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The super-laboratories bringing the UK to the forefront of life sciences

September 29, 2015
Life sciences

UK is shaking up its research community with four futuristic research projects that will drive our economy.

When the Francis Crick Institute opens its doors in November this year, in London’s Euston, it will be the largest biomedical laboratory in Europe. The £700-million, 93,000-square-metre glassed structure will house 1,200 scientists, making it a bleeding-edge life sciences hub, competing with the largest institutions in the US and around the world. Already, it has applied for a license to be the first in the world to edit the genomes of embryos for research purposes. If approved, it will be a historical first for scientific research globally.

Just down the road from the Crick Institute is the British Library — the biggest public structure erected in Britain in the twentieth century. It houses the UK’s second gauntlet thrown down to the global scientific community – the £42-million Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s first national institute for data science. The goal of the newly-opened Turing Institute is to tackle big data, analysing patterns behind major global risks on the horizon: food, water and energy security, climate change, pandemic disease and unstructured urbanization.

Add to this two unique biological datasets – the £300m 100,000 Genomes Project launched by Genomics England in 2014 which will analyse the DNA of 100,000 Britons and link it to their NHS records, and the £95m UK Biobank initiative, which has collected samples from more than half a million UK citizens to research disease and ageing – and the UK is at the forefront of a revolution in life sciences research that will be a vibrant economic engine for the country.

The hope is that these four big bets, which have had over £1bn funnelled into them by the government, UK universities and research bodies, will act as a magnet for for-profit companies in life sciences, bioinformatics, pharmaceutical and biotech.

“We already have a number of companies from elsewhere in the world looking for lab space around us at the moment,” said Sir John Chisholm, who is the Executive Chairman of Genomics England, and the millionaire former chairman of the Medical Research Council. “They are all seeking to position themselves here because they see it as a world leading example of genomic medicine in action.”

Here’s a breakdown of the new British superlabs: what makes them unique, what business opportunities they throw up, and how they’re going to transform the landscape of global biomedical and data research.

100,000 Genomes Project

As the name suggests, the 100,000 Genomes Project will collect and sequence the genetic information of 100,000 British patients, selected to study the roots of rare genetic diseases such as congenital hearing loss, as well as various cancers like breast and colorectal.

This project is unique and un-replicated globally in how it interlinks an entire national health system – the NHS – with the new field of genomic medicine. “This is something that’s a dream for many places around the world. No one has linked genetic information with records of long-term medical care at the scale that we are doing it in the UK,” Sir Chisholm told the Telegraph.

The genomic data of these patients, collected over three years until 2017, will be used to pinpoint the genetic cause for diseases that no one has been able to diagnose before. “Our very first analyses of 5000 genomes have already discovered some new diseases,” Sir John says. Brothers Allan and William Carpenter, who are aged 69 and 79, were diagnosed with inherited nerve damage based on a marker in their genes, and are now being treated for the first time.

Because the program is anchored in the NHS, and has access to routine medical care records of patients, this means that long-term health problems, medications you’ve taken, previous hospitalisations and your general well-being can be linked with your genetic data to get a much more richly detailed picture of what causes certain diseases.

“We are on the worldwide genomic medicine tourist trial,” Sir John said. Countries all over the world – from the Americas, the Pacific region, Asia and Europe – have visited the centre, with ambitions to run similar programs.

To encourage commercial interest, Genomics England is collaborating with a consortium of 12 companies, including large pharmaceuticals like Astra Zeneca and Glaxo SmithKline, as well as smaller biotech companies. They are currently working on a potential business model for developing drugs or other treatments that come out of the project’s data.

Researchers from these organisations are allowed to access anonymised versions of genomic data, in order to develop commercially viable products, aimed at underserved patients. “It never leaves our servers, so privacy and control is preeminent,” Sir John says.

The project has now expanded to include 11 genomic medical centres including educational hubs like the University of Cambridge, which coordinate 70 nationwide hospital trusts. In total, about 2500 researchers are working to not only to collect DNA data from thousands of people, but sequence, examine and analyse it within the next two years.

Ultimately, the impact of this one-of-a-kind dataset won’t just touch the participants in the trial – it will feed new discoveries and inventions that build on top of it. “We’ve already stimulated the start up of new companies in the UK, in Oxford and Cambridge, which are bringing to market products based on our data,” Sir John said. “Hopefully they will become early players on the world scene.”

UK Biobank

The UK Biobank is the largest and deepest dataset of human health and disease in the world. Between 2006 and 2010, the project recruited over half a million participants aged between 40-69 years from 22 centres across the UK, and collected 15 million biological samples.

These volunteers have undergone physical tests, provided biological samples like blood and saliva, and have agreed to have their health status followed until 2016.

Over the next decades, this will build into a powerful resource to help scientists discover why some people develop particular diseases – everything from diabetes to deafness and dementia – and others do not.

