Contacts: Dr. Bazbek Davletov, Dr. Enrico Ferrari & Dr. Chunjing Gu, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Mentors: Alex Hellawell, Innovia Technology & Wouter Meuleman (i-Teams alumni)

Dr. Davletov’s team of researchers has developed a unique patented system of four distinct molecular helices which quickly assemble into a tight, rigid and stable nanostructure scaffold. The ends of the helices can be attached to a wide range of other materials, enabling these materials to be connected to each other in an ordered and hierarchical way. These connections are very stable, resistant to detergents and to temperatures up to 80C, but can also be controllably disconnected by applying suitable conditions. In effect the molecular scaffold can function as a strong but reversible staple between any two (or more) materials or molecules.

The helices are based on the naturally-occurring systems which fuse cell membranes together. They are very easy to attach to other protein molecules, and can also be connected to a flat surface and used to trap and immobilise particular proteins onto the surface. The scaffold can be used to bring new properties to molecular structures, for example adding luminescence, or creating molecular tags or barcodes. Long sequences of molecules can be joined together in a controlled order using multiple scaffolds.

There are many potential uses of the technology in any system where smaller components need to be combined to form larger structures. It is particularly useful for modular and combinatorial approaches – the researchers have calculated that a mixture of 100 individually-labelled helices would create 900,000 unique combinations. It also works well when used to bring together a number of distinct structures to combine proteins, create new drugs, add fluorofors, attach gold nanoparticles and many more.

In addition the scaffold can be used as a way to neutralise a toxic active molecule by dividing it into two non-toxic halves which can then be handled easily in a laboratory with no safety implications. The two halves can be recombined using the helical scaffold at the time that the toxic material is actually needed in its complete form, for example for medicinal use.

The challenge for the i-Team is to investigate the wide range of possible applications for this new and highly-innovation approach. By looking at applications ranging from the realms of physical nanostructures to the assembly of protein-based materials, and discussing the technology with relevant industry experts, the team will recommend the next steps and best practical uses for the researchers to focus their efforts.