2009 Paterson medal and prize

Dr Rachel McKendry

University College London

For her internationally recognized contributions to the field of nanomechanics, particularly of complex biomolecular systems and the successful commercial development of label-free nanomechanical cantilever sensors for rapid disease diagnostics and antibiotic drug screening applications.

Rachel McKendry is internationally recognized for her application of the tools of nanotechnology to quantitatively measure biomolecular recognition forces, which are central to virtually every process in the living cell.

McKendry’s early work pioneered the development of ‘chemical force microscopy’ to probe interactions between receptor molecules tethered to the tip of an atomic force microscope and ligands on a surface. She demonstrated that the left and right-handed forms of chiral ligands could be distinguished using this technique – a nanoscale version of Pasteur’s famous experiment on molecules whose mirror image differs from the original.

Her research has since extended to explore the use of multiple arrays of free-standing silicon cantilevers, an emerging ‘label-free’ biosensing technology, which detects interactions between ligands tethered to one side of the cantilever and receptor molecules via changes in surface stress which cause the cantilever to bend. Systematic experimental and theoretical work on increasingly complex macromolecular systems, ranging from self-assembled monolayers and DNA molecules to complexes of antibiotic drugs and their targets, has contributed towards a fundamental understanding of the origins of surface stress at biomolecular interfaces. Furthermore, these findings and underlying concepts provide a new nanomechanical framework to understand the mode of action of the vancomycin family of antibiotics and mechanisms of superbug drug resistance. This has led to the successful commercial development of label- free nanobiosensors for rapid disease diagnostics in collaboration with IBM and Roche, and drug screening technologies to speed up the discovery of new antibiotics in collaboration with Targanta Therapeutics and Bio Nano Consulting.