Design and Synthesis of Ion Transporters for 3D Spatiotemporal Control in Synthetic Tissue

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford


Synthetic tissues comprise patterned two- or three-dimensional collections of communicating compartments, where each compartment resembles a natural cell with an aqueous interior surrounded by a lipid bilayer membrane. The artificial compartments may contain various natural and synthetic components in order to mimic natural cellular processes. These synthetic tissues have significant potential applications in tissue engineering, new drug delivery platforms, and as micro-sized reaction vessels. A current challenge is to fabricate synthetic tissues with functional components that can be remote-controlled by various external stimuli, such as chemical signals, light, or pH. In particular, responsive molecular components that can be used to precisely regulate the flow of molecules and ions between these compartments are lacking. These transport processes across membranes in artificial compartments mimic those found in biology, where ion transport across cell membranes is mediated by membrane proteins, which are themselves regulated by external stimuli such as by signalling molecules, membrane potential and light. Developing artificial mimics of these proteins, known as synthetic ion transporters, is an area of significant current research because they also offer potential therapeutic applications for diseases that arise from malfunctioning ion channels, such as cystic fibrosis, as anticancer agents.

In this project, we aim to develop responsive ion transporters, whose activity can be regulated by multiple external stimuli such as light, and apply these systems within synthetic tissues. The aim is to develop responsive, artificial transporters that can be prepared readily using synthetic chemistry, to engineer functional synthetic tissues and control inter-compartment transport.

This project falls within the EPSRC themes of 'manufacturing the future' and 'physical sciences', and relates to the area of "synthetic supramolecular chemistry" and "synthetic biology". By developing controllable tissue-like materials, there is significant potential to contribute to the goals of "Productive and Healthy Nation Outcomes" and "develop future therapeutic technologies".

Planned Impact

The primary impact of the OxICFM CDT will be the highly-trained world-class scientists that it delivers. This impact will encompass both the short term (during their doctoral studies), the medium term (subsequent employment) and ultimately the longer timescale defined by their future careers and consequent impact on science, engineering and policy in the UK.

The impact of OxICFM students during their doctoral studies will be measured by the culture change in graduate training that the Centre brings about - in working at the interface between inorganic synthesis and manufacturing, and fostering cross-sector industry/academia working practices. By embedding not only from larger companies, but also SMEs, we have developed a training regime that has broader relevance across the sector, and the potential for building bridges by fostering new collaborations spanning enormous diversity in scientific focus and scale. Moreover, at a broader level, OxICFM offers to play a unique role as a major focus (and advocate) for manufacturing engagement with academic inorganic synthetic science in the UK.

From a scientific perspective, OxICFM will be uniquely able to offer a broad training programme incorporating innovative and challenging collaborative projects spanning all aspects of fundamental and applied inorganic synthesis, both molecular and materials based (40+ faculty). These will address key challenges in areas such as energy provision/storage, catalysis, and resource provision/renewal necessary to enhance the capability and durability of UK plc in the medium term. To give some idea of perspective, the output from previous CDTs in Oxford's MPLS Division include two start-up companies and in excess of 30 patents.

It is not only in the industrial and scientific realms that students will have impact during their timeframe of their doctorate. Part of the training programme will be in public engagement: team-based challenges in resource development/training and outreach exercises/implementation will form part of the annual summer school. These in turn will constitute a key part of the impact derived from the CDT by its engagement with the public - both face-to-face and through electronic/web-based media. As the centre matures, our aspiration is that our students - from diverse backgrounds - will act as ambassadors for the programme and promote even higher levels of inclusion from all parts of society.

For our partners, and businesses both large and small in the manufacturing sector, it will be our students who are considered the ultimate output of the OxICFM CDT. Our programme has been shaped by the need of such companies (frequently expressed in preliminary discussions) to recruit doctoral graduates who can apply themselves to a broad spectrum of multi-disciplinary challenges in manufacturing-related synthesis. OxICFM's cohort-based training programme integrates significant industry-led training components and has been designed to deliver a much broader skill set than standard PhD schemes. The current lack of CDT training at the interface of inorganic chemistry and manufacturing (and the relevance of inorganic molecules/materials to numerous industrial sectors) heightens the need for - and the potential impact of - the OxICFM CDT. Our students will represent a tangible and valuable asset to meet the long-term skills demand for scientists to develop new materials and nanotechnology identified in the UK Government's 2013 Foresight report.

In the longer term, the broad and relevant training delivered by OxICFM, and the uniquely wide perspective of the manufacturing sector it will deliver, will allow our graduates to obtain (and thrive in) positions of significant responsibility in industry and in research facilities/institutes. Ultimately we believe that many will go on to be future research leaders, driving innovation and changing research culture, and thereby making a lasting contribution to the UK economy.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S023828/1 31/03/2019 29/09/2027
2580921 Studentship EP/S023828/1 30/09/2021 29/09/2025 Kelly Britton