Science chat with Paul de Bank


Paul De Bank, Senior Lecturer in Pharmaceutics at the University of Bath.

Dr Paul De Bank leads a team of researchers specialising in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. The group develop methods of replacing damaged or diseased tissue in the body. This could be by constructing tissue in the lab to be implanted, or by targeting tissue in situ to promote repair. Targeting musculoskeletal and neuronal tissue in this way requires the collaboration of cell biology, materials science and synthetic chemistry. This branch of research also has potential to develop advanced drug delivery systems.

What was it that got you interested in a career in science?

I’ve always been inquisitive from an early age and science has always been my main academic interest. I enjoyed both the biological and physical sciences and so studied a degree where I could essentially do both (BSc Biochemistry and Biological Chemistry). From there I’ve managed to keep both the biological and physical sciences going, with a spot of engineering thrown in, all the way through my scientific career. I fell into an academic job pretty much by accident. I went travelling for a few months after my degree. When I came back I wasn’t really sure what to do. Then I saw a PhD advertised that I thought was interesting, applied and started within 2 weeks. From there I’ve continued to fall into things along the way. These days everything is multidisciplinary. I like that approach and I think it’s very important to appreciate all aspects of science.

What is the most interesting thing you have worked on so far?

During my PhD we developed a novel assay for fatty acid amide hydrolase – the enzyme that breaks down endogenous cannabinoids in the body. (Cannabinoids are part of the same signal pathway affected when people take cannabis).  If you can inhibit that then your levels of endo cannabinoids will rise which should have the same physiological effects as taking cannabis. This could then be a drug target for all sorts of conditions. The assay has a colorimetric read out that groups have then gone on to use to identify some potent inhibitors of this enzyme with possible therapeutic effects.

In the tissue engineering, regenerative medicine field, I have also developed methods of modifying cell surfaces with molecules that will enable cross linking to form 3D structures. When you culture cells in the lab they don’t normally stick together that well, so engineering cell surfaces that enable them to be artificially cross linked into aggregates can be used for assembling tissues or even structures on which drugs can be tested.

What is your favourite and least favourite part of your job in research?

My favourite part is being able to do something novel, that no one else has done before and that could have a positive effect on health. The idea of generating a scaffold to support 3D cell growth and help make a tissue is a very satisfying thing.

The biggest drawback of the job, because I’m interested in science in general and not just my area, is I wasn’t born in the Victorian times when a gentleman could dabble in all kinds a science! Unfortunately you can’t get the funding these days especially for subjects outside you’re area.

Finally, what recent science news, unrelated to your work do you think has been the biggest breakthrough in the last year or so?

Quite an obvious one for the biological sciences, gene editing and in particular the use of CRISPR. I think it has a massive potential to revolutionise human health and eradicate disease which so far have been resistant to being cured.

Paul’s University webpage:

Interview by Catherine Teenan