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UC investing $2.6m in cutting edge research equipment

The University of Canterbury is investing $2.6 million over two years in cutting edge new research equipment which will strengthen research and teaching excellence in diverse fields, including biomedicine, engineering, drug design, and nanotechnology.

University of Canterbury Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Wright says the new specialist research equipment will be unique in New Zealand and a strong signal that: “UC has come through its recovery and is actively rebuilding its research profile, nationally and internationally. The $2.6 million investment in research equipment is a first step in reinvesting in UC’s research capabilities.”

The process is clearly signalling a renewed commitment for research ambitions, which has been hugely motivating for UC’s academics and research students, Professor Wright says.

“It will provide a national and international competitive edge in training PhD students and enable more success in capturing research funding. I’m proud we’re investing in teaching and research as well as cutting edge research facilities as part of UC’s strategy,” he says.

“These are the first major investments as part of our strategy, backing fundamental and applied research into structural biology and new drug discovery, protein science and structural biology, and nanostructure engineering. It’s a tangible example of UC investing in improving the future of New Zealand and the world.”

UC’s $2.6m research investment includes funding for:

Two-photon polymerization nanoscale 3D printer

Engineering academic and director of the Biomolecular Interaction Centre, Dr Volker Nock says: “The Photonic Professional GT2 two-photon polymerization-based nanoscale 3D printer will be the first in New Zealand, and only one of a few worldwide of the newly-released second generation version. It will further strengthen research and teaching excellence in nanotechnology and innovative additive manufacturing. These areas constitute transformational technology for high-value domestic industries and UC has a strong track record in teaching and research in both.”

Background: The UC Nanofabrication Facility, within UC’s College of Engineering, is the most technically complete Micro- and Nanofabrication facility in New Zealand. Nanoscale 3D printing based on two-photon polymerization is one of the key new nanofabrication technologies established in recent years. This is the first and only technology to bridge the gap between 2D high-resolution patterning techniques and conventional large-scale, large-feature size 3D printing available through the Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing). It will allow researchers and external users to build complex, arbitrarily shaped structures with minimum feature sizes in the nanometre range. The latest generation of this technology, launched at the beginning of 2019, combines this high-resolution 3D printing approach with substrate sizes similar those currently established in semiconductor manufacturing. However, the proposed system enables this not only in 2D, but up to several millimetres high in full 3D. This constitutes a paradigm shift in both nanofabrication and 3D printing, opening up new opportunities in a variety of research fields, including and beyond microelectronics.

Native mass spectrometer

UC recruited an expert in the technique of native mass spectrometry, Dr Timothy Allison, who joined UC in 2018 from the Oxford University lab of the technique’s pioneer. The acquisition of a native mass spectrometer will be a New Zealand-first, providing exciting new capability and enhancing UC’s reputation for research excellence in the area of protein science and structural biology. A UC graduate, Dr Allison says: “At UC we have a strong research presence in protein science and structural biology. An important and contemporary technique in these fields is native mass spectrometry, which requires a specialised mass spectrometer instrument, which does not exist at UC or anywhere else in New Zealand. It’s inspiring to see UC investing in an instrument that is unique in New Zealand, taking advantage of our expertise in the area, and the strong potential for collaborative high-impact research.”

Background: A native mass spectrometer is specifically designed to analyse very large molecules, like proteins in their natural state. As a technique, spearheaded by ground-breaking research at the University of Oxford by Professor Dame Carol Robinson, this is an increasingly high-impact go-to method for analysing the structure and interactions of proteins; which underpins huge swathes of structural biological and biochemical research. Proteins in their natural (native) state underlie the correct functioning of all life. The study and manipulation of native proteins and their interactions is therefore of great importance in drug design, medical research, biotechnology development (e.g. food/new products) and bioengineering.

Biomolecular NMR facility

According to UC biological scientist Dr Vanessa Morris: “The biomolecular NMR (BioNMR) probe will help us develop new capability in structural biology and drug discovery at UC. This JEOL triple-resonance helium cryoprobe is an add-on to the existing spectrometer in UC’s School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, which will bring new capability to measure high-resolution data on medically important targets, such as proteins, DNA, and protein-drug interactions. As a fundamental and versatile biomolecular method, investment in this device will boost biological and biomedical research and attract new research funding.”

Background: Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) is a powerful technique that has found many applications in medical and industry research. It is a technique that uses the magnetic properties of atoms to provide a “map” of a molecule, containing information about which atoms are linked, how close they are in space and their motions. It is used as the gold-standard in chemistry, to determine the chemical structure of small molecules, and to confirm the identity and purity of synthesized drugs and chemicals. Developments in technology and methodology in the past decades have allowed NMR to become one of the most important techniques for studying large biological molecules, including proteins, DNA and carbohydrates. It can be used to investigate diverse biological problems including in drug screening and drug design. NMR is the only structural method to study intrinsically-disordered proteins, as well as for following protein folding and misfolding, which is highly relevant to disease research including dementia and cancer.

The versatility of this technique allows its use in the investigation of questions relating to all fields within chemistry, biochemistry, and medicine. So far, eight Nobel prizes have been awarded for developments in NMR, including four in biological NMR. It is highly complementary to other analytical techniques and in widespread use in the biomedical research community as a means to determine molecular mechanisms of disease.


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