My Account
My Account

British Science Week 2022

14 Mar 2022

This week is British Science Week (11-20 March 2022) which is a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering, and maths led by the British Science Association.

York Against Cancer fund cancer research at the Jack Birch Unit (JBU) at The University of York. To celebrate #BSW22 we caught up with Professor Jenny Southgate, Director of the Jack Birch Unit, about trialling a new type of instrument used to measure proteins released by cells. It is called a ‘Phenospot’ and has been invented and developed here in York.

Read more about the ‘Phenospot’ here…

The functioning of cells within our bodies is coordinated by molecules that pass between them. To properly understand these signalling events, we need tools that allow us to understand how different types of cells secrete these molecules, and how such messages propagate.

Current technologies measure the signalling molecules secreted from a large number of cells. As a result, they only provide information about how the ‘average’ cell communicates and miss the subtle but important cell-to-cell differences that are critical to fully understand many diseases, including cancer. In addition, most methods typically only measure secretion at a single point in time. This means they cannot answer important questions about which cell is signalling to which, when or how fast this happens.

Professors Steve Johnson and Thomas Krauss and Dr Isabel Barth from the School of Physics, Engineering & Technology at the University of York are developing a fundamentally different imaging technique, which they call “Phenospot”. The key innovation at the centre of Phenospot is a component called a resonant photonic grating. This is a silicon chip covered in a repeating pattern of nanometre-scale patterns. The chip rapidly detects signalling molecules that land on its surface, even when the molecules are present at very low concentrations. Combining this highly sensitive photonic chip with an optical microscope enables monitoring of many individual cells simultaneously. This allows for differences and interactions between cells to be studied over time.

The new instrument has been built and will soon be made available for testing in the Department of Biology’s Bioscience Technology Facility. Scientists in the Jack Birch Unit (JBU) will be amongst the first to use Phenospot to study cellular signals that drive the growth and metastatic spread of bladder cancer cells.


Cells placed on the photonic chip; the areas where proteins such as cytokines (purple dots) are secreted light up making them visible in the optical microscope

Professor Jenny Southgate, Director of the Jack Birch Unit said, “We are really excited to be trialling the capability of this new technology invented and developed in York”.