New drugs through good science

The Ferrier Research Institute’s Simon Hinkley examines the role carbohydrates play in our lives, and uses for nature’s microbes in natural products and drugs.

Dr Simon Hinkley describes the team he works with as “an artists’ collective of scientists”. It’s an unusual way to talk about a research institute, but for Dr Hinkley it best sums up the team’s approach.

“We’re an association of researchers who are very passionate about drug discovery and manufacture,” he says.

“We’re also very pragmatic. This is a business environment with about 30 professional scientists and 12 PhD students, and we refer to it as the business of doing good science.”

Dr Hinkley is a Senior Lecturer at the Ferrier Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington. The Ferrier has established a strong international reputation in carbohydrate chemistry and analysis over the past 30 years and Dr Hinkley says it is the largest carbohydrate research team in the world.

The Institute was formed when the team joined Victoria in 2014. It was previously part of Callaghan Innovation and before that Industrial Research Limited, which was established upon the dissolution of the Department of Science and Industrial Research in 1992.

“I really like the combination of commercial research, academic research, collaboration with institutions, co-funding with other organisations, and the interactions with students. For me, it is the perfect environment,” says Dr Hinkley, who spent seven years working in the biotech industry before joining the Ferrier in 2008.

Ferrier researchers focus on sugar chemistry, a complex and difficult field of exploration. They are among the few teams in the world able to synthesise and categorise complex carbohydrates, which enables them to investigate the role carbohydrates play in everything from paint to Alzheimer’s disease to human gut health.