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Flagship Facility Supports Advanced Analytical Science

Photograph of the Agilent Measurement Suite at Imperial College London taken through the window.
The Agilent Measurement Suite at Imperial College London. Credit: Thomas Angus.
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The advancement of scientific research relies heavily on the analytical insights offered to us by precision instrumentation. However, gaining access to the right equipment can be challenging, especially for smaller organizations or groups. Initial equipment costs are often not trivial, and then there’s the training and maintenance. Depending on the project, the requirements for certain instruments may also be infrequent or sporadic, making it hard to justify purchases, especially with continual advancements in instrument capabilities. And what if the equipment still doesn’t do what you need it to?

So, what’s the answer? Collaboration and sharing! In 2016, Agilent teamed up with Imperial College London (ICL) to create the Agilent Measurement Suite (AMS), which opened its doors to scientists in 2019, offering them access to the latest analytical instruments and so much more. This relationship appears to be thriving and is set to continue.

We spoke to Prof. Oscar Ces, head of the Department of Chemistry at ICL, to find out about the evolution of ICL’s White City Campus, the AMS and what it means for scientists across the board.

Karen Steward (KS): Can you please tell us about the White City Campus, how it came to be and ICL’s role?

Oscar Ces (OC): White City earned its name in 1908 with the installation of a Franco-British Exhibition to highlight the industrial and cultural achievements of both countries. This enormous public fair attracted millions of visitors and involved the construction of over 100 ornate palaces and exhibition buildings – each covered in white stucco, giving the area its name “White” City.

Innovation and delivering societal and economic impact are always at the heart of the mission of ICL. As we looked to expand, we purchased 23 acres of land at White City. ICL has a long-term vision for a transformative enterprise district that can co-locate and co-integrate entrepreneurship, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), industry, academia, investors, inventors, local government and the local community at scale. The first step in this vision has been creating a hub for postgraduate accommodation in 2012, followed by dedicated spaces for innovation and translation (IHUB, 2016) prototyping and additive manufacturing (Advanced Hackspace, 2017), the home for the Department of Chemistry research (Molecular Sciences Research Hub (MSRH), 2018), biomedical engineering research (Sir Michael Uren Hub, 2021) and additional space for high-growth companies (ScaleSpace 2021). These buildings share a unique vision to co-locate the 2 k+ academic and 500 + industry partners based at White City, enabling them to work shoulder to shoulder on common challenges, helping to transform the area into a thriving hotbed for scientific and technological innovation. Working together, we have seen the development of true end-to-end partnerships and new ways of working that have overcome traditional barriers to collaboration between industry and academia.

Facilitated through strategic partnerships with the local Hammersmith and Fulham Council (which has an industrial strategy with ICL at its heart), and companies that can support industry of all sizes as they scale, the area in and around the campus has developed into a burgeoning cluster for life sciences research – now termed the White City Innovation District. The growth in the last five years has been nothing short of spectacular and the future of the White City Innovation District is really exciting.

KS: What does the AMS offer scientists in academia and industry that they might not get otherwise? Who can use the AMS and how does it differ to other shared facilities?

OC: The AMS, located within Imperial's MSRH, offers scientists in academia and industry a unique set of benefits that may not be available elsewhere. The 120 m² facility is equipped with advanced analytical instrumentation from Agilent, including mass spectrometry, chromatography, spectroscopy and cell analysis systems. Regular upgrades ensure that the AMS maintains state-of-the-art capabilities and engagement with the user community ensures the equipment on offer is tailored to the needs of the research conducted within it.

What sets the AMS apart from many other shared facilities is its approach to user engagement. Scientists – whether based in academia or industry – who wish to utilize the AMS undergo comprehensive training in utilizing the instrumentation effectively. This training empowers researchers to develop their own customized workflows, specifically tailored to their unique sample requirements. As a result, scientists using the AMS become expert users of the equipment and can achieve bespoke methods and results that align precisely with their research objectives.

