The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council thinks it has found a novel and relatively inexpensive approach to the long-standing problem of setting up new centres for big science. It has just approved two new collaborative centres for structural biology, in London and York, and plans to allocate up to Pounds 8.5 million to fund up to eight regional centres of excellence.
These should provide access to the best structural biology facilities for biologists from institutions both inside and outside the centres. David White, director of science and technology at the BBSRC, said: "At some point you have to decide that if you are going to go for the best equipment for the best people you have to have a limited number of centres in the country".
Structural biology underpins basic research throughout the life sciences and is vitally important for drug design. It is concerned with the determination of the arrangement of biological molecules in three-dimensional space, and how the shapes of these molecules determine their functions. Structural biology research involves sophisticated techniques covering many disciplines, and funding it can be very expensive.
The two centres funded so far under this initiative are already relatively well equipped; most of the new funding will be spent on skilled personnel to support research and develop new techniques.
Some Pounds 1.6 million over five years has been allocated to set up a centre jointly between University College London and Birkbeck College. They already have a Joint Research School established last year between the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at UCL and the department of crystallography at Birkbeck.
Janet Thornton, head of the research school and director of the centre, said: "The bottleneck at the beginning of any structural biology project is the production of relatively large quantities of pure protein. We will establish new molecular biology labs to help make the critical first step from gene to structure and function."
After pilot structural studies with centre funding, researchers leading a structural biology project will be expected to apply to BBSRC or another agency for a project grant to continue the work. The second centre will be based at the department of chemistry in York.
Rod Hubbard, the York centre director, is taking a long-term perspective. The priority will be to set up a number of research officer positions. Professor Hubbard said: "These will be highly skilled senior postdoctoral scientists able to provide continuity across several disciplines. This type of support is vital if we are to tackle complex problems such as the structures of macromolecular assemblies."
Biologists from outside will be encouraged to use facilities there through collaborative projects. The group in York already collaborates with academic groups nationally and internationally, and with industry. Researchers there are involved in a European Union-funded biotechnology network studying the structure and function of cellulases. In collaboration with the Swedish pharmaceutical company KaroBio, the York group has recently solved the structures of oestrogen receptors, which are important targets for the development of new drugs against breastcancer.
Almost Pounds 6 million remains to fund a second tranche of centres, and these should be awarded in the autumn of this year. The BBSRC has invited another of the bids shortlisted in the first round - the Northern England Structural Biology Centre, which would be headed by Simon Phillips from Leeds University - to resubmit a revised proposal to be considered alongside four other bids.
Some observers question whether allocating even Pounds 8.5 million will provide adequate access to high quality structural biology facilities for all UK researchers who look to the BBSRC for support. In the past few years many universities with good research reputations, including Leicester, Warwick and Dundee, have set up structural biology groups for the first time or significantly increased their investment in this area.
Structural biology research is set to grow explosively. With many genome projects nearing completion, it should become possible to solve the structure of at least one representative member of most protein families.