Winner: 2022 Chemistry Biology Interface Division Horizon Prize: Rita and John Cornforth Award
For the development of tools for the fight against Covid-19.
Celebrate Team Nanobodies
A team led by The Rosalind Franklin Institute with collaborators from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford, Diamond Light Source and Public Health England have developed tools for the fight against Covid-19.
The team’s research has shown that nanobodies – a smaller, simple form of antibody generated by llamas and camels – can effectively target the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. They found that short chains of the molecules, which can be produced in large quantities in the laboratory, significantly reduced signs of the Covid-19 disease when administered to infected animal models.
This project was an amazing example of teamwork, everyone had their own role to play and they were able to slot into the team and drive this work forward. The biggest challenge of this project was to keep up morale, a lot of this work was done during the first lockdown when no one really knew what was going to happen. The problem felt urgent and the team wanted to move as fast as possible to make an impact but it wasn’t always that easy.
The teamSee full team
Babak Afrough, Senior Project Manager, Public Health England
Karen Buttigieg, Senior Project Team Leader, Public Health England
Oliver Carnell, Research Scientist, Public Health England
Loic Carrique, Senior CryoEM Staff Scientist, University of Oxford
Miles Carroll, Head of High Consequence Emerging Viruses Group, Public Health England
Daniel Clare, Principal EM Scientist, eBIC, Diamond Light Source
Jordan Clark, Post Doctoral Research Assistant, University of Liverpool
Naomi Coombes, Senior Virologist, Public Health England
Joshua Dormon, Lab Support Technician, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Maud Dumoux, Technology Lead for Cryo Imaging, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Helen Duyvesteyn, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford
Michael Elmore, Bioinformatician, Public Health England
Susan Fotheringham, Technical Manager, Public Health England
Javier Gilbert-Jaramillo, Lecturer, University of Oxford
Georgina Girt, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Structural Biology, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Yper Hall, General Project Manager, Public Health England
Adam Harding, Research Assistant, University of Oxford
Peter Harrison, Postdoctoral Research Associate in CryoEM, Membrane Protein Lab & eBIC, Diamond Light Source
Julian Hiscox, Chair in Infection and Global Health, University of Liverpool
Jiandong Huo, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford
William James, Professor, University of Oxford
Anja Kipar, Professor, University of Zurich
Michael Knight, PhD student, University of Oxford
Daniel Knott, Scientist, Public Health England
Abirami Lakshminarayanan, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford
Audrey Le Bas, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Biological Sample Preparation, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Tomas Malinauskas, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford
Halina Mikolajek, Research Fellow, Diamond Light Source
Lucile Moynié, Senior Scientist in Structural Biology and Protein Science, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
James Naismith, Director, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Didier Ngabo, Project Team Lead, Public Health England
Chelsea Norman, Lab Support Technician, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Andrew Owen, Professor, University of Liverpool
Raymond Owens, Head of Protein Production UK, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Tessa Prince, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Liverpool
Julika Radecke, EM Scientist, eBIC, Diamond Light Source
Jingshan Ren, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford
Pramlia Rijal, Senior Postdoctoral Scientist, University of Oxford
Reinis Ruza, PhD student, University of Oxford
Francisco Salguero, Veterinary Pathologist, Public Health England
Pranav Shah, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford
Parul Sharma, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, University of Liverpool
James Stewart, Professor, University of Liverpool
David Stuart, Director of Life Science, Diamond Light Source
Tiong Kit Tan, Research and Teaching Fellow, University of Oxford
Alain Townsend, Professor, University of Oxford
Julia Tree, Research Scientist, Public Health England
Vinod Vogirala, EM Scientist, eBIC, Diamond Light Source
Philip Ward, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Biological Sample Preparation, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Robert Watson, Senior Project Team Leader – High Containment Microbiology, Public Health England
Miriam Weckener, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Structural Biology, Rosalind Franklin Insitute
Yuguang Zhao, Senior Scientist, University of Oxford
Daming Zhou, Post Doctoral Research Associate, University of Oxford
What were the biggest challenges in this project?
