Virginia Tech today unveiled several different pieces of one-of-a-kind scientific equipment that will attract university, government and industry researchers from across North America to the Blacksburg campus to take advantage of their capabilities.

The equipment, which will be housed in the university’s Crystallography Laboratory, includes a Gemini Diffractometer and a PX Protein Scanner, both of which utilize the latest capabilities in x-ray and diffraction technology. Research using x-ray diffraction can lead to scientific breakthroughs like the ones currently underway at Virginia Tech. These include discovering new drugs for treating cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and finding cures for infectious diseases.

Acquisition of the equipment was made possible through Virginia’s Commonwealth Research Initiative (CRI) and a five-year-old partnership with Oxford Diffraction, Ltd., a global manufacturer and distributor of specialized diffraction equipment based in Oxford, England. Under the arrangement, Virginia Tech provided $250,000 in CRI funds and in return received the equivalent of $1.65 million in new equipment, upgrades to existing equipment, and service contracts from Oxford Diffraction. The company also announced the opening of a new office at the Corporate Research Center that will serve as its North American headquarters.

The CRI is part of the state’s current biennial budget and includes money designated for universities to build their research capacities and ultimately spur economic development through intellectual property and job creation.

“Oxford Diffraction’s decision to locate its North American office in Blacksburg is a testimony to the energy and world-class scholarship of our faculty, who have created this exciting partnership for scientific discovery,” said Virginia Tech President Charles Steger. “It also signifies Virginia Tech’s position as one of the leading materials science research universities in the United States.”

Steger added that by being a demonstration site for such highly specialized research equipment, Virginia Tech will enhance economic development and bring national attention to the research being conducted in the region. Steger was joined by officials from Oxford Diffraction and members of the House Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee in making today’s announcement.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us to take the development of our North American business to the next level,” said Richard Foster-Turner, president of Oxford Diffraction, Inc., the company’s U.S. subsidiary. “Proximity to Virginia Tech will allow us to build on the excellent collaboration we already have there.”

“The partnership with Oxford Diffraction is an excellent example of the type of relationship we hoped the CRI funding would encourage,” said Del. Harvey Morgan, chairman of the House Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee. “This partnership leverages state dollars to provide increased private sector and federal funding and promises to generate intellectual property that may well result in jobs for Virginians.”

Diffraction occurs when waves such as light or sound interact with an object that has a periodic structure. The Crystallography Laboratory uses the diffraction of x-rays by crystals to probe materials on a nanoscale and to determine precisely where atoms lie within their crystal structures (crystallography). The arrangement of the atoms determines the chemical and physical properties of the material, whether it is an organic compound such as a protein or an inorganic compound such as a mineral.

“Once we know where atoms are, a whole range of applications are possible,” said Lay Nam Chang, dean of the College of Science at Virginia Tech. Chang said practically any type of matter could be probed in this manner: proteins, biological materials, organic, as well as inorganic matter.

Chang said the university’s Crystallography Lab is already attracting the attention of other prominent research universities and pharmaceutical companies. “This technology is central to all aspects of structural studies,” he said. “Once they come here and see our capabilities, they realize Virginia Tech is a serious player in this research field.”

The Crystallography Lab at Virginia Tech is used by researchers in geosciences, biology, biochemistry and chemistry at Virginia Tech and has potential applications in a number of other scientific disciplines.

Research Examples from Virginia Tech’s Crystallography Laboratory

Researchers at Virginia Tech are designing new drugs for relief of Alzheimer’s-related memory loss, depression, and finding cures for infectious diseases. X-ray crystallography gives indisputable proof of the three-dimensional structure of disease-causing agents, which makes it possible to design new drugs to treat them. Researchers are also studying the structures and chemistry of biologically active natural products related to cancer, such as the anti-cancer agent Taxol, the best-selling anti-cancer drug in history. Research is underway in the discovery of new anti-cancer agents from plants in tropical rain forests.

X-ray diffraction is also being used to identify and characterize novel materials synthesized by Virginia Tech researchers, including carbon-based nanomaterials such as fullerenes (“buckyballs”) and metallofullerenes that show great promise in medical applications. In addition, nanoscale molecular magnets might hold the key to quantum computing applications, and the discovery of inorganic/organic hybrids opens up new classes of technologically critical materials.

The New Equipment

The two new pieces of equipment from Oxford Diffraction are a Gemini Diffractometer and a PX Scanner. The Gemini Diffractometer provides diffraction from two x-ray sources at the same time. This offers more versatility and efficiency in the lab.

The PX Scanner is primarily used in pharmaceutical research to scan proteins quickly. It allows inspection of selected protein crystals with both optical microscopes and x-rays. Pharmaceutical researchers are quickly and easily able to discriminate protein crystals from other matter at a very early stage, which is often one of the biggest challenges in developing new drugs.

More information is available on Virginia Tech’s Crystallography Lab and on Oxford Diffraction, Ltd.

The College of Science at Virginia Tech provides students with a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biology, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college is dedicated to fostering a research intensive environment and offers programs in many cutting edge areas, including those in nanotechnology, biological sciences, information theory and science, and supports the university’s research initiatives through the Institute for Critical Technologies and Applied Sciences, and the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences. The College of Science also houses programs in intellectual property law and pre-medicine.

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