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UKCMRI Unveils Disease-Fighting Vision with Focus on New Technologies, Training

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation will maintain "a strong focus" on cancer, heart disease, and stroke as well as disorders of the immune system and later-life diseases of the nervous system, according to a scientific vision and research strategy outline made public by partners in the planned £600 million institute.

"While medical needs provide the ultimate driver of research, UKCMRI's principal aim will be to generate new insights and knowledge about the biological mechanisms controlling cell, tissue, and body function. The emphasis will be on integrative, systems-led approaches to unravel the interacting networks of genes, molecules, and cells underpinning living processes," according to the 24-page outline, titled Creating a World-Leading Centre for Medical Science and Innovation in London.

UKCMRI is a partnership of Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, University College London, and the Medical Research Council. In a statement issued by UKCMRI, MRC Chief Executive Sir Leszek Borysiewicz noted that the £17M now budgeted for this year reflected expenses expected to occur in 2010.

The partnership plans to build a new 79,000-square-metre (850,000-square-foot) building, in the shape of a pair of chromosomes, in London near the St. Pancras International rail station. UKCMRI plans to submit its formal planning application this summer, begin construction next year, and open the building in the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to a timeline released by the institute.

In addition, UKCMRI is searching for a permanent chief executive, who will oversee the institute's projected 1,500 employees, including 1,250 scientists, and an annual operating budget estimated at £100 million.

Planning for the UKCMRI is proceeding despite a cut in funding by the UK's new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that saw funding for this year slashed to £17 million from the £250 million promised by the previous Labour Party government. The institute has said it will receive future funding on an as-needed basis as expenses occur, and thus expects no delay in plans.

The institute said it will fulfill its principal research aim by developing and rapidly adopting new technologies. While "it is too early to make firm predictions," UKCMRI said, some likely applications can be conceived, including:

• Model organisms, namely animal models designed to explore aspects of human biology, such as immune system function.

• Reprogramming of adult stem cells to create induced pluripotent stem cells.

• Imaging technologies designed to follow biological processes continuously in real time. UKCMRI's interdisciplinary nature, the institute said, will allow chemistry, computing, physics, and engineering researchers to help shape these technologies.

• Chemical biology, such as probes that interfere with biochemical pathways: "UKCMRI's interdisciplinary links will allow increasingly sophisticated probes to be developed, thereby expediting the development of new drugs," it said.

• Systems biology and mathematical modeling, though the institute cautioned that "wet biology will underlie much of UKCMRI research."

• Synthetic biology.

The institute identified six areas of scientific focus: Genetics and the genome; stem cells and regenerative medicine; cell biology and the intracellular networks that control division, migratory properties, and other cell behaviors; infections and the immune system; Neurons and the nervous system; organ function and whole animal physiology.

In addition to using model organisms such as mice to study cell function in tissues and organs, the institute said it will also "explore the use of human tissue and tissue derived from induced pluripotent stem cells."

UKCMRI also offered an outline of its training and career development programs, promising to hire "only the most able researchers" from the UK and overseas with potential for making significant research contributions.

"UKCMRI will be brave and imaginative in its appointments, recognising that the unusual candidate with the unorthodox ideas may be the one who has most original insight and the greatest likelihood of success," the institute stated.

The institute will operate a four-year PhD program and a clinical PhD program along the lines of those developed by the Wellcome Trust. "Scientists without a clinical background will undergo training to familiarise them with the key aspects of human biology and pathology, to encourage greater focus on the translatability of their research," the institute stated.

UKCMRI's career structure consists of an initial six-year period for research group leaders, followed by an external peer review. Scientists who pass their peer review progress to senior group leader status, and receive another six years of core support from the institute.

After the second six-year period, the group leaders will be expected to advance to leadership positions in other institutions, both in and outside the UK. Or they can apply for group leader positions at the institute if they are available, though UKCMRI said it will recruit from around the world for those positions.

UKCMRI said its career structure is aimed at developing "world-class researchers, many of whom will go on to hold leadership positions in biomedical research institutions in the UK and across the world.

"One measure of UKCMRI's future success will be that a high proportion of its alumni hold
such positions," the institute added.

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