France lays plans for premier cancer centre in Toulouse

Europe's largest cancer centre to be built on site of massive explosion.

Toulouse

Europe's largest centre for cancer research is to be built on the site of a major chemical explosion in France.

More than 30 people died and thousands were injured on 21 September 2001 in a blast at the Toulouse chemical company AZF. The explosion was one of Europe's worst industrial accidents.

The cancer centre will form the heart of one of France's seven new ‘Cancéropôles’ — regional networks of cancer research and care.

The 220-hectare site will house many cancer-research groups and institutes that are currently scattered throughout the city, as well as some hospital departments. These will benefit from shared facilities, including sophisticated genomics and microscopy equipment. An institute for advanced techniques in life sciences, employing physicists, chemists and computer scientists, will also be built.

The entire project is being directed by Georges Delsol, a cancer researcher at Purpan University Hospital, Toulouse. “The explosion was not only a terrible human tragedy, but it also threatened the long-term economic well-being of the city,” says Delsol. “The Cancéropôle will bring new jobs as well as being very good for science.”

Planned public investment in plant and equipment at the site will total about €600 million (US$800 million). Two French pharmaceutical companies — Sanofi-Aventis and Pierre Fabre — will also move to the site, and say that they plan to build labs to develop new drugs, partly on the basis of the cancer research that will also take place there.

But first the land must be cleaned up. The explosion occurred in a store containing hundreds of tonnes of chemicals for fertilizer production. Total, AZF's parent company, is organizing and financing the clean-up of the pollutants — predominantly ammonia, ammonium nitrates and chlorine. It is selling the land to the Cancéropôle for the symbolic price of ‘one franc’.

The ministry of defence, which still owns adjacent land used as a military dump, is cleaning that up and will also sell it cheaply to the Cancéropôle.

Building work will start in earnest next year, and the facility should be opened in 2008, when it will employ up to 2,500 people.

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Abbott, A. France lays plans for premier cancer centre in Toulouse. Nature 434, 5 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434005b

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