When Nottingham University accepted cash from a tobacco company a storm erupted - staff quit and cancer charities were furious. Tony Tysome talks to researcher David Thurston, who left, and those who decided to stay put.
David Thurston becomes increasingly animated as he peers into fume cupboards containing rows of inanimate test tubes and gazes at wall charts mapping the labrythine molecular make-up of his latest anti-cancer drug.
"To be a good chemist," he says, "you have to have a feeling for it. To me, there is as much art as there is science going on. It is like a gardener who has green fingers. You instinctively know when something is right or not quite right."
It was the same kind of instinctive reaction that took Thurston to the University of London's School of Pharmacy just over a year ago. His former employer, Nottingham University, had become embroiled in controversy after accepting a £3.8 million donation from British American Tobacco to fund a new international centre for corporate social responsibility.
When Nottingham refused to budge over the issue, despite public opposition from the anti-tobacco group Ash and Cancer Research UK (one of whose predecessors was the Cancer Research Campaign), which funds cancer research at Nottingham, Thurston decided that his position as a CRC-funded anti-cancer drug-design researcher had been compromised. He left for London, taking with him most of his research team, £1 million of CRC funding and a company holding the intellectual property rights on prototype drugs.
Looking back, he feels Nottingham has lost more than it has gained out of the BAT transaction. "I think it is very sad, particularly from the point of view of the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Nottingham. It has an excellent head of department in Martyn Davies. He had a sound strategic plan to build a first-class cancer-research centre.
"When I was recruited, neither I nor he knew anything of the BAT funding talks. The situation could have been avoided had there been some discussions at an early stage between the vice-chancellor and the department heads. Had I known about it, I could have taken advice from the CRC.
"The bottom line is that we know smoking causes death from lung cancer. With the best will in the world, I do not think it is a good fit to have me on one part of the campus trying to cure cancer, and a centre on another part of the campus funded by the tobacco industry."
Nottingham is understandably keen to draw a line under the issue. Its official position is that accepting the BAT money did not break a code of conduct agreed between Universities UK and the CRC because the donation was being used for a centre that had no connections with cancer research and would not carry the BAT name.
The centre's recently appointed director, Jeremy Moon, takes an equally pragmatic view about the whole affair. In his first interview since taking up the post in March, he says he feels comfortable with the situation, since BAT is a legal organisation and it will not have direct control over how the donation money is spent. But he thinks prospective students should be made aware of the sponsorship.
Moon, whose academic career has taken him around the world, believes that arguments about corporate social responsibility often simplify what are complex issues. They are, he says, rarely "just a question of yes or no".
The new centre has so far delivered just one MBA module, but by 2003-04 it is expected to have in place a full MBA programme in corporate social responsibility, an MA, an MSc, and to be taking on PhD students. Moon says the centre will help examine how global corporations have to weigh up a variety of factors, including their foreign or domestic status, government laws and the way they interpret their political and business positions before deciding how to act on high-profile issues such as the BAT sponsorship of Nottingham.
He adds: "It is of practical interest when companies attempt to combine self-interest with the public good."
BAT says it has invested nothing in higher education since the Nottingham donation. But universities' response to BAT's first "report to society", due out next month, could influence how it acts in the future.
Malcolm Stevens, Nottingham's professor of experimental cancer chemotherapy, whose highly successful drug-design work was a factor in attracting Thurston to the university, claims his department is thriving despite the BAT controversy. It is preparing to launch a drug discovery institute and has a drug going into clinical trials later this year. "Professor Thurston made the wrong decision. It is all water under the bridge and we are moving forward," Stevens says.
But on the question of future sponsorship from CRUK (whose funding policy is under review in light of the Nottingham situation), he was less forthcoming. "That is between them and me," he said.
Thurston is forging ahead with his own research and is in no doubt that he made the right decision. "I believe I did the right thing because it turns out the environment here is excellent and there are a number of structures in London supporting biotechnology start-ups," he said.
His start-up company, Spirogen, holds the intellectual property rights to prototypes for a family of anti-cancer drugs including one called SJG-136, which entered the first phase of clinical trials this year.
The new drug is designed to switch off faulty genes that cause cancer. This is different from other gene therapy that attempts to replace a faulty gene with a healthy one. In laboratory trials, SJG-136 has been shown to possess anti-tumour properties. Now it is to be tested against different types of tumours in humans, to show that it is successfully targeting particular genes that could be "switched off" by the drug.
A US version of this approach has been tested, but the side-effects proved to be too severe for the drug to be taken to market. Thurston is optimistic that SJG-136 will turn out to be effective and patient-friendly since experiments so far show it to have a relatively low level of toxicity.
If it proves successful, Thurston believes it could be used to cure a much wider range of diseases and conditions. "It is early days yet, but when we get to the point where it is fully developed, theoretically we should be able to use it to switch off genes in invading organisms as well, such as bacteria and viruses. We could take the HIV sequence and design a drug to target that. Of course, our prime target is cancer, but in the future we would like to be able to spread our wings and look at other areas," he says.
If such possibilities were turned into reality, Nottingham - which could have gained a greater holding in Spirogen rather than the minor share it now has - might be left wondering whether it was worth accepting the BAT money.