Research Fellows Directory
Professor Bruce Turnbull
University of Leeds
In our research we aim to understand how biology works at the molecular level, and to apply this knowledge in developing synthetic biology approaches to make new drugs and materials that will benefit society.
The surface of every living cell is covered in an array of complex carbohydrate molecules. This "sugar coating" allows the cells to interact with other cells that have complementary protein receptors on their surfaces. These protein-carbohydrate interactions mediate many biological processes that are essential for life, e.g., fertilisation of an egg, but they also provide a mechanism by which bacteria and viruses may latch onto the surface of healthy cells as a first step in infection.
One disease that we study is cholera. It is caused by bacteria that invade our intestines and produce a protein toxin that can stick to specific sugar molecules on the gut wall. The toxin uses this interaction to help enter the cells and force them to release water into the gut, giving rise to potentially fatal diarrhoea. By studying the sticky interactions between the protein toxin and sugars on a cell surface, we aim to understand why people with certain blood groups are more susceptible to diarrhoeal diseases, and then use this information to develop new drugs that can neutralise the toxins.
We are also investigating how inactive versions of the toxin could be used as molecular delivery vehicles to transport protein or DNA drugs into diseased cells. Our approach involves combining synthetic and biological building blocks to construct nanometre-scale objects that do not exist in the natural world. This strategy for synthetic biology will find applications in gene delivery to cure hereditary diseases, as vaccines to prevent infectious disease, and as diagnostic tools to detect cancer.
Interests and expertise (Subject groups)