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The University of Southampton
Chemistry

Improving targeted cancer treatments and infectious disease diagnosis

Southampton research into nucleic acids (the components of all genomes) has helped clinicians to prescribe the most effective treatments for cancer patients and enabled rapid and precise diagnosis of diseases such as Ebola, swine flu and COVID-19.

Research challenge and context

Pipetting fluorescent dyes

Nucleic acids are the molecular structures at the heart of living systems. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) provides the genetic code, while RNA (ribonucleic acid) converts the code into proteins which carry out cell functions and is involved in crucial signalling processes.

Technologies that enable scientists to quickly investigate nucleic acid sequences and identify genetic mutations and foreign nucleic acids (such as those introduced by viruses) are critical for advances in healthcare – for example, improvements in diagnosis and personalised therapies – as well as for forensic and industry applications.

Our solution

Professor Tom Brown

Research led by chemical biologist Professor Tom Brown focused on the design and synthesis of unique, chemically modified oligonucleotides (short strands of DNA or RNA) as potential therapeutic and diagnostic agents. Fundamental research into nucleic acid structures and DNA sequence recognition led to new methods of identifying mutations in the human genome and potentially reversing mutations that can cause genetic diseases. Working in partnership with international biotechnology companies and small to medium-sized enterprises, the researchers used this underlying science to design new oligonucleotide technologies for a range of applications.

What was the impact?

In partnership with AstraZeneca, the Southampton team used novel chemically modified oligonucleotides to develop a new diagnostic method named Scorpions. This work led to formation of DxS, a spin-out company from AstraZeneca. DxS developed Scorpion diagnostics to accompany targeted cancer therapies. This enabled doctors to prescribe the most effective treatments for individual patients based on their genetic code, benefiting hundreds of thousands of people around the world. DxS was acquired by Qiagen for $120m on the basis of the novel Scorpion technology.

The research has also led to rapid diagnostic tests for infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika virus. It underpinned the first diagnostic kit for swine flu in response to the global outbreak in 2009, and, more recently, has been used to make key components for faster, simpler and more portable COVID-19 diagnostic kits.

Other successful applications include fundamental drug research, agriculture and food safety, and rapid forensic testing. The researchers worked with life sciences company LGC to design portable forensic testing kits that can profile human DNA samples at a crime scene in around 75 minutes, compared with a wait of sometimes weeks for lab results. These tests have been used all over the world by police departments and crime-fighting agencies.

Commercialisation has been key to translating the researchers’ discoveries into real-world benefits, for example through licensing agreements and the formation of three new UK companies, DxS, Primerdesign and ADTBio. Combined, the above commercial ventures have generated many millions of pounds in investments and sales revenue, as well as creating high-skilled jobs.

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Tom BrownVisiting Professor of Chemical Biology
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