Nobel prize-winner wants new lab to culture British scientists

 

London

When the Francis Crick Institute opens next to London's St Pancras station in 2015, Nobelist Paul Nurse expects its labs won't only grow bacteria, mould or stem cells. They will also grow science talent.

"As soon as someone becomes a star, universities do everything to hold on to them," says Nurse, a 2001 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine for work on cell cycle regulation and a former president of Rockefeller University in New York. "As soon as we have a star, we will do everything to get rid of them."

Nurse is leading a four-year effort to build the facility at a cost of 600 million pounds ($962 million). At 1 million square feet and with as many as 1,500 employees, including 1,250 scientists, he says the Crick Institute will become Europe's largest science research center in one building.

His ambition is for the eight-story Crick Institute to rival the US.'s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

"This can become a very attractive place, a magnet for international recruitment," said Nurse, who still oversees a research lab and serves as president of the Royal Society, a position once held by Isaac Newton. "We will very rapidly turn into the same type of location as these other international institutions."

Located at a transportation crossroads, the Crick site is near research centers and hospitals, with rail links to Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. It is within two hours by train from a majority of the U.K.'s population, Nurse says.

The institute will combine scientists from the National Institute for Medical Research in north London and Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute in central London. It will also train scientists from about age 30, who will stay 10 to 12 years.

"I want to go for youth," says Nurse, 63, who did his Nobel Prize work before he turned 40. "We don't give enough freedom to young people. They are often at their most creative at this point."

The institute will focus on research into cancer, heart disease, stroke, infection and neurological diseases and turning scientific discoveries into treatments. In the journal The Lancet on May 19, editor Richard Horton quoted unidentified senior researchers as criticizing the Crick Institute for lacking a "scientific strategy" and potentially drawing talent away from other institutions.

Nurse, who replied with an 80-page document explaining the institute's strategy, says Horton "got it completely wrong." Rather than poach the country's best and brightest scientific minds, Nurse says the center will send them out.

"They will go around the world but we will see a significant number stay here in the U.K.," he says.

Nurse has top researchers behind him. Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, the world's second largest biomedical charity after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says Horton wrote "nonsense."

"There's a very strong vision," Walport, who becomes the U.K. government's chief scientific officer on April 1, said in an interview.

Horton declined to comment further, Lancet spokeswoman Daisy Barton said.

Drugmakers are disputing how much the U.K. government pays for prescription products used by the state-operated National Health Service. Through their trade group, the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, they say investment in research and development in the U.K. may decline unless the nation's health system buys new medicines they discover and produce.

The government-funded Medical Research Council is paying 300 million pounds of the Crick's construction costs, Wellcome is providing 120 million pounds and Cancer Research UK is contributing 160 million pounds. Imperial College London, King's College London and University College London are pitching in 40 million pounds each. The total includes contingency funds.

The expected 120 million-pound annual budget will come from the same sources. Cancer Research will fund 40 million to 50 million pounds a year and the Wellcome Trust will give an undetermined amount, the heads of both groups said. The remainder will come from the government and the universities.

The government's spending on Crick contrasts with the fiscal gloom facing it elsewhere, as it pares jobs and budgets during an economic downturn. In Spain, the Prince Felipe Research Center, a government-funded biomedical research facility built in 2005, dismissed 108 of its 258 workers and halved the others' salaries last year after the cash-strapped regional government trimmed its budget amid a deteriorating economy and rocketing unemployment.

Crick Institute leaders say the British economy hasn't suffered as badly and the two largest political parties support it. The project began in 2007 during the Labour Party's leadership and has received the Conservative Party's backing since it formed a coalition with Liberal Democrats in 2010. Nurse says he hasn't lost sleep about the budget.

"I worry about the air conditioning," he says. "I'm confident the Crick will be close to the top in priorities for all the organizations that are supporting us."

Right now the Crick Institute is a building frame with heavy equipment on the ground and a 160-foot crane overhead. Temperature control is a critical detail for main contractor Laing O'Rourke Plc. If power were lost, researchers could lose years of frozen specimens and fragile material. Two double- skinned tanks with enough diesel fuel to run generators for a week have been installed underground.

The tanks concern some neighbors, as does security. Robert Henderson, whose apartment overlooks the site, worries harmful pathogens could be compromised in an accident or security breach. Henderson, a retired civil servant, says that documents he's obtained show that "level-four" bacteria and viruses will be stored at the site.

Level-one labs don't usually require special containment equipment or contain agents known to cause ill effects in immunocompromised adults. Level-two facilities contain moderate hazards to people and the environment, while a level-three laboratory may house potentially lethal agents. Level four indicates the presence of pathogens that present a high risk to individuals of life-threatening diseases, that are often fatal and for which there are no treatments or vaccines.

"It's going to be extremely dangerous," Henderson said. "They are classifying it as level-three plus. They are going to be using level-four toxins."

Crick spokesman John Davidson says the building will have an "enhanced containment level-three" laboratory so that scientists can study H5N1 influenza virus without endangering local birds. The lab won't contain level-four pathogens such as Marburg, lassa fever or ebola virus, Davidson says. There are already more than 100 level-three labs in London operating without mishaps, Nurse says.

In exchange for an exemption from the U.K.'s 20 percent value-added tax on the building costs, the institute isn't allowed to commercialize more than 5 percent of its activity, such as licensing discoveries, for the first 10 years.

Britain's largest pharmaceutical company and biggest private investor in R&D, GlaxoSmithKline, is "waiting" before getting involved, Chief Executive Officer Andrew Witty said. Glaxo traces its roots to a nearby 1932 building on Euston Road that was once headquarters of its forerunner, Burroughs Wellcome & Co., and now houses part of the Wellcome Trust, which was endowed by founder Henry S. Wellcome's fortune.

"It wouldn't be the biggest shock for GSK to be back on the Euston Road," Witty said during an October press conference at the Wellcome Trust's nearby central London location. "We'll see."

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