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Smart coatings and sensors to guard against infection

Copyright: Andy Simmons on Flickr by CC 2.0

The path of discovery is rarely straightforward. In the case of Dr Curtis Dobson from The University of Manchester, his work on proteins related to Alzheimer’s disease led to a new class of anti-infective compounds. Unusually, they are effective against bacteria, fungi and viruses, rather than being confined to only one or two groups.

Dobson formed the spin-out company Ai2 in 2005 to commercialise the BBSRC-funded science, which found an early market being applied to contact lenses, which can cause blindness and visual impairment when infected. The smart coating technology is now used in other biomedical applications such as hospital instruments and for advanced wound care.

In the early 2000s, Dobson and colleagues found that some peptide chains, the smaller building blocks of proteins, had anti-viral action. They then modified the peptide sequences so they would stick more readily to different surfaces. “We got them to stick to other polymers and hydrogel surfaces, and that really opened up the doors to commercialising seriously,” says Dobson.

Data breakout

6000 Estimated number of people who lose their vision, or visual acuity, globally each year from contact lens infection
8 Number of granted Ai2 patent families in Europe or the US
£2.5M Total value of venture capital investment in Ai2 by 2013

They then secured a two-year BBSRC SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) grant. “That really transformed things and allowed us to put serious effort into developing the peptides as coatings for medical devices and care solutions.” It led to development projects with companies in the sector and a major multi-million pound deal with Sauflon Pharmaceuticals in 2010.

They also utilised BBSRC CASE studentships that helped demonstrate the effectiveness of peptides compared to other traditional biocides. A second PhD student looked at the mechanism of action of the peptides, an important as part of the regulatory process. “BBSRC helped backfill some of the fundamental science while we progressed with the commercialisation,” says Dobson.

Dobson and colleagues have since gone on to develop new devices and the company MicroBioSensor. One of its products is a 5mm sensor that reveals a deep blue colour change when certain microbiological parameters are met – such as infectious bacteria. This is still under development using BBSRC Follow-on Funding with the first product expected to be CE marked (European Conformity) in 2016. The technology could be widely used in everything from medicine to food packing to indicate spoilage by bacteria or fungi.

Curtis’ group has also received funding from other agencies, such as a £100k grant from the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) for a proof-of-concept project to re-engineer Ai2's peptides for use in oral care. For this work he won the BBSRC Commercial Innovator of the Year award in 2014. Read a feature Q&A for more.


Header image copyright: Andy Simmons on Flickr by CC 2.0