Dr James Warren wins first ever Prof Mike McPherson Innovator Award

Dr Warren was presented the prize during a faculty awards ceremony at Nexus on Thursday 23rd May.

The award, which honours Dr Mike McPherson, former Professor of Biomolecular Engineering in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology who sadly passed away last year, recognises the innovative and impactful scientific breakthroughs across the faculty. 

Sponsored by Nexus, the award winner was chosen by faculty colleagues following a series of excellent presentations from the 5 shortlisted candidates. 

Winning this award is one of the highlights of my career so far. And it will help create even more opportunities for me to further develop my work.

Dr James Warren, School of Biomedical Sciences and School of Mechanical Engineering
Dr james warren presenting his research at the fbs innovator award event


Cutting edge medical technology

Dr James Warren is a multi-disciplinary scientist who works across material science, biology, engineering and medicine to develop new therapies that can be translated into clinical practice.
Through his research, he has developed a new hydrogel biomaterial which can be used to treat a variety of medical conditions, such as wounds, bone injuries and nerve damage.
The hydrogel, a water-based and flexible substance, can be applied in a range of settings as its consistency, material properties, and high water content make it very similar to natural living body tissue. 

Whilst hydrogels are already widely used in clinical practice, there’s also a huge amount of untapped potential. By enabling more tailored hydrogels, it revolutionizes approaches to all kinds of additional therapies, such as musculoskeletal tissue repair, diabetic ulcer treatment, targeted drug delivery, and antimicrobial therapies.

Dr James Warren
FBS colleagues network at the FBS Innovator awards ceremony at Nexus.


A “spectacular” shortlist 

Before revealing the winner, Professor Karen Birch, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences, offered her congratulations to everyone involved in the awards:

A massive congratulations to the Mike McPherson Innovator award winner, the shortlist, and to all our nominees. We received a total of 54 fantastic nominations across our research community, including applications from early career researchers, postgraduates and technicians. It was wonderful to be part of today’s celebrations and hear about such world-leading and impactful science.

Professor Karen Birch

The shortlist were:

Matthew Harwood, School of Biology 

A warm summer’s day, a glistening pond – and baby crayfish. 

There’s where Matthew Harwood, a PhD student in the School of Biology, found himself following a major project to protect native species in Leeds.

One month earlier, his newly developed technology called CrayCam, a piece of filming equipment which can hold a specialist underwater camera, had confirmed the presence of native white-clawed crayfish in Meanwood Beck, a location that was home to a crayfish plague.

With so few populations of native crayfish remaining, we needed to act quickly.

Matthew Harwood, School of Biology

A multi-agency effort led by Environment Agency followed, with rescued crayfish moving to a biosecure temporary home at the University of Leeds, where initial suspicions were confirmed.

“Some of the females were carrying eggs. This rescue had potentially secured future generations of native crayfish,” said Matthew.

People from across the university and the city region joined together to find them suitable new residence.

It was Boddington pond, a pond on university campus which was originally established to reduce flood risk and which now supports research collaborations, as well as biodiversity, that became their permanent new home.

CrayCam is also supporting conversation efforts in the River Calder. Currently, artificial barriers are preventing crayfish invasion but it’s been difficult to know which barriers had been breached by the crayfish, and which were halting their upstream spread. 

“Luddenden Beck, a tributary of the Calder, is home to one of the last strong populations of native crayfish in Yorkshire”, added Matthew Harwood. Using CrayCam, we’re able to know which barriers have been breached, so possible new interventions such as barrier reinforcements, can be put in place to protect the native crayfish.” – Matthew Harwood

Dr Aiqin Liu, School of Biomedical Sciences

Dr Liu was inspired to develop a robotic knee following a knee injury.

After two unsuccessful surgeries, one conversation with her surgeon sticks in her mind. “You are a researcher – we can’t help you, but you have skills. It depends on you.’”

Driven by a desire to improve recovery times and outcomes for patients, she is developing technology that will help people struggling with knee movement and weak muscles. 

“Following my treatment, I didn’t know how far to push things and there was no-one to give advice. I knew physio could help me but there wasn’t enough support as a patient to know how far to go. I began to wonder if maybe others felt the same?” 

Speaking to patients, clinicians and physiotherapists confirmed her suspicions. 

There was still a gap. Current rehabilitation treatments rely on a subjective assessment from a clinician whilst unmonitored home exercises can risk further joint damage. I wanted to do something to help.

Dr Aiqin Liu, School of Biomedical Sciences

And that’s when she had an idea – a personalised tool that can help patients at home to monitor their response to exercise so they can manage their own rehabilitation journey.

