As the Crick becomes a key player in the UK’s fight against COVID-19, we speak with one of the visionary philanthropists who helped to make this pinnacle of biomedical science a reality.
When in 2016 a group of Cancer Research UK supporters watched HM the Queen unveil the Francis Crick Institute in London, to which they had collectively contributed £100m, they could never have predicted that just four years later, the institute would be at the heart of the UK’s response to a global pandemic. Yes, they knew their support would help further our understanding of human health and diseases such as cancer and malaria. And perhaps on some level, they did imagine that the biomedical facility – Europe’s largest under one roof – would play an important role in a future and hopefully distant pandemic. But here we are, in July 2020, watching the Crick, an ambition made possible by those philanthropists, become an agile and innovative player in the global scientific response to COVID-19.
Our Create the Change campaign to help establish the Crick was our first significant foray into the world of high-value fundraising. It saw visionary supporters come together with a shared desire to create something extraordinary, and today philanthropists still contribute substantial funds to support the institute’s mission to discover the biology underlying human health and improve the treatment, diagnosis and prevention of disease.
One of those founding philanthropists was James Reynolds, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, who has just committed to supporting the institute for another five years. “When my wife and I were invited on a tour of the Crick, when it was still a construction site, we walked through the labs and said to each other, cancer will be defeated in this building,” he says.
James and his wife support the work of Professor Caetano Reis e Sousa, group leader of the Crick’s Immunobiology Laboratory. “From early on, we formed a relationship with Caetano and his team, which was very important,” says James. “He’s a brilliant scientist, he explains his work in simple terms so that we can understand it, and we can relate to him. That makes the project more real to us.
“To see the team grow and go on to achieve such success” – for example, Caetano won the prestigious Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 2017 – “has been fascinating and so rewarding. I believe they will continue to make a big difference in the world of cancer immunology.”
But it wasn’t just Caetano’s work that drew James and his wife to the Crick. “We felt that the kind of open campus that the institute was designed to provide, where the world’s best researchers can share ideas and thoughts, and collaborate with each other, was going to be very powerful. In research, you need that kind of cross-expertise to make breakthroughs.”
Indeed, fostering boundary-defying collaboration is baked right into the Crick’s ethos. With no departments or restrictive hierarchies, researchers are free to take their ideas in any direction. Scientists who would not traditionally cross paths share bench space, facilitating unlikely partnerships. Cancer scientists mingle with developmental biologists, while infectious disease specialists work alongside immunologists. And the institute is home to the World Health Organization’s Worldwide Influenza Centre, which contributed critical understanding to the proliferation of H1N1, the virus underlying the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
Because of all this, the Crick has been ideally placed to tackle COVID-19. And it came as no surprise that the institute, led by its director Sir Paul Nurse, mobilised quickly in response to the UK’s virus testing deficit. In early April, the Crick announced it would repurpose its labs into a diagnostic testing facility for NHS patients and staff. Since then, it has achieved a daily testing capacity of 2,000.
Then came the research.
For one project, Caetano and his team have validated a method to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which is quicker and cheaper than current methods, while just as accurate. The method looks for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in samples taken from nose and throat swabs and the protocols for using this promising method are now with health authorities.
Meanwhile, Dr Andreas Wack and his team – who specialise in understanding why viruses and other respiratory pathogens cause only mild symptoms in some people but can be deadly for others – are using established lab models of severe respiratory infection to test potential anti-inflammatory treatments for COVID-19. If one of these potential treatments shows promise, compounds could be rapidly produced for trials in people.
Dr Paul Bates and his team, in partnership with supercomputing firm Hadean, is developing intricate computer simulations to track how virus outbreaks such as COVID-19 spread within and between cities.
And a new initiative between the Crick, University College London (UCL) and the UCL Hospitals Foundation Trust has developed a blood test that can identify whether someone has been infected by the virus that causes COVID-19. So far, this test is seemingly more accurate than other methods and could be suitable for scaling up to thousands of tests a day. It can not only detect antibodies that the body produces against the virus, but also tests to see how effectively these antibodies will stop the virus from infecting cells.
These are just a few of the many new avenues of discovery being pursued as part of the Crick’s comprehensive five-point strategy for COVID-19. It covers all aspects of the disease, from its detection and the role of immunity in fighting it, to its molecular biology and how to protect vulnerable people – such as people with cancer – against it.
For James, the institute’s rapid response to the pandemic is yet more proof of its brilliance. “The Crick is not just a building, it’s a living organism. It adapts to its environment,” he says. “Less than a year ago, nobody knew about this virus and now the Crick’s researchers are leading on COVID-19 testing and research. And they did it at short notice, working day and night. It has been truly amazing to see the impact the institute is having on society.”
The Francis Crick Institute demonstrates the power of philanthropy. If you’d like to support the Crick’s mission in tackling diseases like COVID-19, donate here.
Alternatively, if you’d like to support Cancer Research UK during this financially precarious time, to ensure we can get cancer research back on track as soon as possible, please donate here.
– by Joanna Lewin, philanthropy communications manager and editor