Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Simon Newstead is the David Phillips Chair of Molecular Biophysics in the Department of Biochemistry, and a member of the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery. In his story, Simon explains how a serendipitous collaboration with Unilever Plc led to ground-breaking insights into body odour and the innovative solutions they developed together. This story also highlights the roles of academic curiosity and industrial expertise in solving real-world problems and enhancing everyday lives.

Simon Newstead alongside a quote "Our collaboration enabled the translation of our current research, focused on understanding how drugs are transported in our bodies, to help a major healthcare company develop new products to tackle body odour."

Let’s start with what motivates you to engage with industry? 

A key difference between industry and academia is that the former is often focused on addressing a pressing need in the marketplace for a therapy or product. In contrast, in academia, our goals are often more open-ended and inquisitive. Many biomedical researchers in academia are working towards understanding the processes underpinning human, animal, and plant diseases and pathogens. Our motivation comes from many places, but often, the eventual use of our research to solve real work problems is a major driver.  

Tell us about your research focus

My research focuses on understanding how nutrients, such as amino acids, sugars, lipids and peptides, are transported into cells for metabolism. The uptake of metabolites into our bodies is achieved through the action of specialised proteins called transporters, which are highly abundant in the membranes surrounding our cells. A key driver for me is that these transporters are also responsible for the uptake of drug molecules into our body, and a major goal of my research is to understand drug transport to target drugs to specific tissues, diseased tissue, such as cancer and away from the liver and kidneys, which are susceptible to drug-induced damage.  

How did your industry collaboration begin and what did it look like?  

In 2019, while my team was working on understanding antibiotic transport through peptide transporters, which work in our body to transport digested protein across our intestinal tract and into our bodies, we met a researcher at Unilever Plc who discovered a similar transporter was responsible for the generation of human body odour.  

Evolution is an amazing process! Whereas in our bodies, the peptide transporter recognises digested protein and transports it across the cells in our intestine and into our blood, in certain bacteria that live harmlessly on our skin, the skin microbiota, there exists a similar transporter that takes up peptides secreted in our sebum and transports these into the bacteria for energy production, just like us. Sebum is a lipid-rich mixture secreted by specialised skin cells, called apocrine glands, to keep our skin supple and moist.  

We discovered that a certain species, Staphylococcus hominis, recognises a peptide released by our bodies, which contains a sulphur group. This is probably one way for our bodies to remove excess sulphur taken in through our diet. Once transported into the bacteria, the peptide is used for energy production, leaving the sulphur group behind and is later pumped back out onto our skin. Our industrial collaborator, along with colleagues at the University of York, discovered it is this sulphur compound that, in part, gives rise to pungent body odour!  

The race was on to determine the mechanism by which these bacteria recognise the sulphur compound and develop an inhibitor, which would stop the transport. The key point in our project was to develop an inhibitor of only this transporter, leaving the bacteria to survive happily on our skin but forcing them to find an alternative food source. In this way, the health of our skin microbiome would be maintained without the side effects of BO.  

What did your team and your industry partner bring to this collaboration? 

Industrial partners provide valuable skills and expertise not available within academia. In our collaborative project, my research team provided the molecular know-how to determine the structure of the bacterial transporter. We also developed an assay to test inhibitors. The structure and assay were crucial, as we could transfer this knowledge to Unilever Plc, which had the expertise and compound libraries needed to screen for inhibitors. Unilever Plc has decades of experience in understanding the skin microbiome, and their background knowledge was essential in selecting compounds that were safe for skin application while still being effective inhibitors of BO.  

What have been the outcomes 

Our collaboration enabled the translation of our current research, focused on understanding how drugs are transported in our bodies, to help a major healthcare company develop new products to tackle BO.  

An important outcome of our collaboration was our exhibit at the 2019 Summer Science Exhibition at the Royal Society. With the help of our industrial partner, we developed a video to explain the science behind BO and used the topic of BO and deodorants to showcase how fundamental discovery-based research at universities around the UK is essential to underpin real-world issues, impact everyday lives and contribute to the UK economy.