Oxford Professor of Chemistry and founder of therapeutic company wins two international awards

Dame Carol Robinson

Dame Carol Robinson DBE, FRS, FRSC, FMedSci, Oxford University’s first female Professor of Chemistry, former president of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Founder of (and ongoing consultant to) OMass Therapeutics, which is based at Oxford Science Park, has been awarded the 2022 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine. This is a highly prestigious international award – exemplified by the fact that other winners this year are the co-founders of BioNTech for their invention of the (Pfizer) Covid vaccine.

And, on the same day she was notified that she had been awarded the  2022 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Chemistry The Franklin Institute Awards Class of 2022 | The Franklin Institute (fi.edu).

Every year, the Louis-Jeantet Prizes distinguish leading-edge researchers who are active in the member states of the Council of Europe. As one of the best-endowed awards in Europe, the Louis-Jeantet Prizes foster scientific excellence. They are not intended solely as the recognition of work that has been completed, but also to encourage the continuation of innovative research projects.

Now in its 197th year, The Franklin Institute Awards  programme pays tribute to America’s first citizen scientist, Benjamin Franklin, by honouring the greatest minds in science, engineering, and industry.

Carol has pioneered the use of native protein mass spectrometry as a technology for understanding the molecular interactions, stability, and function of membrane proteins.

Born in 1956, Professor Dame Carol Robinson graduated from the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1979 and completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge. She took an eight-year career break to bring up her children and later became the first female Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge (2001-2009). She has held the Chair of Dr. Lee’s Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford since 2009 and is Oxford’s first female Professor of Chemistry.

Since 2021 she has been Director of the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery. Her work has attracted many awards including the Othmer Gold Medal from the Science History Institute, the Royal Medal A from the Royal Society, the Novozymes Prize and the Stein and Moore Award. She is the former President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences USA and EMBO member. She holds fifteen honorary doctorates and offices and was appointed DBE in 2013 for her contributions to science and industry.

Carol Robinson is a founder and world leader of the native protein Mass Spectrometry (MS) field. Her focus is on membrane protein complexes and their interactions with ligands. Membrane proteins are hugely important drug targets but are incredibly hard to study as they are imbedded in a lipid hydrophobic membrane, whereas the parts on either side of the membrane are hydrophilic. When Carol Robinson began her research career, it was largely assumed that proteins needed to be denatured or even digested for analysis by MS, which entails the loss of their biological activity. In 2008 Carol Robinson changed this perspective by discovering that intact, heterogeneous membrane protein complexes could be injected into the mass spectrometer if first imbedded in detergent micelles, or giant soap bubbles. These bubbles shield and protect the membrane proteins, so that they are transferred into the gas phase in their native folded state. Using this method, she uncovered mechanistic details of many different types of integral membrane proteins, including channels, transporters, and receptors, and has been able to study their association with lipids. Her work has wide medical impact, as her techniques are now routinely used to study a variety of processes spanning antibody characterisation and small molecule drug screening to antibiotic resistance.

OMass Therapeutics is a biotechnology company identifying medicines against highly validated target ecosystems such as membrane proteins or intracellular complexes. The Company’s unique technology platform comprises novel biochemistry techniques, next generation native mass spectrometry and custom chemistry. This allows OMass to interrogate not just the target but how it interacts with its native ecosystem, separate from the confounding complexity of the cell. The result is cell-system fidelity with cell-free precision. OMass is advancing a pipeline of small molecule therapeutics in rare diseases and immunological conditions, targeting solute carriers, complex-bound proteins and GPCRs.

The Company is led by Ros Deegan MBA, who joined as Chief Executive Officer in 2019 to aid the company’s transition to become a fully-fledged pharma R&D organisation. She said: “Small molecule drug discovery has historically focused on targets that operate in relative isolation such as enzymes. However, many of the best targets operate within an ecosystem such as a membrane or an intracellular complex. To drug these targets, we need to interrogate their full scope of physical interactions within the ecosystem. This is what our platform enables us to do.”

OMass is backed by a top-tier investor syndicate, Syncona and Oxford Science Enterprises, having closed a ~$60m Series A funding in 2020.

Established in 1986, the Louis-Jeantet Prizes have thus far been awarded to 100 researchers: 28 in the United Kingdom; 19 in Germany; 17 in Switzerland; 15 in France; 4 each in Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands; 2 each in Austria, Belgium, Finland and Norway; and 1 in Hungary.

Among the 100 prize-winning researchers, 14 have subsequently won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, or the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Since 1986, a total sum of more than CHF 60 million has been awarded by the Foundation to the 100 prize-winners for the continuation of their work.