Defence Science and Technology Laboratory

Published on: 18 March 2015

Dstl have worked with a number of scientists across the University in fields including disease prevention and treatment. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Exeter academics at the cutting-edge of science are working to solve problems facing national defence and security alongside the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) – the part of the Ministry of Defence dedicated to science and technology research.

Dr Stefano Pagliara recently arrived at Exeter from the University of Cambridge, filling a post supported by Dstl. Dr Pagliara’s research looks at the response of individual cells to drugs.

He explained: “The idea is that bacteria are all a little bit different from each other. So on an individual level they might all react to a particular drug in a slightly different way.

“So, although a drug might kill 99 per cent of the bacteria, the remaining one per cent could keep an infection going.”

The first aim of Dr Pagliara’s research is to develop a device capable of looking at single cells, and thus their uptake at an individual level. This will enable him to understand why some cells may take up less of a drug than another, or vice versa.

This could ultimately help pharmaceutical companies develop better drugs and improve their understanding of why some are more effective than others.

The work is applying Dr Pagliara’s research at Cambridge, where he looked at similar areas, but using models as opposed to real cells.

To engage Dstl in his work, Dr Pagliara is planning on delivering a talk to their staff. This will help identify areas of common interest to take forward.

He said: “I think Dstl could benefit when they don’t have the expertise to do something – then we could help out. And equally, if we do not have the resource to do something ourselves, they have the numbers to support our work.”

Dr Pagliara’s work is also supported by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, which runs until September 2016.

Research into diseases and drugs is a significant part of Dstl's partnership with Exeter. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


A Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)-sponsored industrial studentship with Dstl is also due to start in September 2015. The postgraduate researcher will look at potential new vaccination methods against the bacterium Coxiella burnetti.

Coxiella burnetti  causes Q fever, which can lead to stillbirth in goats and sheep. In humans, it can cause flu-like symptoms and sometimes be more severe than that.  Although some symptoms can be treated with antibiotics, diagnosis is challenging, driving the search for new treatment methods. Bioscientist Dr Nic Harmer will supervise the student.

This will not be the first studentship Dstl have supported. They jointly funded five PhD students with Exeter’s Science Strategy in 2012.

The students are uncovering new ways microorganisms cause disease, with a view to paving the way for new treatments. Their work ranges from the looking at the bacteria behind meliodosis, a disease which can cause chest pains and skin infections, to looking at new diagnosis techniques, including for human sepsis  – an infection-triggered condition that can cause multiple organ failure.

Head of Biosciences Professor Rick Titball said: “This is a growing area of expertise for the University of Exeter and we are delighted that Dstl joined us to invest in these PhDs.”

Defence enterprise

The University has had success with the Centre for Defence Enterprise, a part of Dstl that funds innovative high-risk, high-potential research. Dr Harmer is one of the University’s successful applicants to the scheme.

His project, which aimed to improve efficiency in providing protein structures for drug design, provided a high throughput, low-cost approach. For example, his method could reduce the time taken to obtain suitable structures.

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