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The UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, will study the atomic make-up of serious viruses to determine new paths for the development of pharmaceuticals.

Diamond’s newly launched laboratory, Crystal, is the first place in Europe where pathogens requiring Containment Level 3, including viruses responsible for Aids and hepatitis, can be analysed using synchrotron light, a source of electromagnetic radiation.

Scientists at the facility have already studied pathogens at lower levels of containment.

Last year, UK and Chinese researchers determined the structure of the Human Enterovirus 7,1 which causes hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

Using intense X-rays, the team was able to view a detailed picture of the virus’ actions in sequence, and discovered that the virus appears to ‘breathe’.

Diamond Light Source Life Sciences director Professor Dave Stuart said; "We have now uncovered the structure of EV71 and identified the process by which the virus spreads throughout cells in the human body.

"These findings can now be used to develop new treatments for hand-foot-and-mouth; and also directly translated to other viruses of the same family, including polio and some forms of the common cold."

Some 1.7 million cases of hand-foot-and-mouth disease were reported by the Chinese Ministry of Health during 2010, and there is no vaccine or therapy available.

Science leader for Crystal, Dr Katherine McAuley said that given the groundwork that has been performed at Diamond, Crystal is introducing a "step change" in research capabilities, so that more complex studies can be carried out.

"The unique capabilities that the facility offers are expected to draw scientists from around the world, and establish the nation’s synchrotron as a hub of world-leading research into disease prevention," said McAuley.


Image: Diamond Light Source is the UK’s national synchrotron science facility, located in Oxfordshire. Photo: Courtesy of Diamond Light Source.