Personal profile

Biography

After a short spell in London at the Department of health after I completed my PhD I went to work at the BBSRC Institute of Food Research (IFR) in Norwich where I became a head of the Physical Biochemistry Group in 1999. In 2005 I took over the leadership of the food material science research at IFR and working with four other research leaders developed a new programme of research relating food structure to health benefits of foods. This took the largely physical sciences knowledge base derived from food behaviour during food processing in a factory environment and applying it to understanding environmental responsiveness of foods during digestion in the biological-processing environment of the gastrointestinal tract. Specifically the programme sought to gain an understanding the rules governing the assembly of natural and fabricated food structures (including nano-scale structures), their subsequent disassembly during digestion and uptake by the gut epithelium. This has also involved promoting a transdisciplinary approach, linking physical scientists with physiologists, clinicians and psychologists to achieve its overall aims and goals. In my capacity as a BBSRC Institute Strategic Programme Grant leader I was also a member of the IFR Executive Board.

In 2011 I moved to the University of Manchester to take up my current position. Based in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology and working with the Respiratory and Allergy Research team at the University Hospital of South Manchester led by Professor Adnan Custovic, I am now applying my molecular science to understand, better diagnose and treat food allergies. This research stems from work I have done through a series of projects funded across several EU Frame Work Programmes. Through these projects I developed a network of researchers that put forward the expression of interest on food allergy which subsequently the consortium applied for, and won, and came on to become the EuroPrevall project. Spanning 17 countries, including India, China, Russia and Ghana, it had 63 partners spanning clinical science, epidemiology, social science, biochemical and immunological sciences, academia and industry. After moving to the University of Manchester I formed a further partnership which won the €9M, 38 partner, iFAAM project. This seeks to exploit much of the knowledge gained in EuroPrevall to develop tools and approaches to enable more effective management of food allergies. Future efforts will be focused on realising the potential of the data and biological samples (including DNA) collected in EuroPrevall and followed up in iFAAM to understand the basis of food allergies and deliver more effective management strategies. These two projects represent the largest block of funding ever awarded for food allergy.

Research interests

My research is focussed around the relationship between biophysical properties of proteins and polysaccharides, and their structural attributes within the context of behaviour during digestion in the gastrointestinal tract, and in particular with regards what makes some foods, like peanut, more allergenic than others, and why some food proteins become allergens. Different types of foods may elicit a variety of physiological and psychological responses which will have a direct impact on our health and well being. We are discovering what the rules are that govern the changes in natural and fabricated food structures (including nano-scale structures) during digestion and how that affects the form and uptake of food proteins, including allergens, by the gut epithelium. A bioinformatic analysis of food allergens of plant and animal origin has shown a restricted membership of protein superfamilies, supporting molecular and structural approaches to allergen classification. We are now seeking to discover why certain protein scaffolds dominate known allergens from foods, how the structural and biological properties conferred by these scaffolds may predisposes a protein to becoming a food allergen, and how this may be altered by food processing and the food matrix. In particular we have been investigating how thermal denaturation, such as roasting and boiling, and the food matrix (adsorption at interfaces, entrappment within baked matrices such as cookies and muffins) results in formation of partially-folded states and aggregated protein networks which may affect allergenic activity. The impact of such changes, together with biomolecular interactions with other components, such as lipids, on the kinetics of simulated gastrointestinal proteolysis is being investigated using proteomic approaches. This is complimented by studies on the effect on allergenicity, in terms of, for example human allergic IgE-binding capacity, undertaken using biological samples from the ManARTS research tissue bank in Manchester, and in collaboration with researchers around the world through the EuroPrevall and iFAAM projects. Our molecular level understanding of allergens in foods is underpinning the development of new profiling tools using mass spectrometry and the development of targetted mass spectrometry methods for determinations of allergens in foods, including peanut and gluten.   The interest in the allergen analysis has led to the formation of the Manchester Food Allergy Network (MFAN), a club of around 30 companies from around the world with interests in food allergen analysis and management. It includes retailers, manufacturers and analytical service providers and meets quarterly in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology.  

Since moving to The University of Manchester in the autumn of 2011 a major translational research activity has been to take the oral food challenge matrix developed for the EuroPrevall project forward as a diagnostic tool. This has been used in two multinational immunotherapy trials and the NIHR Respiratory and Allergy Clinical Research Facility at the University Hospital of South Manchester. This has lead to the formation of a start-up company, Reacta Biotech Ltd for which I am currently a founder director and Chief Scientific Officer (http://www.reactabiotech.co.uk/our-business). 

Memberships of committees and professional bodies

2005-2010 EFSA Self-task Food Allergy working group of the GMO panel

2006-present Food Standards Agency Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes

2008-2012 BBSRC DRINC Steering Group

2009-2011 BBSRC Committee C Core Panel Member 

Qualifications

BSc Hons in Biochemistry (University of Bristol, UK)

PhD Biochemistry (University of Kent at Canterbury, UK)

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 2 - Zero Hunger
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Biotechnology
  • Digital Futures
  • Lydia Becker Institute
  • Christabel Pankhurst Institute
  • Manchester Institute of Biotechnology
  • Manchester Environmental Research Institute

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