Faculty of Science

Phil Williams


Phil Williams

Faculty of Science APVC for Research and Knowledge Exchange, Professor of Biophysics

Crucially for me and for my colleagues, if we can treat people on Mars then we can treat them anywhere! In the Antarctic. In a nuclear submarine. In a UNHCR camp. In a hospital.

1. Describe your research topic in ten words or less?

Astropharmacy: Healthcare for human explorers on Mars.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms?

On a six-crew, three-year mission to explore Mars there is a 70% chance that one of the intrepid explorers will suffer a medical emergency.  In spaceflight medicines work differently, degrade more rapidly, and a quick trip to the pharmacy to get more is not possible. To safely explore the Red Planet, we need the ability to make medicines on site and on demand, using materials that we find locally or recycle or reprocess from waste (have you read or seen The Martian?), and tailored to the individual depending on how their body has changed in flight.  This is Astropharmacy. Crucially for me and for my colleagues, if we can treat people on Mars then we can treat them anywhere! In the Antarctic. In a nuclear submarine. In a UNHCR camp. In the local hospital.  And all without the need to transport and store, and all with just the correct amount of drug in the right form for the patient at that particular time of need.

3. What inspired you to pursue this research area?

My research career has progressed by spotting and taking opportunities as they arise, and with this collaborating with many great colleagues and new friends. I'm a 3rd generation Nottingham-educated pharmacist and my PhD and postdoctoral research centred on the then-new field of nanotechnology and molecular imaging and manipulation with scanning probe microscopes. An exciting collaboration with the wonderful Jane Clarke at Cambridge researching the mechanical properties of proteins led to working with Nate Szewczyk and his research with nematodes. Nate studies how nematode strength changes in spaceflight as muscle wastage in flight is a problem for astronauts, and this use of space also a powerful method to study diabetes and ageing. I gave a talk on our work at NASA and met Lynn Rothschild, an inspirational synthetic biologist, and we mused over the difficulties of treating astronauts on Mars. The field of Astropharmacy was born.

4. What are some of your day-to-day research activities?

I am very fortunate to be part of a wonderful team of enthusiastic, talented, and like-minded adventurous researchers – the pharmanauts.  Most of my research activities are ensuring that the Team have the opportunities to explore and discover as I did. I established a thematic PhD programme where six PhD researchers are currently studying countermeasures to spaceflight-induced diabetes, food preservation and nutrient modification, new drug delivery tools inspired by extremophiles, changes in immune system regulation and response to bacterial infection in microgravity, synthetic biology for the on-demand production of drugs, and the design and construction of a satellite platform to undertake research in low Earth orbit at low cost.  A discussion of the Team today, for example, included which bioluminescent reporters in bacteria could be used in the latest CubeSat platform and what engineering changes are required, and congratulating one of the Team on her work at COP26 with Space4Climate. I also have research projects funded by the EPSRC studying the potential use of extremophiles to make drugs, and with NASA and colleagues in Canada and the US, in which we are discussing how and where the work can go next.

5. What do you enjoy most about your research?

I really enjoy seeing how seemingly separate research areas can unite in truly interdisciplinary work to make new discoveries and solve new challenges. Every day brings something new – a thought, an idea, a problem, a story, a discovery.  I am motivated by the thoughts of how this research in what may be considered such an esoteric area may have far and wide-ranging impact and benefits to health and healthcare systems across the globe.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

I’ve learnt that reading the literature, growing collaborations, and sharing of the challenges is vital to progressing research.  Whilst the exact problem faced may be new, there will probably have been someone, somewhere that has faced a similar challenge, maybe in a completely different field of study, or someone, somewhere who can help overcome the challenge by viewing it with a fresh pair of eyes.

7. What questions have emerged as a result of your recent work?

We have recently demonstrated that proteins can be made in layers of paper, and that different proteins can be made by stacking the papers in a different order. This has led to the observation that such paper stacks producing different proteins could be considered as a computer program composed of an order of instructions. Can we define a language of enzymatic paper stacks that can be ordered, or programmed, to produce different molecules? 

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

The ultimate realization of this area of research would have a huge impact on healthcare.  The ability to make medicines as, when and where they are needed, using locally recycled materials, and with just the right amount of drug for the patient will eliminate the need to bulk manufacture a medicine that provides an average dose to the average person, to store it, to transport, to store again, and to dispose of if not used before it expires.  The ability to spatially control proteins and enzymes across a layer of a stack in addition to change the order of layers to undertake specific biochemical reactions creates the essence of a truly disruptive technology; that of programmable pharmaceutical manufacture. By considering each layer or group as an ‘instruction’, the order in which these instructions are arranged can be considered a ‘program’, a microneedle drug delivery device or 3D printer as an ‘output device’, and the device encompassing the collection of stacks and the raw material as a ‘computer’, I foresee an entirely new paradigm for the pharmaceutical industry echoing that of computer hardware, firmware, and software industries.  I called this the ‘The Pharmaceutical Imitation Game’.  This would revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry in the way the computer industry has been, with individuals and companies able to specialize in the hardware, the software, the languages, the output devices, share in open source, provide support, provide Medicines-as-a-Service (MaaS), etc.

9. How do you link your research with your teaching?

To help teach our excellent undergraduate pharmacy students and prepare them for their career in developing, manufacturing, dispensing, advising, and legislating medicines for diseases, some of which are yet to evolve, I relate the spin-offs of my research to identifiable issues that we all may face in the future. The COVID pandemic has shown how vulnerable we are to emerging diseases, yet despite unprecedented speed in vaccines development, we still lack sufficiently rapid response for medicines production and deployment. The remarkable speed at which the Pfizer-BioNTech RNA vaccine was developed and approved, and its lifesaving role is only tarnished by its need of cold-chain (-60°C) storage and transportation.  Pharmaceutical companies spend over $12Bn per year on cold chain transportation, and over 60% of this is by air. My research in Astropharmacy, covered in a new optional module in our degree programme, highlights these issues, shows the challenges, and points to some solutions that our students will discover, implement, and use in their careers.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Read. Read again. And read some more.  Oh, and don’t be afraid to make contacts – some of my wonderful collaborations have stemmed from me inviting myself to spend time in a laboratory, dropping a Nobel Laureate an email, and chatting over a beer at a conference.



Faculty of Science

The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD