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Professor Ben Davis

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Professor Ben Davis approaches chemistry differently to most: he takes inspiration from basic biology, letting the natural world guide his research. But that’s not the only way in which he’s different form your typical scientist, because to meet Ben is to realise that he’s a fast-talking, infectiously enthusiastic character, who is both engaging and incredibly articulate as he talks about his science.

In fact, Ben’s infectious enthusiasm for fundamental science is rivalled only by an understated ability to transform his cutting-edge chemistry into commercially successful spin-outs. His research team study how carbohydrates become attached to organic molecules, a concept known as glycosylation, as well as new ways of building proteins using chemistry - work that is of huge interest to the pharmaceutical industry.

Understanding how to build artificial proteins - the molecules that are essential to life - could transform synthetic biology from laboratory-based speculation into useful technology. The fact that Ben’s team has developed a way of accurately modifying protein structures using, for example, sugars is having a profound impact on chemistry and biology.

In the same way that synthetic drugs mimic the properties of naturally occurring substances, this technique makes it possible to create synthetic proteins - a notion that could revolutionise medicine, since there is already evidence that they may be used to slow cancers or kill off HIV. The process shows such promise that Ben created the spin-out Glycoform in 2003, with $2m in initial venture funding, to take the work to a commercial level.

But he’s not resting on its laurels. More recently, the group have investigated how sugar molecules bind to areas of inflammation in the brain. These lesions can be the early warning sign of multiple sclerosis, but are difficult to spot until they’re so large that it is too late.

Working with partners in physiology, pharmacology and the John Radcliffe hospital, Ben and his team have created molecules that bind to lesions but show up better on MRI scans. Using the group’s chemical techniques to attach iron oxide particles to sugars that bind to inflamed tissue, it is now possible to see lesions even a few cells in size. The concept might be used to identify early-stage brain-cancers too, an idea that spin-out Oxford Contrast are set to explore.

It seems fitting, then, that Ben was named one of the finalists in the BBSRC’s Innovators of the Year competition in 2010. But with an endless pool of inspiration to be found in nature, and that insatiable enthusiasm for fundamental science, Ben is only just hitting his stride.