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Funding boost for biological chemistry research

Posted on 21 January 2014

New funding is allowing chemists at the University of York to further develop software underpinning research in the pharmaceutical industry and academic laboratories worldwide.

A double-helix of RNA, life’s information messenger, showing the result of the X-ray experiment (a mesh of electron density) and an atomic model built automatically using Dr Cowtan's software

Dr Kevin Cowtan, of the University's Structural Biology Laboratory, has been awarded a £470,000 five-year research fellowship from the industrial income of Collaborative Computational Project Number 4 in Protein Crystallography (CCP4), a project hosted by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

CCP4 is a long-running project developing software used to determine the three-dimensional structures of biomolecules (proteins and nucleic acids) by macromolecular X-ray crystallography (MX). Crystallography is a technique which can provide the most detailed structural information about a molecule. Dr Cowtan also heads the York element of a successful consortium bid to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for continued funding of CCP4.

Structures derived through MX make a key contribution to scientists' understanding of how proteins work, which provides the basis for applications in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Dr Cowtan said: “MX is an important tool in drug development, enabling the detailed design of drugs tailored to alter the action of biomolecules by blocking or promoting the chemical processes which the target molecule performs.  X-ray structure determination requires intensive computational analysis, and the CCP4 software enables the biotech companies undertaking drug development to determine structures of protein-ligand complexes more effectively.”

The CCP4 team includes researchers from York, Newcastle, Kent, Leeds, Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the core group based at the STFC laboratory at Harwell. The software package, which was developed by a team including Dr Cowtan, is licensed nationally and internationally to industrial users in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors.