A BEAM of light 10 billion times brighter than the sun is attracting international drug scientists to South Oxfordshire.

A bright new facility at Harwell’s Diamond Light Source will allow researchers to watch tiny fragments of their medicine molecules at work.

Drug manufacturers will be able to bring samples of their latest compounds and use the facility’s powerful X-rays to watch the active bits of their drug interact with molecules found in human cells. The new XChem unit says the technology will speed up new drug discovery from months to days. It will also be a major boost to scientists combatting “neglected” diseases who cannot afford their own X-ray facility.

The new unit was launched to a symposium of virus researchers on Tuesday. The technology which the new facility is using already existed in a few labs, but Diamond has created a “one-stop-shop” where scientists can drop in to test their drugs. Joint head of the XChem facility Dr Frank von Delft said: “It is only a world-class national synchrotron like Diamond that makes such a facility conceivable.”

Diamond Light Source is a particle accelerator like the one at CERN in Switzerland.

Scientists fire electrons around a huge ring at near light speeds so that they give off a light 10 billion times brighter than the sun.

These beams are then directed off into laboratories known as “beamlines”. Because the light is so bright, scientists can use it to study a huge range of subject matter, from new medicines to microscopic engineering, in incredible detail.

The new XChem unit uses one of the beamlines to create powerful X-rays, allowing scientists to look at proteins in such detail they can see their crystalline structure – a study called crystallography.

It also means that many scientists will be able to watch the active ingredients in their drugs interacting with their target molecules from human cells for the first time.

The XChem system automatically analyses the data that comes back from these tests, and researchers will also have access to an extensive compound-binding library.

Diamond Light Source’s head of life science Dave Stuart said: “Having a facility like XChem at the synchrotron is a major step forward.

We believe it will give a particular boost to the combat of neglected diseases.”