Superfast physics and a trio of Fellows: News from Imperial

Here’s a batch of fresh news and announcements from across Imperial.

From an experiment lasting millionths of a billionth of a second, to fellowships in biology and medicine, here is some quick-read news from across Imperial.

Superfast physics

Imperial physicists are part of a team who have demonstrated superfast X-ray measurements of the first moments when an ion is formed from the interaction of a photon with a molecule. This ’photoionization’ process was observed on timescale of attoseconds - millionths of a billionth of a second.

Imperial collaborator Dr Oliver Alexander said: "Coming on the back of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded for Attosecond Physics, this result signals a new capability for measuring fast electron dynamics in gas phase molecules and condensed phase materials."

The work was conducted at the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the SLAC laboratory, Stanford, using an X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL). The laser fires X-rays in pairs of pulses, known as a ’pump-probe’ technique, with varying gaps between the two pulses. The ability to separate differing energy pulses with differing delays allows the fastest electronic dynamics to be tracked.

The team analysed the photoionization of an aromatic molecule, aminophenol. A lower-energy first pulse dislodged some inner electrons from the molecule, before a second, higher-energy pulse dislodged some outer electrons. As the first electrons were moving slower, they were soon overtaken by the faster second electrons. This is the first observation in the time domain of such a post-collision interaction effect in photoionization.

Read the full paper in Nature Physics .

Vaccine fellow

The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) has elected Professor Mariagrazia Pizza , Chair in Microbiology in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, to its College of Fellows.

Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to medical and biological engineers, comprised of the top two percent of engineers in these fields. College membership honours those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering and medicine research, practice, or education.

Professor Pizza was elected by peers and members of the College of Fellows ’for pioneering the discovery and development of life-saving vaccines against meningococcus B and Bordetella pertussis [whooping cough]’.

She said: "I am very proud and humbled for the election as Fellow of the AIMBE College. I am truly grateful for the important recognition of the seminal work that led to the discovery and development of life-saving vaccines by means of innovative and pioneering science. The real-world effectiveness data on the Meningococcus B vaccine indicates that our dream to prevent this devastating disease is becoming a reality."

Cell detox

One way our cells can get rid of harmful substances is to pump them out via a protein called multidrug resistance protein 2 (MRP2). MRP2 is associated with chemotherapy resistance in liver cancer, and genetic mutations can cause it to malfunction, causing jaundice.

Now, a team led by Dr Konstantinos Beis in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial have examined the structure of MRP2 in unprecedented detail, revealing how its activity is regulated by a process called phosphorylation. They also found two sites in the protein that drugs can bind to, regulating its activity in a different way.

Using drugs to alter the function of MRP2 function could be useful for tackling chemotherapy resistance in liver cancer.

Studying the structure of MRP2 also allowed the team to map the mutations in people with Dubin-Johnson syndrome, to understand why and how they interfere with its function, causing jaundice.

The team will next investigate how and why certain drugs act as modulators (activators or inhibitors), especially in the presence of chemotherapy drugs.

Read the full paper in Nature Communications .

Fibrosis Fellowship

Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis (APF) has awarded one of two Mike Bray Fellowships to Dr Bin (Kevin) Liu from our National Heart and Lung Institute.

Along with Dr Jenny Dickens from the University of Cambridge, the Fellowships are worth £600,000 funding to investigate the genetic causes of pulmonary fibrosis - an illness that causes difficulty breathing and coughing as lung tissues stiffen and scar over time.

Dr Liu’s research will examine how the genetic changes that increase the risk of developing lung scarring also alter signalling pathways within lung cells. This in turn could help to identify new drug targets to slow - or stop - the progressive condition.

He said: "My research focuses on the role that scaffold proteins play in the development and progression of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF). I hope that insights gained during my fellowship will have the potential to shed new light on the complex biological processes that become altered in people with PF and help to identify new treatments."

The Fellowships are named in memory of APF founder and first Chair of Trustees, IPF patient Mike Bray, who died in 2017.

For more information, see the APF’s announcement.

Healthcare tipping point

Rolling out Universal Health Care (UHC) brings benefits to poorer families, but only up to a point, and researchers say that policies should be better designed to ensure lower income groups continue to benefit as coverage expands.

In an analysis of 60 lowerand middle-income countries (LMICs), researchers have shown that expanding healthcare services results in reductions in infant mortality - with the largest reductions for poorer households.

However, as coverage increases, the benefits for poorer households start to decrease with factors such as socioeconomic barriers to access, variation in healthcare quality and health insurance schemes increasingly playing a role.

Dr Thomas Hone , from Imperial’s School of Public Health, said about Universal Health Care provision: "We’re seeing that richer populations are actually benefiting more than the poorest. This goes contrary to much of what is set out by the World Health Organization - where poorest populations should be targeted - and we urgently need policy change to address this."

full paper in Lancet Global Health.

Bioinformatics pioneer

Professor Mike Sternberg , Director of the Centre for Integrative Systems Biology and Bioinformatics (CISBIO) , in the Department of Life Sciences , has been elected a fellow of the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) .

The ISCB Fellows program is a prestigious recognition within the field of computational biology, honouring individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the discipline.

Professor Sternberg is noted as a structural bioinformatics pioneer since the 1970s, who has made foundational contributions to understanding protein structure and function.

His analyses of protein structures uncovered key principles, and he developed widely used resources like the Phyre web server, software for protein docking, and 3D-LigandSite for ligand binding prediction. These user-friendly tools have been crucial for researchers worldwide, including COVID-19-related studies.

Professor Sternberg said: "I am honoured by this fellowship which recognises the value to the community of the bioinformatics resources we have developed over the years."

Read more on the.

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