Professor Jonathan Heddle is set to embark on a new era in Bionanoscience at Durham University, thanks to a £4.8million Leverhulme International Professorship award.

Currently based at Malopolska Centre of Biotechnology (MCB), Jagiellonian University in Poland, Professor Heddle’s research into bionanoscience aims to understand, design and build artificial and natural biological nanomachines.

Living systems are built and maintained through the action of countless biological machines such as enzymes which are made from protein. They exist at the nanoscale (a nanometre being one thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair) and many act like tiny robots.

Working together, they are responsible for defining features of cells such as self-repair and autonomous motion. Taking inspiration from nature’s nanomachines Professor Heddle hopes to build artificial cell-like ‘nanorobots’ that are biocompatible and biodegradable and capable of carrying out useful tasks not seen or even not possible in nature.

For example, such nanomachines could one day act as ‘gatekeepers’ for our bodies; identifying and destroying cancer, acting as new drug delivery systems and even slow the aging process.

The highly competitive Leverhulme International Professorships enable universities to attract globally leading scholars to take up permanent professorial posts in the UK. The funding will help establish the Centre for Programmable Biological Matter at Durham University, supporting a team of early career researchers and PhD students and building a solid foundation for further development of this exciting new area of research at the university.

Professor Martin Cann, Head of Biosciences Department at Durham University, said: “I am delighted that Jonathan is joining the University. We see this award as just the beginning, his arrival is part of an exciting plan to build on our world class bio-capabilities and provide the basis for further expansion of our research goals.”

Professor Heddle completed his PhD in biochemistry at the University of Leicester. After obtaining the prestigious Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Postdoctoral Fellowship for Research, he conducted structural biology research at Yokohama City University in Japan.

Professor Heddle then created his own laboratory at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and again at the RIKEN research centre in Wakō, Japan, before moving to Jagiellonian University in Poland.

Originally from the Bishop Auckland area, Professor Heddle has a long history of successful collaboration with Durham University, pushing research frontiers in bionanoscience. This has included work aimed at understanding viral protein machinery, to build programmable protein nanocages, which can be used in biomedicine.

Professor Heddle said: “Bionanoscience is a fast growing and ground-breaking area of research which will precipitate a Fifth Industrial Revolution resulting in far-reaching new capabilities in materials, energy production and therapeutics. I look forward to building on the excellent facilities and highly interdisciplinary work being carried out at Durham University’s Biophysical Sciences Institute to develop an internationally renowned centre in this area.”

Professor Anna Vignoles, Director of the Leverhulme Trust, added: “The Trust is thrilled to award Professor Heddle a Leverhulme International Professorship. He is undertaking exciting and internationally important work in bionanoscience. This class of innovative, cutting-edge research will enable the UK to be world-leading in this area.”

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