Proposal to close UK mouse-research centre is ‘major threat’

Country’s mouse-genetics programme is at risk, say researchers at MRC Harwell Institute.

Leaders and senior scientists at a national mouse-genetics centre in the United Kingdom have written an open letter decrying a recommendation to close the facility’s on-site academic research unit.

The closure of the MRC Harwell Institute’s Mammalian Genetics Unit (MGU) — where scientists study disease using animal models — would be “a major threat to mouse genetics in the UK”, says the letter, organized by 14 senior Harwell scientists. More than 150 researchers worldwide have backed the letter since the organizers shared it with peers in the research community on 20 June in a bid to rally support for their concerns. The MGU employees 150 people, most of whom are scientists.

In response, the Medical Research Council (MRC) — Britain’s public medical-research funder — says that the recommendation is not a reflection on the value or quality of MGU science, but a reflection of the changing scientific landscape. It says it recognizes the importance of the mouse model and is not seeking to divest from mouse research — but is “committed to establishing the most effective approach to support mouse-based research activity across the UK”.

The MRC Harwell Institute bills itself as an international centre for mouse genetics. It hosts a large mouse-breeding facility called the Mary Lyon Centre, along with the separate MGU and a macaque-research facility.

But an MRC review recommended in March that the MGU should close because there is no longer a case to support academic research on-site; the Mary Lyon Centre would remain open. A final decision on the recommendations — reported by the The Guardian newspaper on 20 June — is due in December.

The review suggested that, instead, academic researchers around the country could partner with the Mary Lyon Centre — which houses 60,000 research mice — to do research, through a model it dubbed hub and spoke.

But the MRC has not sought adequate consultation on the hub-and-spoke proposal, say the letter’s organizers, who include the directors of the MGU and the Mary Lyon Centre.

The MRC says that if the recommendations are implemented, it will conduct a wider consultation with the mouse-research community to ensure that the system serves scientists and their research.

The proposal comes less than a month after the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, one of the world’s leading genomics institutes, decided to close its animal-research facility, which focuses largely on mice.

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