The National Physical Laboratory and AstraZeneca Benefit from Versatile and Talented CDT students

This case study demonstrates how our students have worked collaboratively with our partners, with great benefits for all those involved. Our CDT has a long-standing relationship with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) which has enabled collaborative PhD projects, sharing of ideas between the institutions, and established NPL as one of the largest graduate destinations for alumni of the CDT. NPL have experienced a tangible benefit from working with our talented students who, in developing new analytical chemistry and chemical biology approaches to address some questions about drug distribution posed by scientists from AstraZeneca, have published 8 papers to date, with several more in preparation.

Collaboration was initiated by Dr Josephine Bunch, Co-Director of NPL’s National Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry Imaging (NiCE-MSI) in the Surface and Nanoanalysis group. This collaboration builds on research led by Dr Bunch from 2009-2013 when she was a Lecturer in Chemistry and Imaging at The University of Birmingham. Having recruited the right calibre of students Dr Bunch was keen to work collaboratively with the CDT to develop imaging techniques for the quantitative analysis of drug distributions in tissue. Funding from NPL and AstraZeneca was used to support two PhD projects jointly supervised by Dr Bunch and CDT staff Professor Helen Cooper and Dr Iain Styles on i) Developing the metrology of mass spectrometry imaging: understanding the image formation process to enable improved quantitation, ii) Combining SRS and MS for High Resolution Quantitative Imaging of Drugs, Lipids and Proteins in Tissue: Powerful New Tools for Pharmaceutical Research. These projects were selected by CDT students Alex Dexter and Elizabeth Randall respectively. The joint funding and supervision arrangements enabled Alex and Elizabeth to spend 12 months of their PhD studies working at NPL. This exposed them to a wide network of NPL scientists and enabled access to the cutting edge instrumentation housed at NiCE-MSI. The work of these students has made a strong contribution to NiCE-MSI’s reputation as a collaborative centre for R&D and as an internationally leading centre of excellence for mass spectrometry.

These two PhD projects have just reached completion, and to date have resulted in 8 peer-reviewed publications on which both University of Birmingham and NPL scientists are named authors. This work was made possible by our flexible project-based approach to collaboration which enabled the rapid establishment of these projects. A further 9 national and international conference presentations have been made by these two students, contributing to NPL’s reputation as a leader in the field of mass spectrometry imaging. NPL remains supportive of a collaborative engagement with the Sci-Phy-4-Health centre, around areas of jointly aligned interests. The CDT's reputation in this area has attracted other new partnerships and projects, such as that with UCB Pharmaceuticals who are co-funding a PhD project in mass spectrometry imaging with Prof Cooper and Dr Styles.

Our outstanding students continue to be of benefit to NiCE-MSI, even after graduation. Alex Dexter has recently become the third of our CDT graduates (following Rory Steven and Alan Race) to secure employment in NiCE-MSI at NPL, the second biggest employer of our graduates after the NHS. Our students are playing a central and continuing role in establishing NiCE-MSI's international reputation, reflecting the strength of the skills developed through our program. Elizabeth Randall has taken a postdoctoral position at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, one of the teaching affiliates of Harvard Medical School. As she prepares to start this new position she says: “"I think the multiple disciplines I have been exposed to during my time with the CDT have given me the confidence to handle problems in unfamiliar fields. After concentrating on methods for biomedical research during my PhD, it felt like the next logical step to go into a post-doc with a clinical focus."