Dr Natassja Bush is joint managing director of Inspiralis, a business based at Norwich Research Park. Find out how the biotech start-up is providing a special kind of enzyme which could help to develop lifesaving anti-cancer drugs and fight against antibiotic resistance.
Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.
Can you tell us what Inspiralis does?
Established in 2006, Inspiralis is a spin-out from professor Tony Maxwell’s lab at the John Innes Centre. We produce enzymes called DNA topoisomerases, which are drug targets (enzymes or processes in a cell that are stopped by medicines) used in anti-cancer and anti-microbial therapy.
These are supplied as kits and sent worldwide to academic institutions, pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms developing new antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. We also provide screening services, crystallography and other biophysical techniques to help identify and determine the mode of action of novel drug candidates, which are molecules that may one day become medicines).
How does this enzyme work?
DNA topoisomerases are vital enzymes found in all living organisms. During processes like replication (when the cell makes a copy of itself and then divides) or transcription (when new proteins are made within the cell), torsional stress is created within the DNA because of the nature of the double helix structure.
These enzymes relieve that stress and ensure that DNA does not get tangled up while the cell is trying to replicate itself or produce more proteins required for cellular processes. To do this they create breaks in the DNA, but they are also extremely efficient at resealing these breaks. DNA breaks that are not resealed will eventually kill the cell.
Why is this work so important?
Antibiotics are incredibly important because they make so many things in medicine possible. People on chemotherapy are given antibiotics to stop infections. People who have surgery are given prophylactic antibiotics. People with chronic diseases such as cystic fibrosis (CF) or autoimmune or kidney disease are also often given antibiotics. They have increased our longevity as humans by such a large amount because we are able to deal with certain infections that would have been a much more serious issue many years ago.
But the problem is that the use of antibiotics will drive resistance because they put pressure on bacteria to survive. The best way for pathogens to survive is to evolve and become resistant to the medicine. These enzymes are fundamental to anti-cancer research and for producing new anti-infectives to fight antibiotic resistance.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?
I was always an inquisitive child. I grew up in Durban, South Africa where there’s a large natural environment. My parents taught me to question everything and we lived our lives primarily outside. I got a microscope when I was seven, which was the best thing I’ve ever had. I caught mosquitoes and studied them under the lens.
I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was 10. As I got older, I switched to biomedical science and again to zoology and ecology, which I studied at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. My family moved to the UK in 2008 and I did my Master’s in biotechnology at UEA in 2009, which is where I was introduced to DNA topoisomerases. I thought they were the most amazing enzymes, so I decided, and was fortunate enough, to do my PhD on them.
I love these enzymes. They are fascinating to me and I get to speak to so many different people around the world trying to help understand how they work. I am also interested in science translation and curation, working closely with academics trying to get their knowledge into the public sphere.
What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?
Norwich Research Park is a great place to work because there are so many interesting things going on and there’s such broad expertise and interests. You’ve got new companies that are just starting out alongside established research labs, as well as the instrumentation to further your work and business. You’re living and working on the cutting-edge of science here.
Norwich in particular is a good place to be in terms of positioning. We have access to so many different companies and research facilities to collaborate with, while remaining close to Stansted and Norwich airports.
What do you get up to when you are not working?
I enjoy spending time with my friends and family, going for walks in Thetford Forest or along Holkham Beach. I’m also an avid reader.
When I can, I love going snowboarding in Andorra. We sometimes go to Snozone, the indoor slope in Milton Keynes. I get a bit nervous because I once broke my arm really badly – but it’s so much fun that we always go again!
Dr Natassja Bush is joint managing director of Inspiralis at Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @NatassjaBush