The Francis Crick Institute. Credit: The Crick
Last week the first scientists moved into the new Francis Crick Institute, the biggest biomedical research institute under one roof in Europe.
It’s a building so hi-tech and so vast that it comes with a first-of-its-kind navigation app, so that scientists can follow a blue dot from their phones to find the quickest way to a colleague’s laboratory.
This is key when you realise how big it is – 170m long from one end to the other, and almost 50m high, to be exact.
It has a total floor space approaching one million square feet – that’s equivalent to 17.5 football pitches, with 1,553 rooms (twice as many as Buckingham Palace). Not to mention more than 4km of laboratory benches.
On top of this it’s one of the most complex buildings in London. And inside the purpose-built labs, containing the most sensitive and advanced research equipment available, the world’s finest minds will work together to discover how and why human disease develops.
‘A magnificent place to work’
Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, has been waiting for this moment since the King’s Cross site was an abandoned good’s yard.
“What excites me most is that we’ve been preparing for about 8 years,” he said at last week’s sneak peek behind the scenes.
“And at long last it has come to fruition and a fruition in a spectacular way – because the building is magnificent.
“The researchers are coming in through the doors. And they’re immediately cheerful and say this is a magnificent way to work.”
The specialised laboratories have been constructed with the goal of getting scientists from different research backgrounds working together. There are open work spaces, breakout areas and shared research facilities so that scientists from different backgrounds and with different skills can’t help but bump into each other and chat and share ideas.
When it’s fully operational at the start of 2017 the institute will house over 1000 scientists along with 250 other staff.
And the first arrivals have already set to work.
‘We can look at results together in real time as they come out’
Collectively the teams are aiming to find new ways to diagnose and treat conditions like cancer, heart disease, infections and neurodegenerative conditions like motor neurone disease.
Professor Nicholas Luscombe, formerly of our London Research Institute, is one of the first to move his team into the building.
A really key focus of our work is the interdisciplinary nature of science – so you need a whole hub of people – biologists, mathematicians, physicists working together
– Professor Nicholas Luscombe
They use computers to analyse huge amounts of genetic data to understand how genes are switched on and off.
The basis of his work is that we all start as a single fertilised egg, which divides to become a complex, fully grown adult made up of some 5 trillion cells.
The vast majority of these cells are specialised, forming the vast array of brain cells, muscle cells, skin cells and so on, with each cell containing identical copies of DNA. But the process of making new cells needs to be tightly controlled, otherwise the cells can grow uncontrollably leading to cancer. Luscombe’s team is tasked with analysing the 3 billion ‘letters’ of information carried within a cell’s genetic code to get to the root of how cells know when to stop dividing.
“A really key focus of our work is the interdisciplinary nature of science – so you need a whole hub of people – biologists, mathematicians, physicists working together,” says Luscombe.
“You need this mix of researchers to answer these questions.”
His team consists of ten people, which has until now limited the collective brain power at hand. But at the Crick, with a thousand researchers, the sky is the limit.
“We can really start interacting with others,” he says.
“Take my colleague Jernej Ule. We’ve worked together for eight years but we’ve never worked in the same place. So that means we’ve always had to arrange to meet for coffee, or lunch and organise these meetings but now he’s just one minute away, and in the past few days I’ve seen him every day. So I say hello and it’s brilliant.
“We can look at results together in real time as they come out. We’re having a fantastic time.”
‘All these labs under one roof is very exciting for us’
Dr Luiz Pedro Carvalho, whose team works on the biology of tuberculosis, is also excited to get started.
“It’s finally happening. We’ve been waiting several years for this. To have access to the latest scientific technology. To be part of the Crick. All these labs under one roof is very exciting for us.
“We’re looking forward to doing what can only be done here.
“We’re moving towards understanding things that haven’t been possible to address previously. Why is the tuberculosis bacterium so successful in causing human disease? And has been for the last 70,000 years?
“The vast amount of antibiotics cannot be used against TB – and we don’t understand why.
“Everyone’s research is going to benefit from having different researchers – mathematicians, biologists, medics, geneticists, physicists, all working together.
“You’re exposed to things that you wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.”
‘We need knowledge’
And it’s this exposure to all the different scientific disciplines that Sir Paul sees as the beating heart of the Crick.
“This building is a discovery research institute,” he says.
“It’s understanding how living organisms work and particularly human beings. We’re complicated. If you don’t understand how we work we won’t understand answers to diseases like cancer.
“We’ll never understand how we can cure, prevent and diagnose effectively. So we need knowledge. We need the discovery of that knowledge and that’s what this is going to generate.”
And when asked when will we see the first discoveries, he answers, simply: “They have already started.”
The Crick has been established through the collaboration of six founding partners: Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council, Wellcome, UCL, Imperial College London and King’s College London.
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