The Science Cities Research Alliance Fellows Programme has seen 32 researchers working on numerous projects within the core themes; Energy Futures, Advanced Materials and Translational Medicine. In 2009, Dr Matthew Gibson was appointed as a SCRA Research Fellow based in the Department of Chemistry.
“I was a postdoc working in Switzerland and looking for an academic job,” says Matt. “Warwick has a global reputation as a polymer-science centre of excellence and the chance to work in this environment encouraged me to apply. I was also strongly encouraged by my (now) colleagues in Warwick Chemistry.”
As Principal Investigator of the Gibson Group, Matt Gibson leads a team of 10 PhD students, two Post-Doctoral Research Assistants and several Master’s students. The key theme of the group is to develop new biomaterials solutions to the global challenges in regenerative medicine and infectious disease. One particular aspect of Dr Gibson’s work is in the field of cryopreservation; specifically the development of antifreeze-proteins to enhance cellular, and ultimately, organ storage.
“Many polar fish species survive in cold waters by producing antifreeze proteins, which can slow the rate of growth of ice crystals,” says Matthew, “however, the mechanism by which these proteins function is not fully understood. Ice crystal growth during thawing is a major contributor to the failure of cryopreservation techniques, suggesting that antifreeze proteins, or their mimics, could enhance cryopreservation.”
To address this, Dr Gibson’s group is developing synthetic polymers (large molecules with similar dimensions to proteins) which can reproduce the properties of antifreeze proteins. The group is particularly interested in blood cryopreservation – this is the most widely transplanted material, but it can only be stored for 28 days. Longer-term storage requires the addition of ‘traditional’ antifreezes which require large volumes. The ability to enhance the storage of blood, or other cells, using simple, scalable and tunable synthetic polymers can have huge impact in the future.
“I had a plan that we wanted to do some interesting synthetic polymer chemistry (of which Warwick is perhaps the largest European centre) to reproduce biological function using chemical tools,” remembers Matt. “I decided at an early stage that we wanted to study the biology, and I was fortunate that my first PhD student was joint with colleagues in the Medical School (Dan Mitchel) and UHCW (Manu Vatish).
“We managed to communicate across the ‘discipline barrier’ and plan experiments so that we could get the biological validation before committing to a lot of synthesis. This turned out to be very conducive to seeing ‘what was possible’ and allowing us to engage with external people at an early stage. Key to this success was having the right team in place, and without the support and insight of Dan and Manu at an early stage (for a project which no doubt sounded ambitious and underfunded!), this would not have gone ahead with such success.
“The moment we managed to actually get some recovery of blood cells following freezing was pretty amazing. This project was slow though and we did a lot of learning and testing of conditions. We have improved our knowledge to the point that we recently developed a new cryopreserving polymer, using a cheap and efficient processes and used it to store blood – this work took under 6 months from start to finish, as opposed to 4 years for the first one.”
The other memorable breakthroughs are in the Gibson Group’s research relating to infection diagnostics. Again, by taking the approach of working with the right collaborators, the group has an exciting system for rapid identification of bacteria or their toxins – again underpinned by world-class materials-polymer science and detailed analysis of the materials produced.
“Despite this being a biomedical project, we characterise all our materials and make extensive use of SCRA equipment in Warwick’s Chemistry and Physics departments, which lends world-leading analytical capacity to our project.”
Dr Gibson’s work has been attracting acclaim from its earliest days. In 2012 he was awarded a Royal Society of Chemistry MacroGroup Young Researchers Medal, and in 2014 won the Life Sciences category of the RSC’s Emerging Technologies Competition, recognising the translational potential of his research. Earlier in 2015, Dr Gibson received the RSC/Dextra Medal (for carbohydrate chemist under 40 years old) and the Polymers for Advanced Technology ‘Young Talent’ Award.
As SCRA comes to a close, Dr Gibson hopes to see the Gibson Group continue to make strides.
“We moved into a suite of 3 new labs last year, enabling us do to the synthetic, analytical and cell biology which is required on a daily basis. I have 5 new PhDs and 2 postdocs joining my group in the coming months, on projects ranging from antifreeze related work, to infection, to biomimetic drug delivery. My group is now well-funded by a range of sources including EPSRC, BBSRC, MRC, Royal Society, Innovate UK and The Leverhulme Trust.
“Thanks to an “ERC” grant I have 5 years of funding which will enable my group to really ask tough scientific questions with the stability of long term funding. This is crucial, as it lets us do long and challenging experiments rather than just aim for the low hanging fruit. I was also fortunate to receive a Noreen Murray Award – funded by philanthropic donations to the University – to support early-stage, innovative research. We also work with companies on translational aspects of our research. In total, we have received over £2 million worth of grant funding in the past few years.”
The antifreeze work has been a slow process, and the group has had to learn several new skills, whilst keeping an open mind and being creative.
“I’ve learned that good research can take time! The most important lesson was to speak with the end users – medics – to ensure that the problem we’re solving is a real one, that they want new solutions and what they might look like. This ensures that once we have proof of principle we have a plan to take it forward. This is not to say that fundamental studies are not crucial also – we often do experiments because they are fun and we do not know what they answer will be. ‘Friday afternoon science’ is often the most innovative!
But what about the future of the project? The goal of the Gibson Group is to have a viable product, which enables the removal or at least significant reduction of the amount of organic solvent required for traditional freezing, by adding custom-made polymers.
“In general, cryopreservation is a huge healthcare challenge – there’s always a shortage of donor material,” explains Matt. “Continuing this research will mean that the availability and volume of cells and tissue for transplantation will increase, and new tools will be developed to improve fundamental bioscience. It will also support the understanding of using synthetic molecules to mimic biological function – materials that can mimic proteins could not only improve our understanding of that protein, but also be applied to real-world problems.”