90% of this research was rated world-leading/internationally excellent


Our submission to this unit of assessment comprised research from the Institute of Biomedical and Biomolecular Science (IBBS). The Institute includes staff from the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences and serves as a focus for multidisciplinary research in the biomedical and related sciences.

Our submitted research covered four broad areas: Molecular Biophysics, Cell Biology and Pharmacology, Epigenetics and Developmental Biology and Biomaterials/Drug Delivery. It included three impact case studies: anti-cancer drug design, new therapies for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and ‘next-generation’ oral healthcare products.

IBBS is funded by external research grants totalling over £10m, principally from the UK Research Councils (BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC), the Wellcome Trust, the European Union and a number of brain cancer charities.

In the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), 55% of our research was recognised as being world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*). The Grade Point Average (GPA) of our submission was 2.50.

We have built upon that research excellence in REF 2014, both in the overall quality of our research and in its impact:

  • 90% of our research was regarded as being 4*/3* (either world-leading or internationally-excellent), up from 55% in RAE 2008.
  • Our overall GPA for the submission increased from 2.50 to 3.12.
  • Our submission was ranked in the top 20 of 94 institutions for research excellence (overall 4*/3*).
  • 100% of the impact from our research was classified as 4*/3*; having outstanding and very considerable impacts in terms of reach and significance.
  • Within the University Alliance group, we ranked 3rd out of 25 (overall 4*/3* activity).

Research groups / Research themes

The four research groups in IBBS reflect the strength of our research across a broad range of expertise. By working in an integrated way, with shared access to world-class facilities and a culture that both encourages and promotes cross disciplinary investigative approaches, IBBS has delivered distinctive interdisciplinary research into fundamental biomedical and biomolecular science.

Molecular Biophysics

The principal aim of this group is to understand biological processes in terms of the structure and function of biomolecules and their interactions. The applications of our research range from the development of novel antibiotic targets to structure-based drug design for amyloid diseases. Current projects include the structural and biochemical investigation of DNA methyltransferases and endonucleases, transcription factors and repressors, ribonucleases and RNA chaperones, metalloproteinases, serum amyloid proteins, mitochondrial proteins and glycohydrolases.

Cell Biology and Pharmacology

This group has broad biomedical and clinical interests, with particular emphasis on inflammation, neuro-oncology and neuroscience, with close interactions between the individual members. A major theme is lung inflammation in cystic fibrosis and developing novel strategies to improve inhaled drug delivery, together with mechanisms of disease progression and new therapeutic targets in inflammatory bowel disease, and over-active bladder and development of new drug targets for clinical applications. There is a strong focus on neurobiology, with multidisciplinary research on glial cells, including oligodendrocytes and their precursors in MS, and the role of ion channels in potassium regulation and glial differentiation.

Epigenetics and Developmental Biology

The focus of this group is to establish the role of genes that are important in developmental processes, e.g. the control of Gata2 and its role in blood formation, promoter structure in gene activation, and the genetic programming of muscle differentiation. Using the extensive facilities of EXRC, the Xenopus model is also used to assess the role (and possible side-effects) of novel drugs in development. Epigenetic themes encompass the role of chromatin modifying enzymes in gene regulation and the roles of histone modifications in cell differentiation, development and disease. There is a strong research programme in Molecular and Genetic Medicine, including the molecular pathology of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and gene mutations in mitochondrial diseases.

Biomaterials and Drug Delivery

This group is concerned with the design, synthesis and medical applications of biomaterials, biosensors, drugs and drug delivery systems. Research methods include the use of Atomic Force Microscopy in biomaterials research and molecular dynamics simulations in drug discovery, as well as underpinning synthetic chemistry. Projects include the development of biomaterials with inherent resistance to bacterial colonization, bioadhesive materials for therapeutic use, polymeric vehicles for targeted drug delivery, and boron-containing materials for neutron-capture therapy.

Impact case studies

Research leads to the commercial development and clinical impact of a first-in-class anticancer agent

A first-in-class anticancer agent discovered at the University of Portsmouth in the 1990s has been commercially developed and clinically evaluated over the last two decades. The compound was successful in Phase I clinical trials and is completing Phase II clinical trials for the treatment of ovarian cancer and leukaemia, where significant patient benefit is observed.

