Fundamentals and applications of lipid membrane biophysics

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Horsley Park, 22nd-24th September 2015

Researchers from the ITN-SNAL network have met again to discuss the frontiers in the biophysics and biochemistry of lipid membranes. Throughout the two-day meeting (22.09.2015 – 24.09.2015) held in Horsley Park, UK, young researchers had a unique opportunity for active interactions with experts in the field. By showing their latest results and discussing conundrums that have arisen along the way, ITN PhD students gained fresh yet critical insights into their projects, along with suggestions to broaden their work towards more realistic applications. The meeting provided an opportunity for interactions both between researchers within the ITN-SNAL network and with researchers working outside the network, in other projects, in particular the CAPITALS programme.
Novel experimental approaches to studying the chemical and physical properties of lipid bilayers were illustrated by the speakers, highlighting the importance of learning and developing novel methodologies throughout the scientific career of a researcher. Students had the chance to learn first-hand from renowned experts how to combine membrane physics, lipid chemistry and optical tools in order to enhance their research potential and widen their skills and knowledge. Nick Brooks (Imperial College London) and Ian Tucker (Unilever), particularly, talked about the possibilities of using scattering techniques to probe the structural properties of membranes.  The significance of these membrane properties and the way that they are exploited by living cells for a range of cellular processes was then highlighted by Pietro Cicuta, clearly demonstrating the ultimate motivation behind many of these experiments.
Alongside lectures given by leading scientists in academia, a special attention was brought by the talks presented by industrial representatives, namely Ian Tucker (Unilever) and Kevin Ward (Biopharma), who stressed the needs of the pharmaceutical market at this very moment. This was complemented by the lecture from Nigel Slater (Cambridge) covering the issues surrounding the safety and regulation of nano-medicines. Such knowledge will surely prove useful for young researchers, as they now focus on the most burning issues in the pharmaceutical field.

A keynote lecture, given by Niels-Bohr Professor David Needham, seamlessly merged these two approaches to pharmaceutical developments – basic biophysical research with all stages of clinical trials. His pioneering work in the determination of the physical properties of lipid vesicles by the micropipette aspiration technique ultimately led to the creation of novel carriers of anticancer drugs, now patented and successfully used to cure patients.
During the meeting, the experimental methods were closely followed by several theoretical approaches, underlining their increasing relevance in biophysical research. Miguel Angel Gonzalez (Imperial College London) showed how molecular simulations can be used as a ‘computational microscope’, probing the events occurring at the nanometric scale, simultaneously overcoming the existing limits in current experimental methodologies. This molecular level approach was contrasted by a talk from Halim Kusumaatmaja (Durham) in which he described how membranes can be modelled at the continuum level and showed the insights into vesicle shapes and fluctuation behaviour that these theories can provide. Furthermore, the exemplary lecture of Massimo Noro (Unilever) gave clear insights into how theoretical approaches can spark improvements in healthcare industrial applications.
The importance of this meeting and the whole ITN-SNAL network was best summarized in Prof. Needham’s words, spoken during the final gala dinner:  ‘I was also very impressed with the involvement and level of mentorship that was evident in this SNAL program.  Top researchers in their respective fields, taking the time and care in coaching, guiding, and allowing their charges to work in an open, encouraging, and supportive environment, is clearly integral to the success of the program. It was very refreshing to see this kind of mentor-mentee relationship within and indeed across the groups. Even in this two-day event, I see a true Training Network, that is well on the way to achieving its goal of providing “scientific and transferable skill training and career development for early stage researchers and experienced researchers in the field of lipid research”. So, congratulations on establishing a superb programme composed of a series of great projects, expert PIs, top students and high quality experimental, simulation, and theoretical resources.’

The event and lectures were enthralling, accentuated by the awe-inspiring venue. Horsley Park provided a wonderful stage for the lectures, held in a century-old hall. The Horsley buildings, from the Towers to modest cottages, with their architectural theme unique to the area, bear the imprint of architect Sir Charles Barry (best known for designing the Houses of Parliament in London). The beautiful landscape surrounding it made the stay even more worthwhile and pleasant for all the attendees.
We would like to express our deepest thanks to the ESR organizers, Anna Sofia Tascini, Shiqi Wang and James Carter as well as to the hosting supervisors Prof. John Seddon, Prof. Fernando Bresme, and Dr. Rongjun Chen, for this wonderful and unique experience.

Book of abstracts
David Needham Comments to the workshop
on ‘Fundamentals and Applications of Lipid Membrane Biophysics’

Monika Kluzek
Mattia Morandi

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