"Blobology" at the interface of biology and materials science
“I am not going to get a Nobel Prize for it, but I would leave with a certain satisfaction,” says guest research scientist Doctor Chris Garvey, as he completes his time at Malmö University’s Biofilms Research Center for Biointerfaces.
A recently installed small angle X-ray scattering instrument and a number of collaborative projects brought Garvey to Sweden from Australia, where he works for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.
There are some great opportunities to do some fantastic science here, and for me, ‘fantastic science’, is the thing which make a small difference to many people...
“My particular area of skill is small angle scattering; the non-technical way of looking at this, is ‘blobology’ — I am very good at saying what shape a blob is! The shape and size of a blob at the nanoscale is an excellent tool for providing mechanistic understanding of a very broad range of (bio) physical and chemical processes. Those processes which are most interesting for me are occurring at the interface of biology and materials science.
“I joke that atoms are largely a conceptual aid; I don’t need to know what is inside so much. A lot of biological functioning is just about things changing shape. It’s a very simple perspective, but the means by which you get to that perspective is quite technical.”
Garvey, who has been working with small angle X-rays scattering for 20 years, has spent some of his time at Biofilms working with skin and skin conditions.
“My colleagues here have been interested in how much the molecules which make up the stratum corneum layer of skin sit together. The measurements that I am an expert in allows us to see how clearly they are packed together.”
Researchers put smaller water molecule —something which is intimately involved with hydration treatments — with smaller molecules like glycerol, which can relieve the skin of dryness. They looked at how they get into this packing.
“That really is a key to understanding how they function. One of the things we have been trying to do here is look at how this packing is affected by the inflammatory process.
“Apart from going red, there is a whole lot of biochemistry which is an inflammation response. How the body regulates what kind of molecules it produces to make skin. And one of the things we are interested in is how this intrinsically biochemistry changes the way these molecules are packed together.
Sclerosis, for example, is an inflammatory process “gone crazy”, explains Garvey. The regulation of the biochemistry has gone awry. In some diseases, inflammation affects the way things pass through the skin and the lipids, the molecules which make up the barrier, don’t function. The researchers looked at how disease affects that barrier by looking at how the molecules are packed into the layer on top of the skin.
“If the people I work with here could come up with some treatment which made 20 per cent of the really itchy population more comfortable, then the world would be a better place. I am not going to get a Nobel Prize for that, but I would leave with a certain satisfaction.
“There are some great opportunities to do some fantastic science here, and for me, ‘fantastic science’, is the thing which make a small difference to many people rather than the big end stuff — and that is the theme of my work,” he adds.
Text by :Adrian Grist