Part of the Biobank vision is to figure out what risk factors are associated with diseases, particularly in middle and old age. “Not just the diseases that kill you but also those that lead to hospitalisation, those that affect mobility like pain, or depression,” explained Professor Rory Collins of Oxford University and Principal Investigator of the UK Biobank.

This aim dovetails with Prime Minister David Cameron’s view of turning every user of the National Health Service into a “research patient” to increase life expectancy in the UK. The result: Biobank data will be anonymously linked to each participant’s NHS records so their health can be studied at even greater detail and placed in context of their health history.

All the data from the Biobank is available to commercial and academic research for a nominal fee.

The idea is to turn it into a dataset that commercial partners can use to develop new diagnostics, analytics and treatments. “Pharmaceuticals could use it to identify targets for drugs through genetic studies. The data could help identify if they’re on the right track for certain diseases,” Professor Collins said.

The bioinformatics industry, which analyses biological information using computer algorithms, is also a big commercial opportunity. Swedish researchers have already developed an automated analysis platform to examine MRI images of obese patients, collected by Biobank, and have connected it to Pfizer’s drug database.

“They turned our images into data that could be distributed, which means industry partners could gain hugely from applying their methods to our data and identifying links between risk factors and various diseases like obesity,” Professor Collins said.

Alan Turing Institute

Announced by Chancellor Osborne in 2014, the Turing Institute was established to bring the UK to the forefront of data science. Founded by a group of UK universities, including the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, Warwick and UCL, the aim is to bring together the brightest mathematicians and engineers to wrangle big data patterns across disciplines ranging from climate change to cryptography.

In the months running up to its official opening in November 2015, it has announced £10 million of research funding from Lloyd’s Register Foundation, and a new director: Professor Andrew Blake, who currently runs the Microsoft Research Lab in Cambridge.

“The vision of bringing together the mathematical and computer scientists from the country’s top universities to develop the new discipline of data science, through an independent institute with strategic links to commerce and industry, is very compelling,” Professor Blake said.

Turing has also announced a partnership with GCHQ. The two have agreed to work together with the wider national security community for the benefit of data science and analytics research in the UK. They will cooperate on training and research in data-analytical methods that may be applied in open access and commercial environments.

As part of its push to make basic science commercially viable, the Institute is also partnering with Seattle-based supercomputer company Cray Inc. Within this collaboration, Cray Inc will upgrade the ARCHER supercomputer, based at the University of Edinburgh and currently the largest supercomputer for scientific research in the UK, to imbue it with advanced data analytics capabilities.

They will provide a scalable platform for the Turing Institute’s commercial and industry partners to convert data patterns and analytics into for-profit products and services.

Francis Crick Institute

As Europe’s largest biomedical research centre, the Crick is one of the most ambitious ideas to come out of the UK life sciences community.

The brain child of Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Paul Nurse, the institute is an eccentric gamble: it won’t have anydepartments, permanent research staff or any sort of scientific focus.

Instead young researchers will be brought in for upto 12 years maximum, and study subjects that are currently trending, in order to make a fast and powerful impact on the study of life sciences.

The first set of researchers will come in from the National Institute for Medical Research and Cancer Research UK, along with scientists from nearby universities Kings College London, University College London and Imperial College. They will study everything from genome editing to heart attacks and will have access to drug-screening robots, top-end electron microscopes and a host of laboratory animals including opposums.

Before the Institute has even opened officially, the researchers it will house have been making waves in the scientific community. In early September, the Institute’s Professor Caetano Reis e Sousa found that widely-used painkiller Aspirin could help boost cancer treatments. And just last week genetics expert Kathy Niakan became the first person to ask permission to edit the genomes of human embryos to understand how humans actually develop.

The Crick’s supporters are hoping it will drive commercial activity in Britain. Its chief operating officer David Roblin, was head of European research and development at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer until 2011. “The Crick is a discovery research institute that is very interested in translation,” Mr. Roblin told Nature. He is trying to lure pharmaceutical companies to place researchers at the Crick in the hope of speeding the transition to the clinic.

His strategy seems to be working.

In July, GlaxoSmithKline become the first pharmaceutical company to tie up with the as-yet-unopened Institute. The deal with GSK does not involve any money changing hands but allows teams of scientists from each organisation to work side by side on the underlying biology of diseases, with the goal of discovering better targets for new medicines. Ultimately, this could lead to money being pumped back into the UK economy from the sale of patented drugs or vaccines.

On top of the Crick’s £750m construction costs, it will have an annual budget of £150m. Because of its sheer size, the Crick will be watched closely – every victory for its scientists could lead to a ripple effect not only in our scientific understanding of superbugs like Ebola or influenza, but in our ability as a nation to impact global health and human longevity.

By Madhumita Murgia

Source: The Telegraph

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