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When chemistry gets personal

Posted on 27 April 2018

A major feature article, published in Chemical Communications, tells the very personal story of research carried out in Professor David Smith’s research team over the past 12 years.

Smith Group research article featured in Chemical Communications.

In 2005, Professor David Smith met his future husband, Sam, who has cystic fibrosis. As a result of this, Dave was inspired to redirect the focus of his fundamental chemical knowledge, and apply it directly to try and solve relevant biomedical problems.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease and Dave therefore became interested in gene therapy treatments in which a healthy copy of the gene would be carried into a patient’s cells. This process requires a carrier system, which Dave proposed would be self-assembled from simple molecules – a chemical solution to the problem. Following fundamental investigation of DNA binding and gene delivery, Dave is currently translating this research towards a clinical setting.

In 2011, Sam’s lung function declined to the point at which he required a lung transplant. Transplantation procedures present many challenges; two of the biggest problems are the fact that many patients sadly die on the waiting list, and that even after a successful operation, the new organ can be rejected by the patient’s immune system. After Sam’s successful transplant, inspired by the need to solve these problems, Dave decided to develop smart self-assembled materials to support and encourage the growth and differentiation of stem cells. In principle, a patient’s stem cells could then be used to grow their own organs on demand, with no problems of rejection. This fundamental research, funded by EPSRC, is at an early stage in Dave’s labs, but already his smart self-assembled gel materials can do unique and interesting things.

In all of Dave's research, he uses his toolkit of chemical self-assembly to generate solutions to biological problems. In the process, he has developed a number of new concepts. One of them, self-assembled multivalency (SAMul), is named after his husband.

The new feature article tells the full personal story of Dave’s recent research and explores both the journey towards eventual applications and the innovative concepts that have emerged from it. Some of Dave’s fundamental insights have been highly influential and gone on to be applied in the labs of other scientists around the world.

Reflecting on his research, Dave says:

"As scientists, we rarely talk about the personal – after all, the underpinning philosophy of science is that whoever performs the studies, the results will be the same. However, the decision to let the ‘personal’ influence my direction of academic travel is one that I will never regret."

Dave recently appeared on ITV News with his husband talking about some of his research. He has also spoken to Chemical and Engineering News magazine about his personal approach to research.

Professor David Smith is a global leader in self-assembly and applied supramolecular science, having published over 150 research papers and book chapters, that have been cited around 10,000 times with an ‘h-index’ over 55. He leads the Molecular Materials Group at The University of York, which studies self-assembled, self-organised, and nanoscale materials and applies them in next-generation technologies.

The feature article in Chemical Communications is published Open Access and can be accessed on the Royal Society of Chemistry's website.