Scottish scientists have won £360,000 in funding to commercialise a technology that unlocks how plants and animals modify their genes when faced with disease or environmental change.

Use of the technology offers major advances in medical diagnosis, such as identifying cancers and the development of new crops, by allowing scientists to identify changes in gene activity related to diseases like cancer or reactions to high temperatures or drought.

The technology will be commercialised through a new company, SHARP Genomic Analytics, which will be spun out of The James Hutton Institute in Dundee.

It is based on advanced software developed by a team at the Hutton, together with Professor John Brown from the University of Dundee, which automates the otherwise highly complex gene sequencing analysis involved in this work.

“Animals and plants have tens of thousands of genes which are turned on or off or up or down in different cells or conditions,” says Professor Brown. “The challenge that we have addressed is to detect these changes in gene activity, quickly and accurately, using our advanced software.

“Although the technology was developed while working on plant data, it could have far reaching impacts. Studies using this platform have already included research on diabetes, prostate cancer and fat deposition in human, how climate change impacts tropical coral fish, bacterial disease in honey bees and climate stress and disease in crops.”

“Transcriptomics is still a relatively new and highly specialised field, requiring knowledge of bioinformatics and computational analysis,” explains Dr Runxuan Zhang, a computational biologist at The James Hutton Institute. “Doing this work can take non-specialists months, holding back their vital work. While they get can it done commercially, the costs can be prohibitive. Instead, we can now do it all online and in days if not hours for much less cost.”

The technology will build on analytical software developed by Dr Wenbin Guo, a bioinformatician at The James Hutton Institute and released in 2019. Since then, it has already been used by more than 10,000 people, globally.

The £360,000 funding, from the first phase of Scottish Enterprise’s High-Growth Spinout Programme, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Innovate UK’s ICURe Explore programme, will mean the team can offer this advanced analytics capability as an online commercial service to others.

The new software platform will also be more powerful and easier to use, with additional and novel functionalities.

“The SHARP Genomic Analytics platform will hugely improve access to transcriptomics and alternative splicing analysis to biologists,” says Dr Runxuan Zhang. “As part of Scottish Enterprise’s High-Growth programme, we’re now mapping out our commercial needs, including staffing, such as software engineers.”

The original version of the software received the Best Innovation Award in 2018 from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee and was awarded the Second Prize at the 6th Jiaxing "Red Boat Cup" global entrepreneurship and innovation competition in China. It is currently the only automated platform of its kind, setting a new standard for cutting-edge scientific research.

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