Plymouth University has become the first institution in Europe to take delivery of a next-generation machine able to analyse DNA molecules in minute samples of blood and other fluids.
The equipment will boost Plymouth’s research and analysis capabilities in the fields of biomedical and biological sciences, with a particular focus on human disease.
It could also pave the way for future partnership opportunities with hospital trusts in the field of non-invasive diagnosis, as it will enable researchers to study blood samples taken from pregnant mothers when testing for Down’s Syndrome.
The device – the QuantStudioTM 12K Flex Real-Time PCR System – has been manufactured in the US and is the first to be installed anywhere in Europe. It forms part of a £2.5m investment programme by the University in post-genomics technology for the South West.
Professor Neil Avent, Head of the School of Biomedical and Biological Sciences, said: “This investment will enable us to conduct highly specialised research into the human genome, which is crucial as we move towards a future where personalised medicine will become the norm.
“Using this state-of-the-art equipment, we can look at thousands of regions of the genome at once. It is a bit like having a ‘molecular abacus – we’ll be able to count the number of chromosomes, as well as conduct tests to identify any irregularities.”
Scientists will be able to study multiple gene sequences in multiple samples at the same time, each contained within minute wells of just 33 nanolitres in size.
Using techniques patented by the University, the equipment will be able to be applied to non-invasive diagnosis, such as studying a pregnant mother’s blood for signs of Down’s Syndrome – removing the need for amniocentesis.
Professor Avent said: “Being able to study foetal DNA from a mother’s blood sample using this technique has hitherto not been possible in the South West, and our research opens up new partnership possibilities with health trusts in the region.”
The School of Biomedical and Biological Sciences will be meeting with academics across the institution to discuss how the QuantStudio system might be used for research projects such as population genetics in insects, or the study of food chains. It will also be hosting a number of workshops in the coming months with academics from other universities, including those from overseas, who are keen to learn how to use the equipment.
The University will formally launch its Systems Biology Centre later in the year, which boasts a sophisticated mass spectrometer able to effectively “weigh” proteins in blood and other samples, and to rapidly identify them.
Professor Wendy Purcell, Vice-Chancellor, said: “This investment demonstrates the University’s commitment to building upon its already world-class biomedical and biological research capabilities, and to developing the scientific base that underpins our work across the peninsula in medicine and dentistry.”