Dr Liu is now leading an interdisciplinary team to develop a prototype knee device aimed at assisting exercise and reducing pain. Designed in collaboration with patients, engineers and physiotherapists, the wearable device collects data in much the same way as a fitness tracker collects data about the body.

The lightweight device – similar to a common knee support – links to an app that enables patients and clinicians to check how the knee is performing while giving reassurance that a patient isn’t overdoing things. Data parameters can be tailored to the individual, and it even has an in-built alarm system that can both detect abnormalities and act as a reminder to encourage exercise at the appropriate time.

She added: “What’s truly exciting is the technology could translate to other joint rehabilitation exercises such as hip and shoulder joints.”

Dr Emily Byrd, School of Molecular and Cellular Biology 

Having completed her PhD in the Radford and Sobott labs exploring the development and application of structural mass spectrometry hybrid techniques, Dr Byrd, now supervised by Dr Antonio Calabrese, is building on this knowledge to study intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) which play a role in disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.  

“We know that IDP dynamics are influenced by different environmental factors which can lead to a gain-of-toxic function and disease. The problem is, they are extraordinarily difficult to observe and define so we don’t know precisely how and why this switch from function to toxicity occurs. Knowing the underlying mechanisms that govern this switch provides critical understanding for the development of future treatments.” – Dr Emily Byrd. 

By using this new technology, Dr Byrd has revealed that IDP structures can be detected in response to changes in environmental conditions, such as if there’s more salt present. 

This is significant because it confirms that the physiological environment plays a role in disease development, opening up possibilities for new drug targets. 

It was through her relationships with engineering researchers that helped Dr Byrd to push the frontiers of this technology. 

The key to this research has been the development of nanopipette ESI emitters – a tool which enables native mass spectrometry of biomolecules in their physiological environment – and which we are able to make in-house, thanks to collaboration with engineering colleagues.

Dr Emily Byrd, School of Molecular and Cellular Biology

And Dr Byrd hopes to build on these collaborations and deploy these methods on other mass spectrometry techniques to unlock more answers about disease. 

“Over 1 million people are living with neurodegenerative disease in the UK alone, and it’s on the rise as a result of demographic change and people living longer. Research looking into the cause of these conditions will play an instrumental role in securing better health outcomes for people across the globe.” – Dr Emily Byrd 

Ella Scallan, School of Molecular and Cellular Biology 

Ella Scallan, a Postgraduate Researcher in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is exploring how artificial intelligence can be used to understand and predict disease.  

Her current project is aimed at predicting Acute Kidney Injury (AKI) from large datasets from Leeds Teaching Hospital.  

Acute Kidney Injury is when the kidney suddenly stops working properly. It usually happens because of another illness, and it can be very serious, with death rates as high as 36%.

Ella Scallan, School of Molecular and Cellular Biology

To detect cases of AKI, the NHS has implemented an alert system which involves a blood test to test patient’s creatinine levels – an indicator of how well the kidneys are working.  

“The issue is creatinine only rises to detectable levels 1-3 days after the kidneys have stopped working, meaning treatment can be delayed. And time is absolutely critical with this type of illness,” added Ella.

Ella is part of a team who have developed a new tool called AKI-Predict, an algorithm which predicts patients’ risk of developing AKI rapidly and accurately. 

It uses blood test data from 470,000 patients to generate the probability of AKI. This is done using a method that scientists call ‘digital twins’. Usually, this means a computer-generated copy of cells and organs, but in this case, it is a copy of the disease process itself. This can help to make more accurate predictions. 

This is truly unique because we’re able to build a much more accurate description of disease progression. Our latest results show the model successfully predicts a case of AKI just over 8 in every 10 times, and it’s very unlikely to predict AKI if a patient is actually at a low risk.

Ella Scallan 

The next step for the research team is to uncover the relationships between multiple diseases and AKI, and develop different disease profiles.  

This will enable AKI-Predict to predict AKI even more accurately, especially at the earlier stages, which will improve survival rates, reduce time spent in hospital, incidence of chronic kidney disease, and the need for dialysis or kidney transplants.  

It will also illuminate the complex relationships between comorbidities and AKI, opening up avenues for future research.  

Dr james warren ella scallan professor karen birch dr emily byrd matthew harwood and dr aiqin liu smile at the camera


As well as presentations from the shortlist, there were also talks from Northern Gritstone, National Measurement Laboratory at LGC and the NexUs team at the University of Leeds who shared innovative collaborations between the university and the wider research community. 

Dr Darren Tomlinson also paid homage to Professor McPherson:

“Mike was an amazing mentor, friend and colleague to many in the Faculty of Biological Sciences who had a passion for research and innovation. He would have been amazed and so proud of the sheer number and quality of applications of this award.”