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High Tech In The Glens

Scotland starts to reap success from nano- and biotechnology

by Patricia L. Short
April 2, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 14

Credit: Lumicure
Lumicure has developed bandages that treat cancer with light.
Credit: Lumicure
Lumicure has developed bandages that treat cancer with light.

Scotland is famous for its whisky, haggis, and golf. But Scotland, part of the U.K., wants to be equally well-known for its research and innovation in two very high-tech areas: nanotechnology and biotechnology.

For those in the region who concern themselves about economic development, the reasons for this ambition are simple. Nano- and biotech are important to the life sciences, and that field, in turn, is an important segment of the Scottish economy. The life sciences now employ nearly 30,000 people, and business in the sector is growing 7–8% annually, four times the average growth rate of the Scottish economy as a whole.

Several of the region's economic development programs are designed to support basic research in biotechnology and nanotechnology. Officials want to encourage the spin-off of small companies that will commercialize new ideas and, importantly, bridge the gap between research and the marketplace.

One means of effecting this transition is Scotland's Proof of Concept initiative, which helps entrepreneurs with the steps between initial scientific discovery and first prototype.

Moreover, Scottish Enterprise, the government's economic development agency, is putting $35 million into the Translational Medicine Research Collaboration, a joint venture with pharmaceutical giant Wyeth. The $100 million collaboration—between Wyeth; the Universities of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee; and health boards in Scotland—will feature a core research laboratory hosted by Dundee University. The goal is to bridge the gap between laboratory-based drug discovery and new therapies being developed in the clinic.

The Scottish government also has formed a venture-funding unit that investigates commercial possibilities for Scottish research, then commissions the work needed to develop products and services that can then be sold to specific markets. One arm of the unit, ITI Life Sciences, creates, funds, and manages early-stage R&D programs to generate intellectual assets that can be commercialized by existing or start-up companies (C&EN, July 31, 2006, page 36). Founded in 2004, ITI so far has committed nearly $90 million to its R&D programs.

In nanotechnology, the Scottish government is working to build an infrastructure that supports researchers who have commercialization on their minds. A major example is Kelvin Nanotechnology (KNT), set up in 1997 as a subsidiary of the University of Glasgow. Last year, KNT opened the $10 million James Watt Nanofabrication Center.

The center, which serves research collaborations and commercial enterprises, features clean room space to produce nanofabricated devices for the semiconductor, optoelectronic, bioelectronic, and nanoelectronic industries. KNT Business Manager Brendan Casey says the center is particularly experienced in fabricating prototypes for tissue engineering, micro- and nanofluidics, and lab-on-a-chip applications.

KNT projects range from evaluation of gallium arsenide semiconductor capabilities to thermocouple sensors for diagnostic tests. KNT investigators also are exploring microfabrication technologies in a variety of applications. In one, for example, nanorows imprinted in a "smart bandage" help channel tendon fiber regrowth, encouraging tendon repair and minimizing scarring.

But KNT's labs have size limits. When projects require large-scale production, Casey says, KNT hands them over to its sister company, Photonix.

Frank Tooley, Photonix's chief executive officer, explains that his company is a not-for-profit joint venture founded in 1998 by Scottish Enterprise and the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. He describes the company as an open-access fabrication facility that provides technical and other support resources needed by microsystems researchers and companies to transform their ideas into commercially viable projects.

In partnership with KNT, Photonix embarked last June on establishing the $2.5 million international Nanotechnology Center of Excellence. Supported by Scottish Enterprise and the U.K. Department of Trade & Industry, the center will enable KNT and Photonix to offer customer companies a comprehensive fabrication service ranging from small-scale prototyping and medium-volume production.

One Photonix project involves developing GaAs transistors in conjunction with Austin, Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor. "The world's fastest GaAs transistors are fabricated here," Tooley boasts. Other projects tackle quantum-dot technology for solar cells and photonic crystal structures, which enable brighter light-emitting diodes by controlling the scattering of emitted light.

Photonic crystals also are a part of the technology portfolio of the Interdisciplinary Center for Medical Photonics, a joint project founded in November 2003 by the School of Physics & Astronomy and Bute Medical School, both at the University of St. Andrews, and by Dundee University School of Medicine. Kishan Dholakia, a professor of physics and astronomy, says the center pools research in femtosecond lasers, photonic crystals, organic light sources, optical trapping, and photoporation, in which researchers use light to make tiny holes in cells.

