Technology networks awarded £3m to solve life science challenges


Five research networks, awarded £3 million through a joint technology initiative, will harness new and emerging developments from the engineering and physical sciences to advance life sciences discovery research.

Technology Touching Life is a joint initiative between the MRC, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), all part of UK Research and Innovation.

Many new technologies play a crucial role in advancing life sciences research and have their origins in the engineering and physical sciences. Revolutionary examples, which researchers funded by the research councils have contributed to developing, include genome editing, 3D printing of custom chemicals and super-resolution microscopy. These are innovations that have had an enormous impact on life sciences, agriculture and human health.

By facilitating partnerships between engineers, physical sciences researchers and health and life scientists, these networks aim to nurture the adventurous research needed to develop the next generation of advanced technology.

Dr Nathan Richardson, Head of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at the MRC, said: “The development and application of innovative technologies is crucial to furthering our knowledge and understanding across the biomedical sciences. These Technology Touching Life networks offer an exciting opportunity to bring researchers together, across a number of disciplines, to explore the tools and technologies of the future, with impacts ranging from how we grow cells to better mimic the human body, to following dynamic changes in cells and tissue.”

Each funded network focuses on an exciting area of opportunity where interdisciplinary working has the potential to develop and exploit new technologies. This includes imaging live cells within tissues and developing ‘organs-on-chips’ that mimic biological tissue structures and function. The networks are national and have open memberships, providing opportunities for researchers across the UK to get involved as the networks develop.

John Hand, Head of Physical Sciences at EPSRC, said: “Novel engineering and physical sciences research is vital to the development of new tools and technologies for discovery-led research in the life and biomedical sciences. These new Technology Touching Life networks will support the development of cross-disciplinary collaborations and encourage novel, exciting technology solutions across the range of the life sciences.”

Dr Amanda Collis, BBSRC Executive Director of Science, commented: “We are delighted to support this cross-council effort to empower life science research through the development of new technologies. The networks are a fantastic opportunity to advance fields such as imaging, integrative biology and crop science while fostering interdisciplinary research and community building.”

The five successful networks:

ImagingBioPro Network
The ImagingBioPro Network, led by Professor Peter Lee at the Research Complex at Harwell, seeks to develop new, high energy imaging methods to capture the dynamic biochemical and biophysical processes in biological samples. The human body is highly structured – from proteins and DNA, to the cells making up tissues that, in turn, form organs. To fully understand how an organ works in health and disease, we need to develop imaging techniques that simultaneously capture the dynamic biological processes on multiple timescales and at different structural levels.

Integrative Biological Imaging Network (IBIN)

Led by Professor Maddy Parsons at King’s College London, the IBIN seeks to bring together biologists, physicists, chemists and mathematicians to develop new approaches to take fast, high-resolution images of living cells within 3D model systems and tissues. Current techniques are not capable of capturing and analysing these highly dynamic events within live cells in 3D environments. This multidisciplinary network will provide new solutions to this problem, leading to better approaches for understanding cell behaviour in healthy and diseased tissues.


3DBioNet, led by Dr Raphaël Lévy from the University of Liverpool, brings together academic and industry experts from different disciplines to examine cells growing in three dimensions. Scientists have traditionally cultured cells on flat surfaces but these are not representative of their natural state in the body. Despite the barriers to overcome, this field has huge potential for discovering new medicines, re-purposing old ones and developing a more personalised approach to medicine.


University of Nottingham, will develop technologies to gather data on the structure and function of plants – the phenome – to help improve crop performance to meet the increased food demands of our growing population. The network will be multidisciplinary, encouraging engineering, physical and computer scientists to work alongside plant biologists to develop automation, sensors and data analysis techniques for profiling plants in hostile environments.

Organ-on-a-chip Technologies

Organ-on-a-chip Technologies, fronted by Professor Hazel Screen from Queen Mary University of London, will bring together researchers from engineering, chemistry, materials science and biology to grow cells in artificial environments that mimic the human body, otherwise known as ‘organs on chips’. Developing new drugs is a long and expensive process, and early drug testing in animals may not always translate directly into humans. ‘Organs on chips’ offer an alternative – using multi-layered materials, multiple cell types and engineering devices to better mimic tissue structures and the natural conditions of the body.

Image credit: (L) Rothamsted Research, (C) Temple & Levy, (R) Emulate

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The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health.

MRC [Medical Research Council]