenger to regulate cellular processes. Since this discovery, much remains unknown about its role and mode of action, partly due to the difficulty in detecting CO in cells. Elevated levels of CO in cells are known to be an indicator of disease and inflammation and so its measurement provides important diagnostic information.
With collaborators at Imperial College and in Spain, Dr Wilton-Ely's research group have applied their successful design of sensitive and selective probes for CO sensing in air to the monitoring of this gas in cells. Detection by microscope is achieved using the fluorescence response of the probe, which ‘lights up’ with CO under light of the right wavelength. This fluorescent unit can also act as a ‘molecular rotor’, which rotates at different rates depending on the viscosity of the surrounding cellular medium. The rate of rotation leads to a variation in the lifetime of the fluorescence observed and this can be calibrated to measure viscosity. Using this novel approach, simultaneous readings of both CO and viscosity in cells have been achieved for the first time.The group are currently working with cancer researchers to explore the role of CO in immune suppression, which could lead to more effective cancer treatments.
This innovation could also allow relatively low-cost equipment (such as a microscope with a suitable light source) to be used to provide information on both these markers of disease, for example in biopsies, without the need for analysis in a specialist lab. The relatively low cost instrumentation needed could make a significant difference for diagnosis in parts of the world where specialist labs are only available in major cities.Read winner biography
Dr James Wilton-Ely grew up in Yorkshire and attended Beverley Grammar School, where Smithson Tennant FRS, discoverer of the elements iridium and osmium, was a former pupil. He received his BSc in Chemistry with a Year in Europe from Imperial College London, spending his year abroad in Florence, Italy. He remained at Imperial College for his PhD studies with Professor Tony Hill. Following a position as a Fixed-Term Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry at the same institution, he was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship to work with Professor Hubert Schmidbaur at the Technical University Munich.
James returned to the UK to work with Professor David Cole Hamilton at the University of St Andrews. This was followed by an independent Ramsay Fellowship at University College London (2003–5) before moving to Oxford University in 2005 as Fitzjames Fellow in Inorganic Chemistry at the Chemistry Research Laboratory and Merton College. In 2009, he was appointed to a Lectureship at Imperial College London, where he is currently Reader in Inorganic Chemistry. He leads a team of 16 researchers investigating the application of metal complexes and metal nanoparticles to sensing (of carbon monoxide and heavy metals), medical imaging (MRI, PET, optical) and catalysis (platform chemicals from biomass and recovery and reuse of metals). He is a Director of the MRes in Green Chemistry and founded the MRes in Catalysis and the MRes in Advanced Molecular Synthesis courses at Imperial College. He is currently Director of Postgraduate Studies for the department.
How did you first become interested in chemistry?
As I am sure is the case for many others, my interest in the subject was kindled by two fantastic chemistry teachers, Dr Chris Moody and Dr Mike Scrowston. Dr Moody was an inspirational chemistry teacher at my state school, while Dr Scrowston was an academic at the University of Hull, who tutored students interested in chemistry at the school in his spare time. I owe both of them a great debt. In particular, the opportunity to do practical experiments was an important factor. I still recall making nylon in a test tube, dipping a matchstick into the solution and winding the polymer formed round the match!
What motivates you?
For me, the greatest part to being an academic is coming into work (physically or virtually!) and never knowing what news there will be from the enormously talented team of researchers in my group. As I rarely get the chance to do anything in the lab, I enjoy their discoveries vicariously!
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in chemistry?
Much of chemistry is about making things, whether they are pharmaceuticals, polymers, energy materials or catalysts and there will always be a need for creative and innovative people who can do this. Many of the challenges we face in healthcare, energy and the environment rely on constructing molecules or materials for specific applications through a knowledge of their fundamental properties.
What has been a challenge for you (either personally or in your career)?
Making time to spend with the family and our children. With a laptop and a smart phone always present (on holiday too!), it is easy to lose the perspective of what is important.
What does good research culture look like/mean to you?
It is one that makes the most of all the talent out there and embraces researchers from all different backgrounds. It is also one in which everyone has the opportunity to propose ideas and be heard. This research culture does not just happen – it needs to be fostered.
What is your favourite element?
Osmium – heavier sibling of ruthenium and, in my experience, it has a more reliable and considered chemical character. I am proud to have made contributions to the chemistry of osmium given that it was discovered by a predecessor at my school (Smithson Tennant)!