Ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing is a key current and future grand challenge for society. These challenges are wide-ranging, from the transmissible diseases such as Malaria or Zika which affect life expectancy, to age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s which reduce quality of life. Understanding the complex biological processes that regulate our bodies is critical to understanding these threats, as well as learning how to minimise the damage they cause. Researchers must take advantage of all the tools at their disposal, particularly those that offer insight at the molecular scale.

Neutrons are a particularly valuable analytical tool as they are able to target very specific information, often with atomic resolution, in various sample environments. In the field of human health research – which relies heavily on the study of biological materials – neutrons’ non-destructive manner is particularly advantageous, empowering neutron science to enable a wide range of discoveries that have a real-world impact on improving health.

COVID-19, HIV and the neutron scattering techniques needed to fight viruses

As with HIV before it, Europe’s advanced neutron sources will make an essential contribution to the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Modern analytical tools such as synchrotron X-ray radiation, cryo-electron microscopy and neutron scattering are indispensable for important insights into the morphology and functionality of viruses. Neutron scattering’s particular role here is to provide unique information on the chemistry of enzymatic reactions that often involve proton transfer. Recent studies on HIV-1 protease, an enzyme essential for the life-cycle of the HIV virus, perfectly illustrate the case. It is also true that a variety of neutron scattering methods will be required to get the full picture of the “invisible enemy” the world has found itself at war with. Read more.

‘Seeing’ more than ever before

Disease manifests itself through the interference of the functions of the body; more specifically, the functions of tissues, cells, organelles, or molecules. Neutron science can show these structures in great detail including the positioning of hydrogen atoms, which is vital information that cannot be acquired using any other analytical technique. Studying hydrogen bonding is critical to understanding the biological function of proteins and enzymes; the assembly, or mis-assembly, of which is often linked to the cellular and molecular basis of disease. 3D-modelling of proteins using neutron data can also reveal inhibition sites – points on the macromolecule which could be effective targets for new drugs. Read more.

Effective diagnosis and treatments

Improvements in diagnosis and treatment can enable medical professionals to respond more quickly and effectively to health complaints. Neutrons are used to produce radionuclides and radioactive tracers that provide information about the functioning of specific organs or internal anatomy. Furthermore, neutrons can even be used to treat cancers directly in a manner similar to radiotherapy, with a focused beam of high energy neutrons being used to directly destroy tumours. Neutrons do not penetrate deep into the human body due to its high water content; this short penetration depth means it is possible to locally suppress the growth of tumours and reduce a patient’s unnecessary exposure to more aggressive radiotherapies. Read more.

Accelerating drug discovery and delivery

One of the costliest and most time consuming processes in healthcare is the drug discovery pipeline. As well as being effective, it is crucial that drug treatments are safe and lead to minimal side effects. Neutron techniques are powerful investigative tools for drug discovery as they can be used to closely observe the interaction between drug molecules and biological material. This information can also inform our understanding of the drug delivery methods that will be most effective. Furthermore, neutron imaging techniques have even been used to investigate the proper storage of injection needles, supporting effective distribution and delivery of medicines in the body, such as vaccines. Read more.

Developing new biomaterials

Biomaterials are used in a medical setting to support or replace a natural function. Examples include heart valves, hip implants, and medical devices that facilitate the prolonged release of a drug over a longer time period. These devices can make a significant contribution to the quality of life of many people living with long term conditions. The gentle probing capability of neutrons makes them perfectly suited to supporting the research and development of biomaterials, as they can penetrate the material easily without causing any damage. This has particular advantages for developing biomaterials for use in sensitive areas of the body, such as dental and bone implants. Read more.

Further Reading

Neutron scattering for structural biology, Physics Today

Researchers unravel information about a protein causing progressive diseases, ILL 

Isotopes production for medicine, ILL

Health and life sciences, NMI3

Imaging the inside of injection needles, PSI

Case study: Extending the life of hip impants, ISIS