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18 Nov 2013

Peptide Biomaterials – the future of peptide science?

Back in the day, peptides were of interest because many hormones were peptides and analogues could be useful for treatment of endocrine disorders and various hormone-dependent cancers. Some, such as Zoladex (Goserelin acetate) even made it into the clinic. Then neuropeptides were (and still are) ‘the next big thing’. Of course, in all of these areas, peptides suffer from the usual problem of Pharma’s need for small-molecule drugs that can be given orally. Zoladex made it to the clinic because of the severity of the disease being treated and because ICI Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca) made a depot formulation that only needed a single monthly injection.

But there is one area that is different – peptide biomaterials. Maybe that is why the field is growing so rapidly and is one of the most exciting areas of peptide science. The whole point is, not to use a peptide as the start of a ‘traditional’ medicinal chemistry based drug development programme, but to use it for its physical properties – and some peptides have very interesting physical properties.

In September 2010 an issue of Chemical Society Reviews was devoted to the subject of peptide and protein based materials (you can read it free online). The editors were Rein Ulijn of the University of Strathclyde and Dek Woolfson of the University of Bristol and there were contributions from some of the leading researchers in the field from the UK and around the world. Many of them gave talks at Nanopeptide 2012, a meeting held in Manchester in November 2012 that attracted almost 100 delegates and speakers. Rein Ulijn was a member of the programme committee at that meeting, along with Aline Miller, University of Manchester and Louise Serpell, University of Sussex.

In the last couple of years there have also been Gordon Research Conferences on Biomaterials & Tissue Engineering and Bioinspired Materials, both of which featured work in the area of peptide biomaterials. Also held recently, PepMat 2013 ‘Peptide Materials for Biomedicine and Nanotechnology’, was held in a very attractive looking hotel in Sorrento (Naples), Italy (sometimes there are advantages to being a research scientist!) The plenary lectures were being given by Ian Hamley, University of Reading and Hiroshi Matsui, of the Hunter College, City University of New York.

There are other meetings in this field organised by Macro Group UK (a joint interest group of the Royal Society for Chemistry and the Society of Chemical Industry) as well as the Biochemical Society (see for example Protein engineering: new approaches and applications, held in April 2013) and the Institute of Physics, which has some interest groups in this area including the Biological Physics Group which is organising a meeting in April 2014 ‘The Physics of Soft and Biological Matter’ in collaboration with, amongst others, the British Biophysical Society that also has an interest in the area.

Cambridge Research Biochemicals is collaborating with researchers with interests in this area, too. For example, Alberto Saiani in the University of Manchester is an academic member of the BioScent project, a 15 member consortium of academic and industrial partners, including CRB, that aims to develop ‘scaffolds’ to control stem cell recruitment, proliferation and differentiation and enabling angiogenesis for cardiovascular engineered tissues as way of treating cardiovascular disease or the repair of damage caused by myocardial infarction.

Another Cambridge Research Biochemicals collaborator is Steven Cobb of the University of Durham, who is working with CRB on a project to develop synthetic routes to non-commercially available chemokines (see this recent blog entry). However, the Cobb group has a wide range of projects, including developing novel biosensors through dispersal of carbon nanotubes with peptide biomaterials.

Recently, Cambridge Research Biochemicals sponsored the PPSG Early Stage Researcher Meeting where there was a poster from the group of Elizabeth Bromley in the Dept. of Physics at the University of Durham where they are combining coiled coil peptide designs with other molecular components to devise and produce synthetic motors. Their ‘Tumbleweed’ is a synthetic motor protein with 3 legs designed to walk along a DNA track.

So, for someone with a background in peptide chemistry who has been aware of the potential for biomedical application of peptides over the last 25 years, to find a new and even more exciting area of peptide science was quite a revelation. However, it seems that I am not alone and there must be many opportunities for more interdisciplinary interaction to drive forward this exciting field – one that is full of potential.


Stephen Hoare, Owner / Principal at Peptide Conferences