From Oxfordshire to the Orient

Released 1 August 2013

A British success story as cutting edge science technology exported to the Shanghai synchrotron

Thirty years ago two scientists working in a lab at Oxford University came up with a ground-breaking technology that was to change the face of X-ray crystallography – a fundamental technique that underpins many fields of scientific research from metallurgy to medicine. Three decades later Oxford Cryosystems based in Long Hanborough has grown to become a multi-million pound success story as they prepare to export their 2000th Cryostream Cooler to the Shanghai synchrotron in China.

Cryostream number 2000 is just one of three new systems that will installed on three newly built macromolecular crystallography beamlines in Shanghai used for protein crystal sample cooling.  Dr Sheng Huang of the Shanghai Synchrotron first used the Cryostream in 2003 when working at the Beijing Synchrotron and was impressed with the system then. As he says,  “The cryostream cooler is a revolutionary technology for macromolecular crystallography in the synchrotron. It reduces radiation damage on the crystal and lets users collect complete datasets from a single crystal”.

Professor Mike Glazer and John Cosier devised this unique crystal cooling apparatus that has changed the way crystallography is done, allowing scientists to look at complex chemical and biological systems at extremely low temperatures. Prior to the early 1980’s few such cooling devices were available commercially and the existing apparatus was very large, usually made of glass and therefore very fragile and required the storage and use of large amounts of liquid nitrogen. The development of the Cryostream Cooler offered a system that was compact, portable and most importantly provided consistently reliable data in a fraction of the time. As Richard Glazer, Managing Director of Oxford Cryosystems observes, “It’s easy to underestimate the impact that this innovation made in the field of X-ray crystallography, but think of it like going from using a dustpan and brush to a Dyson vacuum cleaner in a single step”.

Thirty years later and Cryostream Coolers are to be found in laboratories and research institutes around the world and its technology facilitates the advance of research across the study of science such as pharmaceuticals, drug discovery, medicine, electronics, telecommunications and mobile phone screens, cleaning materials and green energy. Professor Paul Raithby, now the Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Bath, was involved in the purchase of the very first Cryostream 30 years ago while at Cambridge University. He recalls: “Cryostream simply revolutionised single crystal crystallography. It was a godsend – easy to use, relatively cheap, compact, and hugely reliable in terms of the data delivered”.

As  Richard Glazer reflects on the business culture of the company: “We are really proud of our achievements thus far and in particular we feel that we are bucking the trend in the UK by keeping all of our manufacturing and assembly processes in the UK, and sourcing services and components from local and UK manufacturers wherever possible”.

Currently more than 90% of its suppliers are British- based, and Oxford Cryosystems also exports over 80% of its systems to institutes and companies across the globe, ensuring that the quality of our British-made systems is available to emerging and new institutions, helping drive science and research in both established and emerging markets.

In X-ray diffraction the atomic and molecular structure of crystalline materials are studied using an X-ray beam. During the experiment, the crystalline atoms cause a beam of X- rays to diffract into many directions. By measuring the angles and intensities of these diffracted beams, a crystallographer can produce a three-dimensional picture of the structure of the crystal.

During X-ray diffraction experiments, it is important to cool crystals, because it means that the atomic vibrations are decreased, thus giving sharper diffraction patterns and hence better resolution in structure determination. In addition, it allows one to explore changes with temperature. Today it is accepted that wherever possible crystallographers should carry out their experiments at low temperature in order to give better data.

X-ray crystallography has been fundamental in the development of many scientific fields. The method reveals the structure and function of many biological molecules, including vitamins, drugs, proteins and nucleic acids such as DNA. X-ray crystallography is still the chief method for characterising the atomic structure of new materials and in discerning materials that appear similar by other experiments. X-ray crystal structures can also account for unusual electronic or elastic properties of a material; shed light on chemical interactions and processes; or serve as the basis for designing pharmaceuticals against diseases.

In the field of protein crystallography, carrying out the experiment at low temperatures is even more important. Protein crystals tend to decay rapidly in the x-ray beam, because of ionization damage. Prior to the development of the Cryostream Cooler, protein crystallographers had to collect data on many crystals, and subsequently join all the data together to obtain a full dataset – an unreliable and time-consuming process. As Paul Raithby recounts:  “It was not uncommon to spend our nights sleeping on the floor of the lab waiting for the results of experiments. Thankfully those days are long past.”

In 2014 the International Year of Crystallography will celebrate 100 years since the award for the Nobel Prize for the discovery of X-ray diffraction by crystals and sees the UK leading the world in crystallography research. Oxford Cryosystems itself  is recognised as the market leader in low temperature systems for crystallography. Over the years the company has grown in size and reputation, as well as in profitability and its future looks secure as exciting new geographical markets for X-ray crystallography open up for exploitation.