Advancing human microbiome research

Unilever’s relationship with the University of Liverpool is seen as a best in class model for how the company interacts with universities worldwide.

The relationship between the University of Liverpool dates back all the way to 1906 and since 2002 it has grown through a series of collaborations including the development of cutting-edge facilities including, the Centre for Materials Discovery (CMD), the High Throughput Formulation Centre (HTFC), the Micro Bio Refinery (MBR) and the Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) – a £76.5m building launched in 2017. The MIF co-locates University and Unilever staff, enabling them to share cutting-edge equipment, laboratories, technical expertise, and software platforms. 

Building on over 10 years of collaborative research, the University of Liverpool and Unilever partnered to open the MIF OMICs Facility in 2016. This facility offers agile and  affordable access to state-of-the-art genomics, genome engineering, computational biology, metabolome, and microbiome multi-platform and array capability and technical expertise to industrial and academic partners.

In collaboration with Unilever this facility has provided keystone support to studies of the human microbiome, including that of the skin and oral cavity which have driven both basic research and new product launches.

The unique nature of the Centre for Genomic Research (CGR) provides a template for how staff can work collaboratively to meet society’s grand challenges, and drive Unilever’s competitive advantage. The extensive work into advanced translational microbiome research, together with an increase in industry demand, has led to the development of the new Microbiome Innovation Centre.

The benefits

The CGR, MIF OMICS and now the Microbiome Innovation Centre are bringing key benefits to Unilever’s microbiome research including, sequencing, data analysis, informatics and data interpretation. This flexible relationship supports research and provides an environment where Unilever staff work alongside the University of Liverpool experts to deliver results and to learn new techniques for analysis and informatics.

In the last 4 years, the flexible and integrated relationship with the CGR and MIF OMICS has allowed Unilever to expand the number of microbiome studies, enabling enhanced business delivery leading to scientific insights, multiple successful market translations and product launches in personal care, homecare and wellbeing. The agility of being able to access different assets at different times helps Unilever to demand plan throughout the year with multiple microbiome studies being run in parallel. The ability to use elements of CGR’s activities has enabled Unilever to build more strategic collaborative projects.

Finally, the rapid evolution of microbiology from practical techniques, such as agar plates, to a data-rich computational has increased the need for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for scientists to stay at the forefront of a rapidly changing science landscape. Furthermore, working with the University on CPD initiatives based on collaborative and cooperative problem solving has been extremely valuable to the Unilever team. 

Research with impact

Partnership with the University’s facilities and expertise has enabled first-to-market innovations, including microbiome innovations for Zendium toothpaste and Vaseline skin care.

Through this collaboration, Unilever has carried out in-depth research, including first-of-its-kind analysis into the oral and skin microbiomes and their response to treatment unlocking capability to both characterise the microbiome and develop detailed bioinformatic approaches, enabling new insights around microbiome network concurrence.

In practice, such studies involve large numbers of samples generated by clinical studies in multiple geographies and tracking such samples is key to ensuring robust, high quality analysis.

At the University, samples are tracked and aligned to sequence data using a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) that securely stores the data in a searchable environment offering easy transfer of data to Unilever for in-house analysis.

Mike Hoptroff, Senior R&D Manager at Unilever, said: “For me as a microbiome research leader at Unilever, it’s been a big unlock for us. We have done multiple large microbiome studies with the University that have been hugely impactful. We have a number of studies going forward in collaboration with the University of Liverpool. Because the scientific engine is there, we can point that towards different conditions of interest. It’s allowed us to further increase our ambitions in this space.”

The Centre for Genomic Research is part of the University’s infectious disease research theme which covers global and national issues, including COVID-19 and its personalised health research theme which paves the way for uniquely treating individuals based on their genetics and other health data. It also aligns with the University’s research strengths in advanced materials and digital topics.

Collaborate with us

If you would like to learn more about the University’s microbiome research and development and how the university can help you to achieve your research goals, please contact the team here.


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