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UKCMRI Wins Planning Approval from Camden Officials Despite Opposition

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb Daily News) — The £500 million ($778 million) UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation has won approval to begin construction on its planned interdisciplinary laboratory campus from a key set of officials in London's Borough of Camden — but opponents are vowing to continue their fight against the controversial project.

The Development Control Committee, a panel of the Camden Council that governs the London Borough of Camden, on Dec. 16 voted 8-4 with one abstention to approve plans for the 79,000-square-meter (850,000-square-foot) UKCMRI building, set to rise on 3.6 acres at Brill Place, north of the British Library, in the St. Pancras and Somers Town area of north London.

"The councillors have brought this institute significantly closer to reality," Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said in a statement released by UKCMRI soon after the committee's approval. "It will bring benefits to health and be a national resource for the training and development of scientists. It will engage the public in its work and will provide educational benefits to schools locally and nationally."

Construction of UKCMRI is expected to begin in the Spring of 2011 with completion in 2015, UKCMRI said in the statement. The facility would employ 1,500 staffers, including 1,250 scientists, operate on a £100 million annual budget, and be built for a maximum occupancy of 1,730 people, the institute has said.

The government of Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to spend £220 million toward the UKCMRI, sparing the project from budget cutting under a plan that also froze spending on scientific research at £4.6 billion. UKCMRI would generate at least £16 million in additional economic activity annually, according to an economic benefits report filed by the center.

UKCMRI — a partnership of Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, University College London, and the Medical Research Council — has unveiled a scientific vision and research strategy committing the institute to 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

UKCMRI has also said 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.

Opponents have decried UKCMRI's plans to test on smaller animals, as well as the inclusion of a high category 3 lab, allowing for study of some infectious diseases such as flu viruses.

They say the project would be too close to homes near the project site, creating a public health hazard if toxins escape. They also argue that the project would be a target for terrorists, and that officials should instead stick to earlier plans for creating below-market "affordable" housing on the site.

The UKCMRI has responded to those objections by saying that it has ruled out tests on larger mammals such as primates, cats, and dogs, though not on smaller ones like mice and rats; that it won't study the most dangerous pathogens, such as the Ebola virus, which are restricted to category 4 labs; and that it will employ stringent health and security standards to prevent escapes of toxins or terrorist attacks. The council approved £10 million in community benefits that include a program to improve local housing.

UKCMRI's "security management plan" includes the use of anti-car bomb devices to guard against suicide bombers, as well as closed circuit TV, "robust" building materials, strengthened glass, and "anti-Hostile Vehicle Measures" intended to repel an explosion from a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, the Evening Standard newspaper reported earlier this month.

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