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Revolutionary medical chemistry that is full of holes

Oxford Nanopore

One of the University of Oxford's most successful spin-outs, Oxford Nanopore, is exploiting cutting-edge chemistry to analyse proteins - a new technique that will streamline drug discovery.
Most pharmaceuticals work by interacting with proteins to stimulate or block their biological activity. The problem is that to develop well-targeted drugs requires an understanding of the structures of those proteins - research that is time-consuming and expensive. But a spin-out company from the University of Oxford promises a new form of analysis that offers unrivalled information about target proteins.

Technology developed by Oxford Nanopore (www.nanoporetech.com), which builds on the fundamental research of Professor Hagan Bayley from the Department of Chemistry, uses tiny holes called nanopores to characterise single molecules. When a molecule passes through a pore, or close to its aperture, it creates a characteristic disruption in electrical current which can be used to identify the molecule in question.

Oxford Nanopore has been developing an electronics platform – called GridION – that harnesses this method of electronic sensing using nanopores and scales it up. The company is perhaps most well known for its development of DNA sequencing technology, which supercedes a previous generation that relied on optics or amplified DNA samples - new technology which could bring DNA sequencing to a broader range of users. Indeed, the study of human and pathogen genomics is rapidly expanding, and clinical medicine is already starting to benefit from the genomics revolution brought about by these cost savings.

But the GridION platform can also be applied to protein sensing with nanopores, too. The method uses ligands - molecules that can bind specifically to a site on a target protein - to help identify the presence of a particular protein. Bound ligand-protein complexes create characteristic disruptions of the current running through nanopore sensors, and this interaction can provide detailed information about the presence, concentration and other properties of the protein. Because protein discovery currently uses separate, complex technologies, nanopore sensing can streamline the process by offering a single high performance, electronic analysis technique.

Oxford Nanopore are constantly looking to the future to anticipate developments in the field of nanopore-based analysis, too. In fact, to that end, they have formed collaborations and licensing deals with some of the world’s biggest centres of research: Boston University, The University of California Santa Cruz and even Harvard University. These collaborations give InhibOx exclusive access to hundreds of patents within the field of nanopore sensing - and others that provide cutting-edge insights inspiring their future developments.

Indeed, working with some of those findings, Oxford Nanopore are already redesigning their own technologies. Their first generation of nanopore sensing uses proteins to create holes in membranes formed from lipid bilayers. But future generations may combine protein nanopores with membranes made from synthetic materials, or even be fabricated entirely in synthetic materials to produce "solid-state" nanopores. Those advances look to provide even greater improvements to the cost and power of their systems – making Oxford Nanopore’s technologies the holy grail in life sciences analysis.