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London to host ambitious research hub

UK Medical Research Council heads for King's Cross.

International draw: the MRC's new labs will be next to St Pancras station. Credit: P. MACDIARMID/GETTY

The announcement last week that Europe's largest medical-research facility is to be built in central London has been largely welcomed by Britain's biomedical community, which hopes that the centre will accelerate the translational research ? so beloved by policy-makers ? that brings discoveries from the lab to patients. But the process has ruffled a few scientists' feathers.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown says that the government will sell a plot of land between the British Library and the international train station at St Pancras to a consortium of the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the Wellcome Trust and University College London, for £85 million (US$173 million). The total cost of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, including purchase of the land, is pegged at more than £500 million. The MRC and CRUK are expected to shoulder the bulk of the cost, and the Wellcome Trust has committed £100 million to the project. The centre, which is expected to open in 2013, will employ up to 1,500 researchers and support staff.

It aims to compete with other global multidisciplinary scientific-research collaborations such as Biopolis in Singapore, the Allston Initiative at Harvard University and the Science-based Zizhu Industrial Park in Shanghai. ?Being in central London, right alongside main teaching hospitals and main offices for clinical research, is a much better location for translational research,? MRC head Leszek Borysiewicz told Nature. ?There is every opportunity for scientists to translate their work with the most appropriate clinical partners when they are that close to each other.?

Details of the research projects and teams that will be transferred to the centre remain scarce. Nobel laureate Paul Nurse, who is president of Rockefeller University in New York and CRUK's former director, will head an independent science-planning committee to determine the shape and direction of the centre's work and the facilities needed to carry it out.

The project will face numerous hurdles. Some researchers have expressed concerns that the infusion of funding into a prestigious project with limited space could ultimately hamper some basic research already taking place. And choosing to site the centre ? which will include the largest animal-research laboratory in Europe and a category-4 virus containment laboratory ? next to an international transport hub has sparked biosafety concerns.

Unease about potential staff reductions and shelving of core research has been particularly pronounced at the MRC's largest research body, the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), which will account for the bulk of the MRC's contribution to the new centre. The NIMR's 750 scientists and staff have already experienced nearly four years of debate within the MRC over its plans to move the institute from its current 19-hectare site in Mill Hill, northwest London, to central London. An earlier plan to move the institute to a site next to Euston Station in conjunction with University College London was ditched in March after the proposal faced scathing criticism from a key committee in the House of Commons that had held hearings on the plan.

NIMR staffers have previously expressed concerns that the 1.4-hectare site at St Pancras would have insufficient space for the institute's current facilities. Scientists have also criticized MRC executives for poor internal communication over the course of the discussions on the institute's fate, and say that the continuing uncertainty over how much of the NIMR will be transferred to the new research centre is taking a toll on morale. ?It's going to be a very difficult management process to keep people happy,? says Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem-cell biology and developmental genetics at the NIMR. ?We are very nervous about it. Of course we can see the advantages and we want to be optimistic, but a lot of people at the institute just don't trust the MRC because of its past history.?

Translational medicine

Borysiewicz says that Nurse's committee is expected to draw up broad outlines of the new centre's scientific mission over the weeks to come, and he adds that NIMR researchers will be represented on the committee. ?It may be five or six years before the new site is ready,? he says. ?It is the MRC's intention to support the science at the NIMR during that period.?

Others think that the move will help their work. Neil McDonald, a structural biologist at CRUK, notes that his current central London lab needs major refurbishment, and says that the new centre was being viewed positively by CRUK's several hundred researchers. ?The advantage of a big research institute, and the synergies involved, are not just economies of scale but accessibility to facilities that you wouldn't be able to afford at a smaller institute,? he says. ?If you are in the same building and you see people in the canteen every day, it promotes collaborations and interactions, not just between research scientists but between scientists and clinicians.?

The proposed centre still needs planning permission to go ahead, but with Brown's backing, it is likely to succeed.

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Chipman, A. London to host ambitious research hub. Nature 450, 926–927 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/450926a

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