Related links


You may need to download additional plug-ins to open

External links

Share this page:
Other services (opens in new window)
Sets a cookie

Innovation and innovators part three – Dr Michael McArthur

19 October 2010

In a series of three articles, BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2010 winners reveal the secrets behind their innovations.

In this, the third, Dr Michael McArthur describes how seizing commercial opportunities quickly can reap benefits. In the first, Professor Shankar Balasubramanian explains how he founded a spinout company that sold for £600M. In the second, Professor David Goulson details why he founded a conservation trust to increase the impact of his research.

In 2009 BBSRC established the annual Innovator of the Year competition to celebrate scientists who delivered science with high economic and social impact. Now, as in the past, innovation lies at the heart of the technological treadmill that can solve both local and global problems, drive economic growth, and make our lives longer, easier and happier (see 'The money of all invention').

Making the first move count

Dr Michael McArthur, Most Promising Innovator of the Year, collected £5,000 at the gala award ceremony at Canary Wharf, London.
Image: BBSRC

2010's last award of Most Promising Innovator of the Year went Dr Michael McArthur of the John Innes Centre (JIC, a BBSRC-funded institute). McArthur co-founded Procarta Biosystems to commercialize a new class of antibiotic to combat drug-resistant infections: transcription factor decoys (TFDs).

TFDs work by preventing transcription factors, which are essential for gene expression, binding to DNA sequences and activating essential genes nearby. TFDs are dud copies of these binding sites and park themselves in the space where the transcription factor needs to start - halting the traffic of the organism's genetic metabolism.

Currently prescribed antibiotics act on relatively few targets - the main being the bacterial cell wall - and bacteria have developed many mechanisms of resistance. But TFD antibiotics act on the fundamental process of gene expression for which there are no resistance mechanisms and it is far less likely that any will emerge. TFDs can also be readily designed to block any transcription factor in any bacterium, meaning that the technology is a novel platform capable of producing many new antibiotics against difficult to treat infections.

McArthur has data to show that the approach can kill bacteria including E. coli, Pseudomonas, and the hospital superbug MRSA in vitro and in vivo. Cross-checking bacterial DNA sequences against those in the human genome also means human transcription should not be affected and any new drugs will be safe.

McArthur founded Procarta Biosystems to commercialise his science. Image: Procarta Biosystems

McArthur founded Procarta Biosystems to commercialise his science.
Image: Procarta Biosystems

To make any new drug effective, Procarta had to address how to get these TFDs inside cells where they are needed. Traditional drugs are usually small, with a mass of less than 1000 Daltons, and not highly charged. TFDs on the other hand are far larger and negatively charged which makes it challenging to move them across biological membranes. "We have developed a proprietary system to get these TFDs inside cells," says McArthur. "The delivery system has to go hand in hand with the DNA side otherwise it's all bit academic."

In addition to the high-quality science, McArthur's innovation has been spotting the commercial potential early and seizing the opportunity. "One of our advantages is that we were the first to think about using TFDs against bacteria and we've claimed this area for ourselves using intellectual property rights," he says. "The TFD approach is a platform technology meaning that it can be applied to numerous bacterial infections. Other companies are using TFDs against cancer there are serial opportunities for this approach."

McArthur has now secured in excess of £1M to develop the strategy and has benefitted from a BBSRC Follow-on Fund and the support of a BBSRC/RSE Enterprise Fellowship. "From the outset pharma companies have been interested in our approach and we are in discussions about what scientific progress will trigger a licensing deal," he says.

He says he's enjoyed going through the various BBSRC training schemes and recently visited South Africa on British Council mission to talk to students at the University of Pretoria about entrepreneurship. "That's something I like to do and this award is going to help with that," says McArthur. "The postgrads coming through are more interested in entrepreneurship and how to get value out of their science. It's a pleasure to work with them and tell them what has worked for me in the past and what has not."

The money of all invention

The UK has perhaps the richest history of scientific innovation of any country in the world, and the Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity shows that innovation and commercialisation are flourishing in Britain.

For example, from 2006-10 university spinout companies have floated on the stock market or been taken over for a combined total of £3.5Bn and employ 14,000 people in the UK. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2008, patents granted to UK universities increased by 136% and university spin outs had a turnover of £1.1Bn in 2007/08 (Ref 1).

Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

Science can be a big moneyspinner.
Image: ErickN/iStockphoto.

The perception that the UK is not successful when it comes to commercialising science, or as some have put it: "Britain invents; the world profits" is therefore clearly outdated, and that strategies to harness and increase innovation are working.

In addition to the benefits it brings, it is argued that present £7.5Bn science budget pays for itself many times over as technology is developed and then taxed as it is sold. The Medical Research Council estimates every pound it spends brings a 39p return each year (Ref 2). Moreover, independent studies have shown that for maximum market sector productivity and impact, government innovation policy should focus on direct spending on research councils (Ref 3).

Finally, the UK produces more publications and citations for the money it spends on research than any other G8 nation. Specifically, the UK produces 7.9% of the world's publications, receives 11.8% of citations, and 14.4% of citations with the highest impact, even though the UK consists of only 1% of the world's population (Ref 1).


  1. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity (external link)
  2. Medical Research: What's it worth? (PDF, external link)
  3. Public support for innovation, intangible investment and productivity growth in the UK market sector (PDF, external link)


Arran Frood

tel: 01793 413329