AstraZeneca launches Cambridge partnership with Lumicks to visualize individual DNA, drug molecules

Lumicks' C-Trap system uses laser-light tweezers to string out individual strands of suspended DNA, so researchers can track the physical interactions of individual, fluorescently labeled proteins. (University of Cambridge Department of Biochemistry)

AstraZeneca is partnering with nearby Cambridge University and Dutch firm Lumicks to launch a new drug discovery hub focused on single-molecule analysis—as well as live, visual observations of the molecules behind disease pathways and their potential treatments.

The new center of excellence, hosted by the university, will employ Lumicks’ C-Trap fluorescence microscopy, which combines high-resolution “optical tweezers” with confocal microscopy or stimulated emission depletion nanoscopy. It allows researchers to visualize and manipulate molecular interactions in real time, including between DNA and proteins, according to the company.

By using tweezers formed by pairs of powerful laser beams to tie down and string out individual strands of DNA floating in liquid, users can track the interactions of fluorescently labeled proteins that latch on to the suspended strand.

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“C-Trap is a unique and powerful tool that could help us unravel precise molecular mechanisms of diseases and the mode of action of lead compounds,” Geoffrey Holdgate, AstraZeneca’s principal scientist for discovery, who described the company as the first to use the technology, said in a release.

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The goal of the collaboration is to generate data to help validate the C-Trap’s use in biomedical and pharmaceutical research, and hopefully accelerate drug discovery on a wider scale.

“Establishing the first ever Center of Excellence in Cambridge is an important step in introducing the power of dynamic single-molecule analysis to the biomedical and pharmaceutical research communities,” said Lumicks CEO Olivier Heyning in the release. “Our tools enable scientists and pharmacologists to analyze the mechanistic details of processes underlying health and disease, with or without a small molecule drug lead being identified. This paves the way for the design of novel, more efficient strategies for highly targeted drug discovery, and the selection of higher quality drug leads.”

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AstraZeneca moved its global headquarters to Cambridge, U.K., in 2016, following the construction of its $650 million R&D hub, which houses over 2,000 AZ and MedImmune staff. The Big Pharma hoped the relocation would pay off with new collaborations local to the biomedical R&D hotspot: since its move, AstraZeneca has cited over 130 collaborations with academic, healthcare and research partners.