EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Technology Enhanced Chemical Synthesis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Chemistry

Abstract

Synthesis, the science of making molecules, is central to human wellbeing through its ability to produce new molecules for use as medicines and materials. Every new drug, whether an antibiotic or a cancer treatment, is based on a molecular structure designed and built using the techniques of synthesis. Synthesis is a complex activity, in which bonds between atoms are formed in a carefully choreographed way, and training to a doctoral level is needed to produce scientists with this expertise. Our proposed CDT is tailored towards training the highly creative, technologically skilled scientists essential to the pharmaceutical, biotech, agrochemical and materials sectors, and to many related areas of science which depend on novel molecules.

Irrespective of the ingenuity of the synthetic chemist, synthesis is often the limiting step in the development of a new product or the advance of new molecular science. This hurdle has been overcome in some areas by automation (e.g. peptides and DNA), but the operational complexity of a typical synthetic route in, say, medicinal chemistry has hampered the wider use of the technology. Recent developments in the fields of automation, machine learning (ML), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) now make possible a fundamental change in the way molecules are designed and made, and we propose in this CDT to engineer a revolution in the way that newly trained researchers approach synthetic chemistry, creating a new generation of pioneering innovators. Making use of Bristol's extensive array of automated synthetic equipment, flow reactors, peptide synthesisers, and ML Retrosynthesis Tool, students will learn and appreciate this cutting-edge technology-driven program, its potential and its limitations.

Bristol has outstanding facilities, equipment and expertise to deliver this training. At its core will be a state-of-the-art research experience in our world-leading research groups, which will form the majority of the 4-year CDT training period. For the 8 months prior to choosing their project, students with complete a unique, multifaceted Technology & Automation Training Experience (TATE). They will gain hands-on experience in advanced techniques in synthesis, automation, modelling and virtual reality. In conjunction with our Dynamic Laboratory Manual (DLM), the students will also expand their experience and confidence with interactive, virtual versions of essential experimental techniques, using simulations, videos, tutorials and quizzes to allow them to learn from mistakes quickly, effectively and safely before entering the lab. In parallel, they will develop their teamworking, leadership and thinking skills through brainstorming and problemsolving sessions, some of them led by our industrial partners. Brainstorming involves the students generating ideas on outline proposals which they then present to the project leaders in a lively and engaging interactive feedback session, which invariably sees new and student-driven ideas emerge. By allowing students to become fully engaged with the projects and staff, brainstorming ensures that students take ownership of a PhD proposal from the start and develop early on a creative and collaborative atmosphere towards problem solving. TATE also provides a formal assessment mechanism, allow the students to make a fully informed choice of PhD project, and engages them in the use of the key innovative techniques of automation, machine learning and virtual reality that they will build on during their projects.

We will integrate into our CDT direct interaction and training from entrepreneurs who themselves have taken scientific ideas from the lab into the market. By combining our expertise in synthesis training with new training platforms in automation, ML/AI/VR and entrepreneurship this new CDT will produce graduates better able to navigate the fast-changing chemical landscape.

Planned Impact

1. PEOPLE: We will train students with skills that are in demand across a spectrum of industries from pharma/biotech to materials, as well as in academia, law and publishing. The enhanced experience they receive - through interactive brainstorming, problem and dragons' den type business sessions - will equip them with confidence in their own abilities and fast-track their leadership skills. 100% Employment of students from the previous CDT in Chemical Synthesis is indicative of the high demand for the skills we provide, but as start-ups and SMEs become increasingly important in the healthcare, medicine and energy sectors, training in IP, entrepreneurship and commercialisation will stimulate our students to explore their own ventures. Automation and machine learning are set to transform the workplace in the next 20 years, and our students will be in the vanguard of those primed to make best use of these shifts in work patterns. Our graduates will have an open and entrepreneurial mindset, willing to seek solution to problems that cross disciplines and require non-traditional approaches to scientific challenges.

2. ECONOMY: Built on the country's long history of scientific ingenuity and creativity, the >£50bn turnover and annual trade surplus of £5 bn makes the British chemical sector one of the most important creators of wealth for the national economy. Our proposal to integrate training in chemical synthesis with emerging fields such as automation/AI/ML will ensure that the UK maintains this position of economic strength in the face of rapidly developing competition. With the field of drug development desperately looking for innovative new directions, we will disseminate, through our proposed extensive industrial stakeholders, smarter and more efficient ways of designing and implementing molecular synthesis using automation, machine learning and virtual reality interfaces. This will give the UK the chance to take a world-leading position in establishing how molecules may be made more rapidly and economically, how compound libraries may be made broader in scope and accessed more efficiently, and how processes may be optimized more quickly and to a higher standard of resilience. Chemical science underpins an estimated 21% of the economy (>£25bn sales; 6 million people), so these innovations have the potential for far-reaching transformative impact.

3. SCIENCE: The science emerging from our CDT will continue to be at the highest academic level by international standards, as judged by an outstanding publication record. Incorporating automation, machine learning, and virtual reality into the standard toolkit of chemical synthesis would initiate a fundamental change in the way molecules are made. Automated methods for making limited classes of molecules (eg peptides) have transformed related biological fields, and extending those techniques to allow a wide range of small molecules to be synthesized will stimulate not only chemistry but also related pivotal fields in the bio- and materials sciences. Synthesis of the molecular starting points is often the rate-limiting step in innovation. Removing this hurdle will allow selection of molecules according to optimal function, not ease of synthesis, and will accelerate scientific progress in many sectors.

4. SOCIETY: Health benefits will emerge from the ability of both academia and the pharmaceutical industry to generate drug targets more rapidly and innovatively. Optimisation of processes opens the way for advances in energy efficiency and resource utilization by avoiding non-renewable, environmentally damaging, or economically volatile feedstocks. The societal impact of automation will extend more widely to the freeing of time to allow more creative working and also recreational pastimes. We thus aim to be among the pioneers in a new automation-led working model, and our students will be trained to think through the broader consequences of automation for society as a whole

Publications

10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S024107/1 01/10/2019 31/03/2028
2275232 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Alice Catherine Dean
2278741 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Yifan Jennifer Jiang
2278808 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Mehul Harice Jesani
2278676 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Jean-Paul Heeb
2275511 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Connah John Harris
2273438 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Christopher John Cope
2278690 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Joseph Heeley
2278801 Studentship EP/S024107/1 23/09/2019 30/09/2023 Vanessa Mary Juba