Related molecules based on this parent compound are in drug programmes being undertaken by Seattle Genetics Inc. and Genentech Inc., leading to additional clinical trials. A spin-out company, Spirogen Ltd, was established in 2000 to commercialise the intellectual property generated from the underpinning research, and the company has recently been sold to AstraZeneca for $200m.

The development and commercialisation of a polymer that reduces microbial colonisation on dental surfaces, thus improving oral health

A team of Portsmouth researchers has developed a transparent polymer coating that prevents colonising bacteria from adhering to the surfaces of teeth. In addition to protecting from decay, the polymer coating has the added benefits of reducing dental erosion, alleviating root hypersensitivity, and inhibiting the staining of teeth. The polymer has been successfully developed into a component of “next-generation” oral healthcare products.

Inhaled heparin, a novel therapeutic approach with clinical benefits in the treatment of obstructive airways diseases

A new intervention has been developed and trialled in patient groups characterised by mucus obstruction of the airways. Outcomes for these patient groups have improved, and health service decisions have been informed by the underpinning research. A spin-out business, Ockham Biotech Ltd., was created and has generated overseas investment.

A novel mucolytic application and inhaled route of administration for heparin has provided a simple and cost-effective therapeutic means of relieving the symptoms of mucus obstruction in diseases including CF and COPD, which together cost the NHS ~£1.6bn, pa.

Infrastructure and facilities

The Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (IBBS) has world-class research facilities and techniques, acquired both from external research grants and from substantial internal investment.

The University of Portsmouth Imaging Centre was created as a facility to bring together the wide variety of advanced microscopy techniques available in IBBS. A purpose-built Microscopy Imaging Suite houses the atomic force microscope, live cell imaging microscope, a TIR microscope and laser capture micro-dissection apparatus. Three confocal instruments plus calcium imaging and a variety of Fluorescence Microscopes are located close by, and excellent facilities for Electron microscopy (SEM and TM) are located in a dedicated laboratory within the Faculty.

The Biophysics Laboratories have invested in state-of-the-art facilities for investigation of both structural and functional aspects of macromolecular interactions include an X-ray Diffractometer with Cryojet (Oxford Diffraction) a crystallisation robot, a 600MHz NMR spectrometer with cryo-probe (Varian), Analytical Ultracentrifugation (Beckman XL-A), Surface Plasmon Resonance (BiaCoreT200), Circular Dichroism and Fluorescence Spectroscopy, Laser Light Scattering (DLS and MALLS) and Calorimetry (ITC and DSC). These facilities are complemented by extensive facilities for bacterial fermentation and protein purification (including ~10 Akta Purifiers).

Access to International facilities. Structural biologists in IBBS are members of block allocation groups that receive highly competitive peer-reviewed synchrotron beam time at both ESRF and Diamond for crystallographic analysis of proteins and nucleic acids. IBBS Principal Investigators have also been awarded synchrotron beam time for small angle x-ray scattering and circular dichroism studies, as well as substantial neutron beam time at Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL, Grenoble) for the structural analysis of protein-DNA and protein-RNA complexes by SANS. Kneale, McGeehan, Callaghan and Pickford have each submitted beam time applications for SAXS and SRCD, and have obtained beam time equivalent in value to over £440K in the REF period.

In addition to excellent facilities for biochemistry, molecular/cell biology and physical/organic chemistry, we have invested in state-of-the art facilities that are used primarily by IBBS staff but also an increasing number of visitors from universities and institutes in the UK and elsewhere (e.g. Southampton, Sussex and Cambridge universities). General physico-chemical, molecular and cell biology facilities include a 400 MHz NMR Spectrometer, FTIR and UV Spectrometers, Contact Angle Goniometer, GC/MS, HPLC, Atomic Absorption Spectrometer (AAS) / Atomic Emission Spectrometer, particle sizer, Tissue Culture rooms, Flow Cytometer, Dynamic Vapour Sorption (DVS) apparatus, qPCR, scintillation counters and a phosphorimager.

IBBS also hosts the European Xenopus Resource Centre, which was set up in 2006 principally by Wellcome Trust, with a total of £3.3m funding, together with a major investment of funding from UoP. BBSRC has awarded an additional £1m to provide molecular resources and bioinformatics support. Wellcome Trust funding (£1.3m) for the European Xenopus Resource Centre was renewed in 2013 for a further 5 years, to maintain the centre as a major resource for scientists studying frog genetics, and facilitating collaborative research with laboratories across Europe and the USA.

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