University of Dundee

“Tissue time machine” target for Dundee researcher with Wellcome Leap

16 Apr 2021

A University of Dundee scientist has accepted a role to lead a $55 million initiative aiming to create a “tissue time machine” to fight disease.

Jason Swedlow, Professor of Quantitative Cell Biology at Dundee’s School of Life Sciences, has been seconded to the position of Programme Director of Delta Tissue, a global effort to predict the future state of human tissue and the efficacy of available treatments for individuals diagnosed with some of the world’s deadliest diseases.

The project is funded by Wellcome Leap, a non-profit organisation that builds and executes bold, unconventional programmes aiming to tackle some of the world’s most challenging health problems. In Delta Tissue, Professor Swedlow will be responsible for bringing together life scientists and engineers from across universities, foundations, and the private sector to develop a platform that can profile tissue states and predict transitions between states in ways that are impossible today.

Infectious and noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, which claims 10 million lives each year, and tuberculosis, which results in 1.4 million deaths annually, cause changes at the molecular and cellular level that define how certain tissues behave in our bodies.

Without an understanding of the physiological state of tissue over time, it is difficult to predict how a disease will progress on an individual basis. This often forces medical professionals to make treatment decisions based on population-level data alone. While a certain cancer drug might be effective in 30% of people it is not known if an individual is part of that group until after treatment has taken place.

Delta Tissue aims to build new, widely accessible platforms that allow doctors to predict how tissues will change in the future to enable them to intervene in the present – a tissue time machine. The profiling of tissue relates to Professor Swedlow’s expertise in scientific imaging, data integration and advanced data analytics. He will bring this knowledge to the programme as he administers the fund to enable partners and research groups all around the world to work towards its goal.

Professor Swedlow said, “I feel very honoured to have been named a Programme Director at Wellcome Leap. This is a very exciting organisation that aims to facilitate huge steps in capability and achievement beyond what had previously been imagined possible. They want to make the extraordinary advancements through transformative projects optimised for innovation.

“Our project will explore the problems arising from a lack of understanding of how likely a tissue is to transform into a new state. If you look at tuberculosis and breast cancer, they are both diseases of tissue states. What we are doing is mapping the tissue so we can look at it and accurately predict how an infection or tumour will develop. From there we can make decisions on which to treat and how to do it.

“This is critical because if we can understand how a particular tumour will respond to chemotherapy, we know whether this is effective or whether surgery is the better option for a patient. And this is even more important in the case of intractable tumours like triple-negative breast cancer or brain tumours.

“Understanding how tissues transition between states would enable medical professionals to make life-saving decisions based on an individual’s needs and make a huge difference across the world.”

Delta Tissue will require the integration of technologies that are typically expensive to buy and run, and require expert staff that are in short supply. A goal of the programme is to fuel innovation and treatment by increasing accessibility of the platforms and tools to academic centres, start-ups, SMEs, the biopharma industry, and ultimately to clinicians and patients for diagnostic use.

Critically, these tools must be demonstrably better than expert human judgment with respect to time, cost, resource requirements, and predictive value.

“If successful, the platform will allow medical professionals to intervene in diseases earlier and with approaches that are individually targeted, while also helping researchers understand the mechanisms that drive disease itself,” said Regina E. Dugan, CEO of Leap. “This, in turn, will create new opportunities for intervention that could help eradicate many of the stubbornly challenging diseases around the world.”

About Wellcome Leap

Wellcome Leap builds and executes bold, unconventional programmes, funded at scale. Programmes that aim to deliver breakthroughs in human health over 5 – 10 years. Founded by the Wellcome Trust in 2020 as a US non-profit with initial funding of $300 million, Leap programs target complex human health challenges with the goal of achieving breakthrough scientific and technological solutions. Operating at the intersection of life sciences and engineering, Leap programs require best-in-class, multi-disciplinary, global teams assembled from universities, companies, and non-profits working together to solve problems that they cannot solve alone.

www.wellcomeleap.org/

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