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The Francis Crick Institute – three steps closer to reality

by Simon Shears | Analysis

7 June 2013

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In a little over two years, the Francis Crick Institute will open its doors to researchers from across the globe, giving them a state-of-the-art environment in which to answer the fundamental questions of human biology.

The Institute, based in London, is named after Professor Francis Crick – the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who, with Professor James Watson, discovered the double helix structure of DNA.

Yesterday, in the presence of Crick’s daughter, the Chancellor George Osborne, Minister for Universities and Science David Willets, and the Health Minister Earl Howe, a big step was taken towards making this a reality – the ‘topping out ceremony’ – celebrating the completion of the highest point of the new structure.

In glorious sunshine, we heard from the Institute’s first director Professor Sir Paul Nurse – himself a Nobel Prize winner and former CEO of Cancer Research UK. Professor Nurse laid out his vision for the institute as a “powerhouse and beacon of science in UK science whose doors will always be open for scientists to share their ideas and liberate their creative energies.”

This milestone coincides with the publication of the Strategic Plan [pdf], which sets out just how unique and groundbreaking the Institute will be when it opens in 2015.

The Plan outlines how the Institute will bring the very best minds from across the biological, clinical and physical sciences to address some of the most pressing issues that we face, from treating cancers and circulatory diseases to infectious diseases that devastate so many lives.

To do this, the Institute will not be afraid to do things differently – our chief executive Dr Harpal Kumar calls it a “game-changer for medical research”.

So what’s so different about the Crick, and why?

Colliding worlds

One of the Institute’s great strengths will be to bring together researchers from different backgrounds, with ‘fresh sets of eyes’ to provide new clues in the hunt for cures and treatments. It’s an approach embedded in the building’s background: Francis Crick was a physicist and James Watson was a zoologist. It is arguably their different approaches – working together – that were the key to their fundamental breakthrough in the 1950s.

Today, as research reveals more about how different diseases affect our bodies, it’s also showing how they overlap, demonstrating how discoveries in one area could open new avenues for treatments in others.

For example, our researchers’ expertise in brain tumour biology will be set alongside the knowledge of those working on brain development, and on other brain and central nervous system disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This mutual proximity will boost their collective efforts, spark new ideas and – almost inevitably – lead to new treatments.

The next generation

In a departure from the usual career structure for scientists in the UK, the Crick Institute will act as an incubator for the best young scientists in the world. Focusing on researchers in the fledgling stages of their careers – when they’re at their most creative and uninhibited – the Crick will nurture their talents for up to 12 years before releasing them to other research institutes in the UK and beyond.

To support these young researchers during what can be a very vulnerable time in their careers, an ‘old guard’ of senior scientists will be given the job of mentoring and guiding them.

Opening new windows into the body

So what will they be looking at? To guide the work of the Institute the research strategy is based on seven broad questions:

  • How does a living organism acquire form and function?
  • How do organisms maintain health and balance throughout life and as they age?
  • How can we use biological knowledge to better understand, diagnose and treat human disease?
  • How does cancer start, spread and respond to therapy?
  • How does the immune system know whether, when and how to react?
  • How do microbes and pathogens function and interact with their hosts?
  • How does the nervous system detect, store and respond to information?

These questions will provide the starting point for the melting pot of ideas that we hope will take our researchers closer to understanding more about cancer and new ways of treating the disease.

Making it happen

And to finish off this round of milestones, we’re delighted to announce that we’ve raised £34 million for the Francis Crick Institute, taking us more than a third of the way to our target of raising £100 million through the Create the Change campaign.

Donations so far have come from a range of major philanthropists and trusts, including an incredible £3 million gift from The Wolfson Foundation.

With all these milestones being reached it promises to be an exciting couple of years as we build up to the opening of the Francis Crick Institute in 2015.