"We are looking at blue-sky research," Dholakia says of the center's work. "That's where the new developments come from. But we also work with others regarding commercialization." When applied to the life sciences field, he points out, "biophotonics is like a Swiss Army knife with lots of utensils."

Optical trapping, for example, is used to sort and separate cells, including red and white blood cells and stem cells. And photoporation can be harnessed to inject drugs directly into cells.

Light is the key to a new product being commercialized by Lumicure, a 2004 spin-off from St. Andrews and Dundee's Ninewells research hospital.

According to Andrew McNeill, principal scientist at Lumicure, the company was formed to develop an organic optoelectronic nanomaterial for a portable light-emitting bandage that can be used to treat skin cancer. According to the center's statistics, skin cancers will affect about 15% of Britons, 40% of Americans, and 75% of Australians sometime during their lifetimes.

Lumicure's technology builds on photodynamic therapy, in which a lesion is covered with a cream—typically containing 5-aminolevulinic acid, which is metabolized by skin cells into light-sensitive protoporphyrin 9 (PP9). In healthy skin, the PP9 is immediately converted into a non-light-sensitive compound, but in the tumor, the PP9 concentration builds. Light interacts with the PP9 to form singlet oxygen, which then savages cancerous cells.

Such treatment, McNeill says, is noninvasive, shows high tumor selectivity, and can offer excellent cosmetic benefits. Currently, however, photodynamic therapy requires expensive light sources, can be painful, and must be administered on a hospital outpatient basis.

In Lumicure's photodynamic bandage, a light-emitting polymer is sandwiched between two anodes, as in the organic light-emitting diode displays already on the market. Developed by St. Andrews physicist Ifor Samuel and dermatology consultant James Ferguson, head of the photobiology unit at Ninewells hospital, Lumicure's bandages feature a portable light source powered by a pocket-sized battery. The resulting bandage is lightweight, flexible, and light-emitting. It can be worn on any part of the body, all day, without a hospital visit.

The company has conducted two sets of clinical trials and is working to secure funding for full-scale trials aimed at securing approvals from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and its European counterparts.

In another life sciences area, the Scottish government is investing nearly $50 million in a $120 million Center for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) to be developed by the University of Edinburgh. This center in turn will be part of a $1 billion Center for Biomedical Research (CBR) being built in Edinburgh to provide R&D facilities, manufacturing capacity, and commercialization facilities.

Researchers at CRM will explore the basic mechanisms of stem cell regulation. Their goal will be to develop new treatments and stem cells and their derivatives for clinical trials.

One potential source of stem cells is Roslin Cells in a nearby Edinburgh suburb. A spin-off from Roslin Institute, Roslin Cells has received a $4 million investment from Scottish Enterprise to provide stem cells for research.

"We will sell stem cells for cash but with no controls after that," says Harry Griffin, the soon-to-retire CEO of Roslin Institute. He wants to allow researchers and companies to move to product development and commercialization without a complex legal web of ownership or licensing issues.

The institute's focus is on genetic variations in farm-animal species. However, 11 years ago, it hit the headlines when it became involved in a project to develop transgenic animals that could express human proteins in their milk. Its researchers cloned a sheep from a collection of mammary-gland cells; one wag named the ewe Dolly, in honor of the country-and-western singer Dolly Parton.

Griffin was CEO of Roslin Institute at that time. "We weren't particularly eager to clone sheep; we wanted to convert cells into animals," he recalls. But the achievement "catapulted the institute into the public eye. You can anticipate some interest, but we never anticipated so much. This place was besieged by the press, and the controversy lasted about four years."

Griffin is clearly relieved that, as he puts it, "the institute has moved on."

In four years, Roslin will become part of a new veterinary school under construction in Edinburgh. The school will have about 1,000 students, some 450 research and support staff, and more than $100 million in research investment. "That will give us an intellectual critical mass," he says.

A critical mass of minds, innovation, expertise, money, and other factors that make technology real is, of course, highly important. After all, Scotland's strategic vision for 2020 is subtitled "Achieving Critical Mass."

If Scotland can achieve that goal, it should be as well-known for its expertise in life sciences as it is for whisky and golf.


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