In essence, the AMS provides a research environment rather than functioning solely as a service. It encourages scientists to actively engage with the instrumentation, enabling them to explore and refine their own methodologies. This research-oriented approach distinguishes the AMS from other shared facilities, offering scientists an opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research and obtain highly personalized outcomes. Crucially too, for early-stage companies who do not have the resources to purchase this equipment themselves, access to the AMS provides them with opportunities to accelerate their research pipelines at critical points early in their growth.

KS: You’ve recently extended your partnership with Agilent, could you explain what this means for scientists?

OC: I am delighted that the extension of our partnership ensures ongoing benefits for staff, students and private companies, by granting them access to Agilent’s cutting-edge tools. The enhanced expert guidance and training, led by AMS director Prof. Tony Cass and deputy director Prof. Marina Kuimova, make it easier than ever for the scientific community to leverage Agilent’s instrument capabilities at the forefront of scientific progress.

This collaboration with Agilent exemplifies an ideal strategic partnership that we are dedicated to nurturing and expanding. In the first 3 years, the facility has supported over 140 research collaborations and initiated over 200 research projects. Our goal is to deliver increasingly greater benefits to Imperial, Agilent, the academic and private research community and all those who derive advantages from the AMS. This partnership creates opportunities for continued growth, enabling us to provide even more value to the scientific community and further advance scientific research.

KS: Through the facility, are scientists able to feedback and help direct future iterations of Agilent’s equipment, software and workflows if the existing solutions don’t enable them to, for example, address certain research questions or their target sample types are problematic?

OC: At the core of this partnership lies a profound knowledge exchange, as Imperial researchers, industry partners, SMEs and Agilent collaborate to tackle unresolved challenges. Agilent brings their extensive expertise in instrumentation, while engaging with the AMS exposes them to the current scientific problems. As a result, collaborating parties benefit from enhanced workflows and the exploration of new frontiers in applying the instrumentation. This collaborative effort not only improves existing workflows but also pushes the boundaries of what the instruments can achieve.

For instance, in one case, a pediatrician working in West Africa contacted Imperial about analyzing traditional African herbal remedies that he suspected had been adulterated with pharmaceuticals as young children in his clinic were showing symptoms consistent with this. Dr. Trevor Ferris, facility manager at the AMS, obtained several samples of the herbal materials and using the suite set about determining which, if any, adulterants were present. Working closely with Dr. Gordon Ross, a senior applications scientist with Agilent at the time, he used a large database of known toxic compounds to screen the samples. This collaboration enabled them to quantify the identified adulterants.

KS: Can you foresee a time when communal facilities like the AMS become a commonplace way for scientists to access equipment? Could these be vendor neutral “one-stop shops” or would you anticipate problems with this?

OC: The unique operational model of facilities like the AMS brings evident advantages to both parties involved. The accomplishments of the AMS and its collaborative framework have generated significant interest within ICL and worldwide. In the first 3 years, the facility hosted over 110 visits, including over 1,000 visitors from industry, academia and government representatives, to enable people to learn about the AMS's vision and operational frameworks. Additionally, other facilities within ICL have been established based on similar principles, such as the Imperial Leica Imaging Hub.

It is important to note that the facility model, like the AMS, necessitates significant commitment from both Agilent and ICL. This commitment involves equipment loans, dedicated space and technical and operational investment from both sides. While these factors make the vendor-neutral model more challenging to implement, they also highlight the strong collaboration and mutually beneficial nature of such partnerships.

Professor Oscar Ces was speaking to Dr. Karen Steward, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.

Professor Oscar Ces giving a talk.
About the interviewee

Professor Oscar Ces is currently head of the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, director of the Leverhulme Doctoral Training Centre for Cellular Bionics, co-director of the fabriCELL Centre and co-director of the Membrane Biophysics Platform (MBP). He is a leading specialist in biomembrane engineering, drug-membrane interactions, biomimicry, soft condensed matter, chemical biology, microfluidics, artificial cells, single-cell analysis and lipid membrane mechanics.