Jim Naismith: The biggest challenge of this project was to keep up morale, a lot of this work was done during the first lockdown when no one really knew what was going to happen. The problem felt urgent and the team wanted to move as fast as possible to make an impact but it wasn’t always that easy. It was also difficult to find category 3 labs to do the virus and animal work, so we are grateful to our colleagues at University of Oxford, Public Health England and University of Liverpool for their assistance with this.
What different strengths did different people bring to the team?
Jim Naismith: This project was an amazing example of teamwork, everyone had their own role to play and they were all able to slot into the team and drive this work forward.
Why is this work so important and exciting?
Yper Hall: UKHSA were pleased to support RFI with pre-clinical testing of their product. The biggest challenge to us in achieving this, and reporting the data expediently, was the volume of COVID-19 activity happening at the time. It really was reliant upon many of our team going above and beyond.
We did this gladly and take great pride in providing data to support the product’s progression towards the clinic.
Where do you see the biggest impact of this technology/research being?
Dave Stuart: The virus behind the pandemic depends on numerous interactions within the virus particle and with the human body. Treatments for the disease target these interactions to block the virus. Investigating and understanding these interactions at the molecular level using facilities like Diamond underpins the development of new vaccines and drugs to combat the global pandemic and plays a key part in our preparedness to face future challenges.
How will this work be used in real life applications?
Ray Owens: Our work has shown the potential of engineered nanobodies for the diagnosis and treatment of viral diseases, exemplified by COVID-19. There is still a long way to go before these proof of concept studies could be translated into clinical use but the relatively low cost of manufacturing nanobody based products makes them attractive alternatives to human antibodies for many applications in medicine.
Jim Naismith: In terms of the Covid-19 nanobodies we have developed we hope to see them enter human trials soon.
More generally, I think the pandemic has highlighted the potential and accelerated the development of nanobodies as a novel therapeutic against respiratory diseases and playing a key role against any future pandemics caused respiratory viruses.
Ray Owens: It seems likely that more nanobody-based agents will enter clinical studies over the next few years complementing human antibodies that are already effective biopharmaceuticals. Novel uses of nanobody technology may come in diagnostics and non-invasive imaging, for which the application of chemistry and materials science will be important.
What is the importance of collaboration in the chemical sciences?
Ray Owens: As with all sciences, collaboration between scientists brings together complementary skills, different ideas and expertise which are necessary to tackle increasing complex problems that affect human health and the environment. The teamwork involved in tackling the Covid pandemic is a great example of this.
What does good research culture look like/mean to you?
Jim Naismith: I think good research culture is focusing on the quality of the output and valuing everyone’s contributions – not just within the science team but the work done by the operations team was incredibly important. They made sure that deliveries could made and so the work could continue, even in the middle of the lockdowns. People’s contributions are different but they are all important and should be valued.
How are the chemical sciences making the world a better place?
Jim Naismith: Chemistry will be needed to solve many of the world’s problems. We will new medicines to tackle the world’s health problems which can only be created with greater chemical understanding of disease. If we have any hope of reducing the burden of climate change and for the global south to see greater economic growth without causing environmental degradation, we will need the chemistry of materials will be required to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.
Why is chemistry important?
Ray Owens: For biologists, chemistry provides a mechanistic basis for understanding how (macro)molecules interact in living systems.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in chemistry?
Jim Naismith: Chemistry is the biggest science, it is useful in so many parts of our lives, so be broad minded about what chemistry is and where you could apply chemistry to help solve the world’s problems.
Audrey Le Bas: Chemistry is a wide, exciting subject that covers many areas. I would suggest trying to get experience in a variety of projects, especially in multi-disciplinary teams, to find out what you are the most interested in. Building a good network and working well as a team is essential. Don’t hesitate to be adventurous and to have fun. The more you enjoy your work, the better you will be at it.