Femtosecond imager to probe atomic structures in drug discovery research

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An imaging technique that can operate with a shutter speed of around 100 femtoseconds has added atomic imaging capabilities for UK researchers. 

The imaging capability, known as ultra-fast electron diffraction, has been developed by researchers at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire and is a first for the UK.

With the technology, it is possible to capture images of the atomic structure of materials, and could aid in drug discovery research, among other areas of biological and materials research. It is also a step towards being able to make molecular movies.

STFC’s newest particle accelerator, VELA (Versatile Electron Linear Accelerator), has been built to assist UK industry to bridge the gap between prototypes and market-ready products by making this ultrafast imaging technique available at a fraction of the cost and physical size of facilities using other methods.

Professor Susan Smith, head of STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, said: ‘Achieving ultra-fast electron diffraction is a major milestone for STFC. This capability can be used to develop new and better products more cheaply, and we are really keen to work with industry and academia at this early development stage to ensure that the potential of this technique is fully realised to the benefit of the UK economy and society.’

Diffraction imaging itself is not new and has already led to the development of new drugs and understanding of viruses such as HIV and Foot and Mouth. However, these discoveries have relied on high intensity X-rays that can change or destroy the virus samples before gaining information about their structure.

Ultra-fast electron diffraction imaging, which uses very short, fast pulses of electrons, causes very little damage to the samples and can therefore take biological research beyond what is possible with X-rays on third generation light sources.

This is particularly useful for the drug discovery sector because it means that UK researchers will now be able to look at protein membranes in a way that they have not been able to before with X-ray technology. Proteins are the key targets of drugs, and over half of the drugs on the market today work by interacting with proteins in the cell membrane.

VELA’s electron beam generates very short pulses of electrons that take images at ultra-fast shutter speeds of around 100fs. It also puts the UK well on track to being one of the only places in the world capable of making ‘molecular movies’ of chemical and biological processes as they happen. This is a goal that could be reached as soon as 2015.

STFC’s Dr Mark Surman led the experiment which achieved the ultra-fast images on samples of platinum, aluminium and gold. Dr Surman said: ‘The capability that we have achieved here provides a much lower cost alternative that can be used on smaller accelerators, which might only be a few metres in length. This is a major milestone for VELA and we are really looking forward to taking this capability to the next level, which is to make molecular movies that can be used by industry to develop new products.’

VELA is the result of £2.5 million government investment into STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory for accelerator technology developments, as part of a series of investments across the Sci-Tech Daresbury science and innovation campus, one of the Government’s flagship Enterprise Zones.

Further information:

Versatile Electron Linear Accelerator

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