Last week I went to Germany to talk to a pharmaceutical company about my work on the blood protein, human serum albumin. It set me thinking. But first I need to tell you about albumin.
Albumin is a surprisingly abundant protein in the human body; you have about 200g of the stuff coursing through your veins and more still in the fluid that lubricates your organs. Though it normally works as a transporter for fatty acids and other greasy molecules that are poorly soluble in water, albumin can also absorb many types of drug molecule. This can be problematic: if drugs bind too tightly to albumin, they get trapped in the bloodstream and are less effective. If this happens with a promising new compound, drug companies have to try to modify it to reduce the affinity for the protein. But how do you know what changes to make?
My group, with funding from the BBSRC, MRC and the Wellcome Trust, has spent many years studying the structure of the protein and shown how fatty acids and different drug molecules stick to it. We have done this using X-ray crystallography — shooting X-rays at albumin crystals — to reveal the three-dimensional structure in fine detail; we get to see exactly how the atoms are arranged.
Though albumin has a (well-deserved) reputation for being difficult to work with, we have solved nearly 50 different structures of the protein bound to different molecules so we know quite a bit about what makes a molecule stick to it. Though I’m not very comfortable with the term, you could say that I’m a bit of an expert on the topic of drug binding to albumin. So from time to time I get asked by pharmaceutical companies to talk about our work.
I enjoy these industrial excursions. It amazes me that some people have so much confidence in the ability of science to generate products sold for profit that they will invest millions in the process. As an academic I still tend to see myself as something of an amateur, and industrial scientists as the professionals. I realise that’s a false distinction — one that does myself and my co-workers a disservice — but the industrial interest makes me feel I’m being taken seriously.
I know the pharmaceutical business is a flawed industry. I know about the dodgy marketing, the manipulation of clinical trials, the ghost author abuses, the fake journals. These things are unacceptable but, even so, there is a rigour, an exactitude to the business of making that seems to me as impressive as anything served up by pure research.
It is sometimes said or presumed that scientists look down their noses at engineers but I don’t know who these scientists are. I’ve not met any. For sure there are those who insist on the primacy of curiosity-driven research (no bad thing) or who bridle at the suggestion that they might have to contemplate the impact, economic or otherwise, of their work. But I suspect that even these ‘purists’ share my appreciation of the creative power of engineering — the conduit through which science changes the material world. For that reason I was pleased with last week’s news reports of a new £1m engineering prize.
I was also pleased to have the chance to see how our research on albumin is seeping into industry. There was strong interest in my talk in Germany and there were keen questions in the discussions that followed. For me these visits are sporadic. Other scientists will have more contact with industry but plenty of others will have less. I’m not sure how to foster increased contacts but I think this could be a good thing. It is likely to be important in bolstering knowledge transfer, which is one way to key into the economic value of science (a topic that has been treated with some interest by Jack Stilgoe and Colin Macilwain in the past day or two). I get the impression that there are big differences here between Germany and the UK.
At lunch my hosts and I compared education systems. I learned that it costs just a few hundred Euro each term to attend university in Germany and felt a pang of jealousy: next year UK students will be facing annual tuition fees of up to £9,000. The consequences for UK education have yet to be determined. Somehow, the Germans seem to have closed the virtuous circle — their education system supports a strong manufacturing base, which in turn earns enough to pay for an accessible education system. The German science budget is heading for a 10% boost, while in the UK science funding stagnates.
I know it’s a bit more complicated than that, and that better contacts with industry is only part of the solution. But how does the UK get to Germany from here?