17 October 2017

Researcher’s Cooperation with a Company Results in International Level Technology

X-Ray Machine

Over the past three years the private company SAXSLAB has cooperated with Professor with Special Responsibilities Bente Vestergaard on developing new technology for biostructural research. This has resulted in the machine ‘the BioXolver’, which may potentially improve the quality of research in biomolecules and even save the research team some money.

X-ray beams are sent from the source to the right and hits macromolecule samples in the middle. The results are recorded in the detector to the left.

When Professor with Special Responsibilities Bente Vestergaard met Søren Skou, then a PhD student, more than 10 years ago, she did not expect the meeting to result in high-tech equipment worth millions that will benefit her research group and the University of Copenhagen for many years. Nevertheless, that was what happened. 

They met at a research collaboration between her department at the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark, where Søren was doing his PhD. After a couple of years, the funding ran out, and Søren Skou left for the US to work at an American university, while Bente Vestergaard continued her research at the Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology at the University of Copenhagen. But the cooperation between the two researchers continued when Bente’s PhD student went to stay at the same laboratory in the US and the ideas from the original project were further developed.

Four years later Søren Skou returned to Bente Vestergaard with a proposition. This time as director of the company SAXSLAB. He wanted to build a machine based on X-ray technology, which would advance the research by providing high-quality results. The machine had to be fully automatic and, not least, economical with regard to the consumption of costly biological samples. And he wanted Bente Vestergaard to help him.

Frustrations About Human Errors ‘What Søren proposed was rather unique. They wanted to build a fully automatic SAXS camera which was easy to use and optimised for research into biomolecules. The idea was to place the machine here in the basement below the Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology, and we did not even have to pay for it before it had been fully developed and had proven its worth’, says Professor with Special Responsibilities Bente Vestergaard.

SAXSLAB and the department agreed that the company would build and calibrate the machine, which was named ‘the BioXolver’. The highly specialised researchers would then use and test it and provide feedback with a view to making advanced use of the machine in their research. Finally, the research group would be able to buy the machine on very favourable terms.

’I knew there was a need for this type of machine. During my PhD and postdoc studies I had experienced frustration when doing biostructural research. The samples give a very weak signal, and there is a risk that measurements contain human errors and background noise. Therefore, there was a need for automation with completely identical measurements and the very limited volume of samples provided by this machine. And then the X-ray technology complements the other measuring techniques already available at the university. You could say that the machine gives them a new perspective in their research’, says Director of SAXSLAB Søren Skou.

X-ray Beams on Macromolecules In short, what ‘the BioXolver’ does is shoot X-ray beams onto very small amounts of watery macromolecule solutions. It then measures the intensity of the beams, which interact with electrons in the molecules and are scattered in different angles. Using mathematical models, it is possible based on this data to establish what the molecules look like.

This is important to Bente Vestergaard who researches the structure of macromolecules as proteins and thus their function in the cell. Once you understand the three-dimensional structure in a disease context, you can potentially develop drugs that are able to manipulate the entire course of the disease.

Others Have Already Bought the BioXolver Now the research team has to find the means to buy the BioXolver from SAXSLAB under the favourable conditions created by the collaboration. If you ask Bente Vestergaard there is no doubt that the machine has proven its worth.

‘Using the machine we have been able to make complex measurements from studies where we previously had to travel to large international facilities. It will save us a lot of money in the long term, if we are able to make some measurements here in our own basement. It also improves the quality of the data we get from our trips to the large particle accelerators abroad, because the BioXolver gives us a better basis for making scientific measurements and hypotheses. This makes it easier for us to prepare for and get the most out of the costly time spent working with machines abroad. Having it here simply improves our research’, she says.  

Søren Skou, who built and calibrated the machine himself, agrees:

‘Even though we developed the prototype for the University of Copenhagen, universities in countries like China, the US and Canada have already been convinced and bought the machine’, says Søren Skou.