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Our research focusses on the molecular structure of biological tissues. The bulk of structural tissues such as bone, muscle, tendon and skin, is the so-called extracellular matrix. This extracellular material gives the tissue its essential mechanical properties, for instance the stiffness and toughness of bone, the elasticity of skin. The molecular structure of the extracellular matrix is extremely complex and changes, often radically, in ageing, in diseases such as cancer and degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis and with mechanical wear and tear from everyday life. Not only do these molecular structure changes impact the mechanical integrity of the tissue, they are crucial in changing the behaviour of cells in the tissue. Cells take their cues from the molecular structure of the extracellular matrix that surrounds them, and so their behaviour changes when the extracellular matrix structure changes. This results in aberrant cell behaviour in cancer for instance, and imperfect tissue repair after damage.

The major paradigm in our research is that normal cell behaviour can be restored by restoring normal extracellular matrix structure. A significant part of our research is directed towards understanding what the normal extracellular matrix structure is and what cues cells take from it so that we understand what corrections might need to be made in damaged tissue. The second aspect of our research is understanding how the extracellular matrix structure changes in ageing and disease. The final and most challenging part of our research is devising ways to manipulate the extracellular matrix to provide therapeutic benefit against diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis, hardening of the arteries and the effects of diabetes.

We are a highly multidisciplinary team – chemists, biologists and biophysicists – and we collaborate widely with other chemists and biologists as well as engineers, materials scientists and medics. Our interdisciplinary approach integrates many different characterization techniques. Solid-state NMR spectroscopy is a core technique within the group, along with confocal imaging, electron microscopy (TEM, SEM), fluorescence spectroscopy, proteomics, etc.