A greater London assembly

Plans for the capital's proposed biomedical super-lab are advancing but big hurdles remain, writes Zoë Corbyn

December 17, 2009

The architectural design and overarching scientific vision for a £600 million biomedical super-laboratory planned for central London were unveiled last week.

The UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) - the working title for the facility, which was announced in 2007 - is to be built near King's Cross. The proposed building, which is designed by architects HOK London and due to open in 2015, unintentionally resembles a pair of chromosomes.

The centre is being built as a partnership between the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and University College London.

The total budget is about £520 million: 45-50 per cent of this will come from the MRC, 25-30 per cent from CRUK, 15-20 per cent from the Wellcome Trust and 5-10 per cent from UCL. The proposed site was purchased last year for an additional £85 million.

The lab will bring together about 1,250 scientists and 250 technical staff, including the teams from the MRC's Mill Hill-based National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) and CRUK's London Research Institute. They will conduct basic research into human health and translate the results into treatments for conditions ranging from heart and brain disease to cancer.

The aim is to start building early in 2011 and to finish in 2014.

John Cooper, the former director of resources at the Wellcome Trust, has been drafted in as interim chief executive to oversee the project.

He said there was "a compelling case for a really strong, new, world-leading London-based medical research centre", highlighting the cluster of universities and teaching hospitals that the institute would be able to collaborate with.

"We think it is an opportunity to take two extremely good current institutes and turn them into something that is even better."

He emphasised that translation was a "very important part" of the centre's remit. It would also emphasise clinical collaboration and work across disciplines. Translation, he said, referred both to creating health benefits and to commercialising research.

Four high-level goals for the centre have been set out in a "proposed scientific vision and research strategy" summary document.

The institute will be expected to:

  • achieve research excellence
  • develop future scientific leaders
  • support the nation's biomedical research endeavour - for example by acting as catalyst to promote better networking
  • foster innovation and translation.

Mr Cooper said that researchers should expect more detail next year as a group led by Sir Paul Nurse, chairman of scientific planning for the venture, developed the strategy.

He pointed out that the project must still secure financing and obtain the necessary planning permission before it could go ahead.

Although the Government has said it supports the project, it has not confirmed the MRC's funding. There are also objections from the local community that the site poses a biological risk. The consortium, which is consulting with residents, plans to lodge its planning application with Camden Council around April.

'Disconcerting' lack of detail

The project also has to address concerns from researchers, ranging from whether the operating budget will be sufficient, to whether the institute will be too big to achieve the interactions needed - it will be about twice the size of the NIMR. There are also doubts about whether it is possible to excel at both basic research and translation, worries about a lack of clarity on intellectual property issues, and uncertainty about the institutional structure and the employment model for researchers.

The summary document talks of a "dynamic" career structure. One possibility understood to be under consideration is granting tenure to only a few lab heads and employing most of the others on fixed-term contracts that expire after ten years or so. Such a plan would raise concerns about the attractiveness and security of jobs at the lab.

"There are massive issues that have not been addressed yet," said Jonathan Stoye, head of NIMR's division of virology, adding that it was "disconcerting" not to see more detail in the science strategy when the committee had been meeting for some time. "The plan that is in place is the outside shell ... I am not really clear that there is an overall idea of the internal picture," he said.

Another scientist, who asked to remain anonymous, said the "big question" was whether there was enough money for the venture.

"We are concerned as there is a £50 million shortfall already (in building costs). Will there be a sufficient running budget to support the science? Per capita (in central London) this will be much more expensive than the NIMR."


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