Chemical Probes

Pharmacological tools developed at Bristol lead to spin-outs, sales revenues and industry investment.


Glutamate receptors play an important role in transmitting signals in the central nervous system. An important family of glutamate receptors - known as NMDA receptors - are composed of four subunits and differences in these subunits can confer different properties to the receptor. However, studies on these subunits were limited because the molecular tools available weren't specific enough to study the subunits selectively.


Professor Jeffrey Watkins and Professor David Jane in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology pioneered research into NMDA receptors. They developed a wide range of chemical compounds - known as chemical probes - that selectively bind to the subunits of these receptors and to individual members of other subtypes of glutamate receptor, activating or inhibiting their function in order to better understand their role.


In 1982, Professor Watkins founded the spinout company Tocris Neuramin to sell these compounds to the scientific community. The company evolved into Tocris Bioscience in 2005 and in 2006 was sold for £14 million. Today, the company is a leading supplier of high performance life science reagents and peptides, with reported revenues of £11.7 million in 2010. In 2011, Techne Corporation acquired Tocris Bioscience for £75 million. 

Read the chemical probes case study.

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