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Genomics to Play Key Role in New UK Research Center

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The British medical research partnership planning to build a roughly £500 million ($812 million) interdisciplinary laboratory campus in central London says genomic technologies will play a key role in the array of research its partners plan to pursue there.

Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council, University College London, and the Wellcome Trust will develop a single building as the new home of their partnership, called the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. The UKCMRI will rise on a 1.5-hectare (3.7 acre) site bordering Brill Place and Ossulton Street, near the St. Pancras International rail station.

Earlier this week, the UKCMRI unveiled a rendering by architect HOK London of the building, which will convey the shape of a pair of chromosomes. The facility, set to be completed in late 2014 or early 2015, will house in one location 1,500 employees — including a projected 1,250 researchers from the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research, and from CRUK's London Research Institute.

The National Institute for Medical Research scientists are now based just outside London in Mill Hill, while the LRI has personnel split between central London and South Mimms, Hertfordshire.

"The sheer size of UKCMRI will allow genomics to become an integral part of a broad spectrum of research approaches at the Institute," Edward Staite, a spokesman for the center, told GenomeWeb Daily News today. "UKCMRI will recruit research groups using these technologies as their primary research avenue to answer particular biological questions, and its interactive culture will encourage them to work collaboratively with those using other approaches."

"In addition, the comprehensive core technology facilities at UKCMRI will include cutting-edge mass spectrometry, genomics, high throughput RNAi and chemical biology screening platforms, which will be available to institute researchers," Staite added.

UKCMRI says genomics and other technologies will be applied toward its four key goals: research excellence, supporting the UK's biomedical research effort, recruiting and training researchers, and fostering translation of discoveries into new treatments against disease.

"The Centre's broad research remit will address fundamental problems relevant to cardiovascular and circulatory disease, cancer, infection, immunity, tissue and organ development, degeneration and regeneration, and diseases of the brain and nervous system," UKCMRI said in a statement of its scientific vision and research strategy. "It will build on recent advances in human genetics and genetically diverse population studies to investigate human biology."

"UKCMRI will probably be the most exciting project for UK biomedical research in the next 50 years," Scientific Director Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate and president of New York's Rockefeller University, said in the statement.

Once the center's science programs are finalized, detailed planning will proceed on which labs from the partners will be moved into the new center. Researchers from LRI and NIMR will form the core of the new facility, Staite said, though UCL is expected to provide mathematicians, chemists, engineers, and computer scientists.

UKCMRI will not conduct clinical trials at the new facility, but partner with area hospitals. Staite said the center is confident that University College London Hospital will work with it, and also hopes to team up with UCL's specialized hospitals in London, including Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and Moorfields Eye Hospital.

The UKCMRI site — purchased for £85 million from the British government, which rejected higher bids from other would-be buyers — is just north of the British Library, which will work with the center on joint research projects as well as new bioinformatics resources.

Those efforts fall within the center's aim of positioning the UK as a global leader in medical research, on a par with campuses in the US and Asia.

"UKCMRI provides the potential for the UK to compete and collaborate with other global hubs of scientific and medical excellence, such as the Allston Initiative at Harvard and the Howard Hughes Medical Janelia Farm Research Complex in the US, and Biopolis in Singapore," Wellcome Trust said in a September statement to the House of Lords' Science and Technology Committee.

Between 45 and 50 percent of building costs would be paid for by the Medical Research Council, its Chief Executive, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, said at a Dec. 7 press conference. Of the remaining cost, he said between 25 percent and 30 percent from Cancer Research UK, a firm 20 percent from Wellcome Trust, and between 5 percent and 10 percent from University College London.

The Medical Research Council will raise funds by selling its Mill Hill property, while CRUK will likewise find a buyer for LRI's facility at Lincoln's Inn Fields site. "Details of this are commercially sensitive and we cannot disclose further information," Staite told GWDN.

As for operational costs, Staite said that those will initially be funded through core funding to Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council, at levels comparable to the budgets of the current LRI and NIMR. LRI is the largest of five regional institutes funded with about one-third of the £355 million spent by CRUK on research; a precise figure was not immediately available. The NIMR operates on a £25 million per year budget.

Other operational costs, he said, will come from Wellcome Trust and the other groups involved in funding development of the center.

Even if money is ultimately no obstacle, UKCMRI faces another potential hurdle. Many opponents have promised to stop the project because it would test on smaller animals; and would include a high category 3 lab, allowing for study of some infectious diseases such as flu viruses. Opponents have said that the proposed center would be too close to homes near the project site, and that officials should instead stick to earlier plans for creating below-market "affordable" housing on the site.

The UKCMRI has ruled out tests on larger mammals such as primates, cats, and dogs, though not on smaller ones like mice and rats. And the center has said it won't study the most dangerous pathogens, such as the Ebola virus, which are restricted to category 4 labs.

"We have begun to talk to local residents about our plans – to keep people informed and hear their views," Staite said, citing public discussions to be held from today through Saturday. "This will include ongoing dialogue with local politicians and community groups, as well as key stakeholders and third parties."

Because UKCMRI is funded by charitable donations and taxpayers' money awarded on the premise it will be spent on medical research, "it is therefore not appropriate to spend charitable and public money on the development of housing," he added.

Plans for UKCMRI were first announced in 2007, and won support from Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He and his Labor party seek re-election in the general election scheduled for June, while votes for members of local councils will be held a month earlier. Several polls have shown Labor's popularity trailing the opposition Conservative party led by David Cameron, but still ahead of the Liberal Democrat party led by Nick Clegg.

Staite said the general election won't affect the timing of the planning application, to be filed with the Camden Council in the spring. "Our proposals will be considered after the local elections in May 2010."

"We believe all political parties understand the strategic importance of UKCMRI for London and the UK as a whole," Staite added.

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