Published on 16/01/2024
Cell membrane with protein channels
Image shows how tiny water channels control how water enters and exits cells through their membranes
  • The Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence (AIME) will be set up with a £10m grant from Research England
  • AIME will be led by Professor Roslyn Bill from Biosciences and Professor Paul Topham from Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry
  • The globally unique institute will use biomimetic polymer membranes for applications such as water purification and drug development

Aston University will establish the Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence (AIME), a globally unique, cross-disciplinary institute to develop novel biomimetic membranes, after receiving a major grant of £10m from Research England.

AIME will be led by Professor Roslyn Bill, from the School of Biosciences, with co-lead Professor Paul Topham from the department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry (CEAC).

Membranes, both biological and synthetic, are hugely important in many sectors. For example, the world’s top ten selling human medicines all target proteins in biological membranes, while synthetic polymer membranes are used in the US$100bn/year water purification industry. The team behind AIME believes that the full potential of membranes will only be realised by an interdisciplinary group spanning biology, physics and chemistry that can investigate membranes holistically.

Professor Bill, a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced grantee leads Aston Membrane Proteins and Lipids (AMPL) research centre of excellence that studies the structure and function of membrane proteins and associated lipids. Professor Topham leads Aston Polymer Research Group (APRG), which investigates the nanoscale behaviour of block copolymers (a type of polymer with a structure made of more than one type of polymer molecule) and polymer technologies for membranes. AMPL and APRG have already begun collaborative research and AIME will bring together the complementary expertise of both research clusters into one institute.  

AIME will initially comprise the eight researchers from AMPL and APRG. Alongside the co-leads Professor Bill and Professor Topham, will be Dr Alan GoddardProfessor Andrew DevittProfessor Corinne SpickettDr Alice RothnieDr Matt Derry and Dr Alfred Fernandez. It plans to recruit three further academics, six tenure-track research fellows, three postdoctoral research assistants (PDRAs), six PhD students, a research technician and a business development manager. Importantly, AIME will work with many existing Aston University colleagues to build a comprehensive research community focused on all aspects of membrane science.

The new AIME team will focus on the development of bioinspired, highly selective polymer structures for applications in water purification and waste remediation, nanoparticles loaded with therapeutic molecules to treat disorders ranging from chronic wounds to neurological injuries, and the purification of individual membrane proteins with polymers to study them as drug targets.

The vision is for AIME to become a ‘one-stop shop’ for interdisciplinary, translational membrane research through its facilities access and expertise, ideally located in the heart of the country.

Professor Bill said:

“The creation of AIME is ground-breaking. Together with Aston’s investment, E3 funding will deliver a step-change in scale and the rate at which we can grow capacity. We will address intractable scientific challenges in health, disease, and biotechnology, combining our world-class expertise in polymer chemistry and membrane biology to study membranes holistically. The excellence of our science, alongside recent growth in collaborative successes means we have a unique opportunity to deliver AIME’s ambitious and inclusive vision.”

Professor Topham said:

“We are really excited by this fantastic opportunity to work more closely with our expert colleagues in Biosciences to create advanced technology to address real world problems. From our side, we are interested in molecular engineering, where we control the molecular structure of new materials to manipulate their properties to do the things that we want! Moreover, we are passionate about a fully sustainable future for our planet, and this investment will enable us to develop technological solutions in a sustainable or ‘green’ way.”

Professor Aleks Subic, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Aston University, says:

“Our new Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence (AIME) will be a regional, national, and international research leader in membrane science, driving game-changing research and innovation that will produce a pipeline of high-quality research outcomes leading to socioeconomic impact, develop future global research leaders, create advanced tech spinout companies and high value-added jobs for Birmingham and the West Midlands region. Its establishment aligns perfectly with our 2030 strategy that positions Aston University as a leading university of science, technology and enterprise.”

Steven Heales, Policy Manager (Innovation) at the West Midlands Combined Authority, said:

“WMCA is delighted to see Research England back the Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence. This will enable Aston University’s excellent academics and research community to work closely with businesses to make advances in membrane technology and applications.

“In 2023 the West Midlands Combined Authority agreed a Deeper Devolution Trailblazer Deal with Government, which included a new strategic innovation partnership with Government. Projects like AIME are exactly the kind of impact we expect this new partnership to generate, so watch this space.”

Lisa Smith, chief executive of Midlands Mindforge, the patient capital investment company formed by eight Midlands research-intensive universities including Aston University, said:

“This grant is an important vote of confidence in the Midlands scientific R&D ecosystem. AIME will play an important role in the future research of pioneering breakthroughs in membrane science and enable the world-leading research team at Aston University to develop solutions to real world problems. We look forward to closely working with the Institute and nurturing best-in-field research being undertaken at Aston out of the lab and into the wider society so it can make a positive impact”.

Rob Valentine, regional director of Bruntwood SciTech, the UK’s leading developer of city-wide innovation ecosystems and specialist environments and a strategic partner in Birmingham Innovation Quarter, said:

"As a proud supporter of the Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence (AIME), I am thrilled at the launch of this groundbreaking initiative. AIME exemplifies Aston University's commitment to advancing cutting-edge interdisciplinary research and further raises the profile of the region’s exemplary research capabilities and sector specialisms.

“AIME's vision of becoming a 'one-stop shop' for translational membrane research, strategically located at the heart of the country, aligns perfectly with our strategy at Bruntwood SciTech. We are committed to working with partners, including Aston University, to develop a globally significant innovation district at the heart of the UK where the brightest minds and most inspiring spaces will foster tomorrow’s innovation.”

Membrane research at Aston University has also recently received two other grants. In November 2023, Professor Bill received £196,648 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s Pioneer Awards Scheme to understand how tiny membrane water channels in brain cells keep brains healthy. In December 2023, a team led by AIME team-member Dr Derry received £165,999 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop biomimetic membranes for water purification.

For more information about AIME, visit the webpage.

Notes to editors

About Aston University

For over a century, Aston University’s enduring purpose has been to make our world a better place through education, research and innovation, by enabling our students to succeed in work and life, and by supporting our communities to thrive economically, socially and culturally.

Aston University’s history has been intertwined with the history of Birmingham, a remarkable city that once was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution and the manufacturing powerhouse of the world.

Born out of the First Industrial Revolution, Aston University has a proud and distinct heritage dating back to our formation as the School of Metallurgy in 1875, the first UK College of Technology in 1951, gaining university status by Royal Charter in 1966, and becoming the Guardian University of the Year in 2020.

Building on our outstanding past, we are now defining our place and role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (and beyond) within a rapidly changing world.

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