Pirbright lab to get £92m revamp

Institute of Animal Health to benefit after years of neglect. Zoe Corbyn reports

August 6, 2009

A £100 million redevelopment of the national animal-health research laboratory that was put under scrutiny after the last foot-and-mouth outbreak is set to provide fresh impetus for science in this area.

Last week, the Government announced that it would provide £92 million to complete state-of-the-art facilities at the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) Pirbright laboratory near Guildford, Surrey.

Redevelopment began in 2005 but was put on hold after the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2007, which is thought to have originated from the complex shared by the IAH with the private company Merial Animal Health.

A further stumbling block arose in February this year when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs withdrew its planned capital investment in the facility.

Now the bulk of the funding will come from the Large Facilities Capital Fund operated by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which sponsors the institute, will provide a further £8 million.

The revamp is due to be completed in 2013.

Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, said: "This redevelopment will ensure that Pirbright has the facilities it needs to keep the best scientists and continue to be at the forefront of vital research."

The laboratory will aim to ensure that the UK is in a position to control, contain and eradicate the threats of established and emerging animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth and bluetongue.

Douglas Kell, the BBSRC's chief executive, said the funding was "a major boost" for animal-health research in the UK and "great news" for its scientific community.

"It will strengthen our strategic capability to protect livestock and other animals - including people - from devastating diseases," he said.

Much-needed makeover

The redevelopment follows recommendations made in reports both before and after the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Descriptions of the IAH facilities have ranged from "shabby" to "increasingly dilapidated" to "visibly substandard in contrast to the world-class scientific work carried out there".

The new high-security single laboratory complex will house all IAH Pirbright's scientific activity. At the moment, the work is undertaken in a series of separate buildings from different eras. A temporary facility will be built for the transition.

Martin Shirley, IAH director, said the investment sent a "clear message" that its work was important and brought "renewed confidence" to an organisation devastated by the 2007 outbreak.

With this new stability, the institute could look ahead to the big challenges and national needs of the future, he added.

"We have been operating in temporary and old facilities with an uncertainty of getting new ones," he explained. "A new facility means we can now look ahead to the next 20 to 30 years... It has given us the confidence to know that we are going to be around for the next few decades to tackle them."

He identified three agendas the lab would now be able to tackle: combating the spread of animal diseases resulting from climate change, such as African horse sickness and African swine fever, which are spreading north into Europe; food security; and the "one-medicine agenda", which looks at the interface between veterinary and human health.

There were diseases - as evidenced by the swine flu pandemic - that "crossed boundaries and needed to be studied as such", Professor Shirley said.

He believes that the redevelopment will make Pirbright a more attractive destination for researchers aiming to establish their careers. "What we will have is both the scientific status and the facilities," he said.

While the lab had been able to attract junior staff, the uncertainty over its future meant that it had struggled to attract more senior "big hitters", he explained.

Keith Gull, professor of molecular microbiology at the University of Oxford and author of the 2002 report that first mooted the redevelopment, welcomed the investment wholeheartedly.

It will allow research into issues that will be vital in the future, he said. "It is not 'if' there will be another epidemic, but 'when'," he explained.

"At long last, the BBSRC has been given the funds to upgrade the IAH. Excellent science has been done in completely dreadful facilities for far too long."

The UK needed to plan its national facilities more effectively because the redevelopment will not be completed until "11 years after a damning report", he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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