Outpost of innovation

January 8, 1999

With little fanfare and no grand plan, Dundee University has quietly and gradually become a leader in medical research. Olga Wojtas reports

A Pounds 5 million teaching hospital cancer unit, a Pounds 7 million drug discovery scheme, a Pounds 13 million biomedical sciences centre whose staff have raised more than Pounds 25 million in grants since it opened 15 months ago...

The university that can boast all of these is far from the golden triangle. It is not even in Scotland's central belt. But quietly and gradually, Dundee University has become a leader in the fight against disease. "There wasn't a grand plan. It just happened," said professor of surgery Sir Alfred Cuschieri, recently knighted for his services to keyhole surgery. "It emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation, and I think that was easier for us than it may be in big centres such as London."

Sir Philip Cohen, director of the new Wellcome Trust Building and of the Medical Research Council's protein phosphorylation unit, said: "Part of the fun is seeing Dundee develop from a very low base in biomedical and life sciences, about 25 people in 1971, to about 1,500 now. We're probably now third after Oxford and Cambridge."

Roland Wolf, director of the biomedical research centre and honorary director of the International Cancer Research Fund molecular parasitology unit, came to Dundee six years ago from Edinburgh University. "The environment in Dundee is very special, second to no other I've worked in. A lot of research work is inter-related synergistically," he said.

"If you have the right academic environment with a lot of bright people in it, it sparks innovative science. There is an enormous vibrance in everything that is going on in Dundee. You have this underlying feeling that important things are going to happen."

In the latest example of interdisciplinarity, Professor Cuschieri's department of surgery is about to merge with the department of medical oncology, headed by David Lane, the seventh most cited scientist in the world. Professor Lane, a world leader in the genetic treatment of cancer, discovered the p53 gene, which plays a key role in the development of many tumours and has been found to act as a brake on the spread of cancer in normal cells.

Professor Cuschieri's team has been working on techniques to treat cancer patients, in particular through in situ ablation, attempting to destroy tumour deposits when the disease has spread.

Surgeons need advanced technology to allow them to see an image in real time so that a probe or injection can be delivered to the right spot. Working with Professor Lane heralds the "exciting" prospect of using keyhole surgery to inject genetic material to destroy the cancer cells, he says.

The merger brings together 60 full-time research scientists. Professor Cuschieri's department is already a pioneer in the United Kingdom through a long-term research programme covering medical technology, training methods and biological investigation of the benefits and limitations of keyhole surgery. It has been awarded the Queen's Anniversary prize. Professor Cuschieri said: "We have surgery, technology and training all in one, which has been our strength, and now we will have medical oncology as well."

Professor Lane is working to see how to switch off cancer, but Roland Wolf is concerned with what switches it on. "My research programme is to try to understand how our cells and bodies respond to chemical agents, which can be in the environment or taken deliberately in the form of therapeutic drugs,'' he said.

Our bodies contain a number of proteins to protect us from harmful elements in the environment. When these systems do not work well, there is the prospect of illness such as cancer or neurological diseases. While Professor Wolf's research aims to help discover an individual's susceptibility to disease, it should simultaneously discover which factors make drugs work well.

"One of the goals of my department is to start applying the tremendous advances in basic science at a clinical level," Professor Wolf said. "What's very special in Dundee is that we're all trying to develop our research in a way that becomes applied to new ways of treating disease."

Professor Cohen and Peter Downes head a new division of signal transduction therapy, whose work could lead to drugs for certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

Backed by the Medical Research Council, the researchers have signed a Pounds 7 million collaboration agreement with five pharmaceuticals companies, including Pfizer and SmithKline Beecham. They are working to understand how cell signals in the blood exert effects on tissues and cells, identifying key enzymes called kinases and phosphatases. A recent discovery has been how the hormone insulin works, by working backwards from insulin's effect of stimulating the conversion of glucose to carbohydrate. The discovery that the first enzyme in the pathway responds to a small lipid molecule, pip3, will help develop improved drugs for diabetes.

"The idea is that we might be able to develop drugs that actually switch these enzymes on or off," Professor Cohen said.

"When we started on all of this in the 1970s it was considered to be a fairly abstruse area with no relevance to disease at all. It's only in the past four to five years that pharmaceuticals companies have got excited, and it is really just taking off in a very big way now."

Professor Cohen and Professor Downes argue that this shows why long-term basic research in key areas must be funded before spin-offs of major importance to the nation's health can take place.

"Funding is the major headache, and getting money for research is a full-time occupation," Professor Cuschieri says. "I personally do not think there is enough funding in the research councils for the development of medical technology. We rely heavily on the charities and industry."

A team headed by Professor Wolf and a team from Leicester University's centre for mechanisms of human toxicity recently joined a consortium of 11 pharmaceuticals companies in a Pounds 2.7 million research programme. It aims to speed the process of bringing safe new drugs to the market.

Professor Wolf's biomedical research centre now has about 100 staff, and Dundee's growing stature is making recruitment much easier. "Being in the north of the UK does give people preconceptions, but our scientific reputation goes before us, and people are interested in good science," he said.

Dundee has been reversing the brain drain, attracting scientists from the United States, Germany, and elsewhere. Dundee's recruitment ethos is different from most. "In most places, people say 'If I come here, what are you going to buy me?' We are the other way round. We ask people what they can do for us, helping to build up something bigger from where we are," Professor Cohen said.

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