11 November 2008

Ex-builder in search for blood substitutes

Colchester Campus

A former builder, who left school with no qualifications, is part of a research team aiming to develop a life-saving blood substitute after years of evening courses and part-time study.

Gary Silkstone, who grew up in Colchester, is working with Professors Chris Cooper and Mike Wilson from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex after they received £115,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for the study. Also working on the project is another born-and-bred Colcestrian, Rebecca Holladay.

Gary explained: ‘I left school with no qualifications and went into the building trade for about ten years. I worked mainly as a carpenter’s apprentice, a dry-liner, a plasterer’s labourer, a decorator, did some bricklaying, floor screeding and artexing, and was even a groundworker (drains) for a short while.

‘Building and biophysics are surprisingly similar. A lot of biophysics work involves building and modifying equipment. If you are doing cutting-edge research then sometimes the right piece of equipment is not available and you need to build it yourself, or modify it. In this sense my building skills are transferable.’

Following years of evening classes at Colchester Institute, Gary found himself enrolling at the University of Essex where he completed a PhD before joining the Department’s research staff in 2000.

Rebecca, a current PhD student in the Department, grew up in Wivenhoe and attended Colne Community School in Brightlingsea and the Colchester Sixth Form College. In 2007 she graduated from Essex with a BSc in Biomedical Sciences.

Haemoglobin, the red molecule inside blood cells that carries oxygen around the body is central to the study. Gary and Rebecca are involved in developing an artificially modified haemoglobin molecule that could be used in place of real blood.

Professor Cooper explained: ‘Anyone who has given blood or received a transfusion knows just how vital blood supplies are. Although no one would doubt the need for blood in life-saving emergencies, there are growing concerns about its use in routine operations.

‘Blood also has limitations: it has a short shelf-life, needs to be matched for blood group, and there is the ever-present possibility of a new blood-borne virus such as HIV-AIDS, contaminating the supply.’

Artificial haemoglobins have the potential to avoid this problem. However, previous clinical trials have resulted in concerns about their toxicity. The team is investigating toxic molecules known as free radicals that are produced from haemoglobin. They have already worked out a way to control radical reactivity in the molecule and hope to use this knowledge to develop a safe product.

For further information please contact the University of Essex communications office on 01206 874377 or e-mail comms@essex.ac.uk.

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