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Open for business

18 July 2003

Academic research of the highest standard lies at the heart of Bristol University. It is potentially a rich source of commercial ideas. The following case studies illustrate a small selection of the University's recent enterprise activities.


Testing, testing, testing

There is now overwhelming evidence that too much testing has a negative effect on the motivation of children. But with students more and more oriented towards ‘trading for grades’ and teachers to ‘teaching the test’, there is an urgent need to help teachers achieve better outcomes for their pupils.

A recent research project in the Graduate School of Education, led by Dr Ruth Deakin-Crick and Professor Patricia Broadfoot, has demonstrated that when teachers are free to focus on what really matters in the classroom – learning – they are able to create a climate which helps children actually get better at learning itself, rather than just passing tests, because they have developed the ability to learn for themselves. This ability turns them into ‘lifelong learners’ and stays with them through formal education, the world of work, and beyond.

Working with local schools over a number of years, the ELLI Project (Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory) identified seven aspects of the learning process termed ‘learning dimensions’, which helped researchers develop the ‘ELLI Profile’, an assessment tool that can differentiate between effective and ineffective learners. Effective learners have balanced ELLI profiles, thus if an assessment identifies that a particular pupil or class is weak in one or more of the seven key attributes, the teacher can adjust their teaching style or lesson content appropriately. ELLI assessments can be repeated over a number of years to assess the effectiveness of these teacher interventions.

Teachers in several Bristol schools have piloted ELLI programmes and been tremendously enthusiastic about the results. ELLI will therefore be launched as a fully-fledged commercial programme during the coming year, supported by trained consultants and targeted publications. The ELLI Profile will be available commercially from January 2004. Income from the commercialization of ELLI will help support research, thus improving education for children and adults into the foreseeable future.

Discovering new drugs

The vast majority of modern drugs work by binding to protein ‘targets’ that either lie on the surface of cells or deep inside them. In the past few years there has been an explosion in the number of potential targets to which new drugs could be delivered for treating diseases not adequately addressed with current therapies. Much of this has been made possible by the sequencing of the human genome. These advances are being exploited by ProXara Biotechnology Ltd, a company spun out of the Department of Biochemistry by Professor Jeremy Tavaré and Dr Paul England in 2001.

Central to successful drug discovery is identifying new chemicals that bind to these protein targets and have highly beneficial medical effects, such as killing or preventing the spread of tumour cells. ProXara is using microscopy to observe these protein targets as they function in their natural environment inside living cells. They use this method to identify drug-like chemicals, obtained from large chemical libraries, that stick to the protein target inside the cell. ProXara has automated this screening process by using advanced robotics such that tens of thousands of chemicals can be screened in a few days. Once found, the identified chemicals may then be used to develop new drugs for some of the world’s major health problems such as diabetes, cancer and inflammation.

Treating childhood cancer

The Bristol-based charity CLIC (Cancer and Leukaemia in Childhood) has become one of Britain’s most dynamic children’s charities, offering help and support to families across the UK. In 1985 the CLIC Research Unit was set up in the University’s Pathology and Microbiology Department to study the fundamental changes that cause cancers to develop in children – work that is vital to improve cure rates and to progress treatments already in use.

The major project in the CLIC Research Unit involves the identification of genetic defects in childhood cancers. One of the main aims of this project is to develop new technologies for screening childhood cancers for such defects in thousands of genes simultaneously. This will not only provide invaluable information for clinical diagnosis but may also identify potential new targets for therapy. Dr Karim Malik and colleagues have made such significant progress towards this goal, that the University has applied for a patent based on their exciting results. It has also entered into an agreement with a European biotechnology company to develop their findings into a cutting-edge screening and diagnostic tool – a collaboration that could lead to completely new ways of treating childhood cancer.


Scraping the barrel

‘Pigging’ is a technique in which a solid piston-like plug (the pig) is driven down a pipe to clean the walls, to remove a build-up of material, or to separate different materials within a production process. Pigging can help process plants to operate more efficiently as well as reduce pollution, two factors which are becoming increasingly important. However, the technique is not without its problems. The pigs tend to get stuck in the pipe and are frequently unable to negotiate complex ducting.

Professor Joe Quarini in the Department of Mechanical Engineering determinedthat what was needed was an infinitely flexible pig capable of tackling the largest volumes, whilst cleaning out the smallest passages and scraping surfaces clean like a solid. The simple solution he came up with was a pumpable mix of crushed ice and water. Since that time ‘ice pigging’ has been the subject of much attention, with the oil and nuclear industries both funding projects, although it is the food sector that has shown most interest.

Clearly ice pigging was applicable across a wide range of industries, thus a spin-out company Cleanicepig Ltd was established to exploit the technology. The first challenge for the company will be to roll out the ice pigging technology across the food sector in Europe.

Continuing development of the technology is also needed as the equipment must be integrated into the process control system in an effective and seamless manner. At a more fundamental level the interaction of the ice pig with a range of food materials is not easy to predict and will continue to be the subject of ongoing research.

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