Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Michael Oldstone, Scripps Research Institute

  Let me first introduce myself. I am a senior scientist who is head of the Division of Virology and the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute. I know British science and scientists well. For example, your newly appointed Regis Professor of Medicine at Cambridge, Patrick Sissons, came to my laboratory over 20 years ago as a postdoctoral fellow to learn how to do biomedical research. Other distinguished senior biomedical academics from your country have passed through my laboratory including Sir Peter Lachmann, Anthony Nash, Peter Ghazal, and Sir Keith Peters. There are still others in the UK at the intermediate stage of their career who have great potential for future biomedical research achievements who also trained with me at Scripps. Further, I have been consulted by Sir Liam Donaldson about the measles virus vaccination controversy and have, in the past, reviewed grant applications for the MRC. Then, as a great supporter of the talent and science in your country, I write to you concerning the debate involving the future and the movement of NIMR, Mill Hill. In my judgment such a relocation will be a major mistake. Here is why.

  First, a candid assessment of the institution. NIMR, Mill Hill, although smaller is akin to our NIH, ie, is a research institute devoted to understanding and control of human diseases. It is this institute where influenza virus was first isolated and where interferon was discovered. In addition, workers in the NIMR uncovered many other medical firsts including the structure and folding of the influenza hemagglutinin. The NIMR currently serves as a WHO centre for surveillance and handling of evolving influenza viruses including the potential avian H5 flu that we are all concerned about causing a new pandemic in humans. Their current composition of balanced scientists in the NIMR, Mill Hill, is on the whole excellent and one to be proud of. I know that institute well having visited it on several occasions over the last 20 years, as I have also visited and lectured at Cambridge, Oxford, medical research clubs and hospitals in London. NIMR, Mill Hill, is one of the real jewels of your research establishment.

  The proposal to reorder and to move the NIMR near a university in central London is, in my opinion, poorly thought out. If NIMR, Mill Hill were to move to central London, they would likely lose their biosafety level (BSL)-4 unit and lose their advanced vivarium used to conduct important biomedical research in influenza, malaria, and tuberculosis. Is it feasible to move a high containment BSL-4 unit to centre city? I do not think so. With animal rights demonstrators can you build an equal vivarium in central London? I think not. Imagine the problems. Part of the past history in the selection of Mill Hill away from Hampstead was to overcome animal restrictions and difficulties.

  My strong opinion is that the error of relocating or dismantling NIMR, Mill Hill, will be shared by senior biomedical scientists outside of the UK, as well as most in the UK. I suggest you contact Rob Webster, the acknowledged expert in influenza in North America; Judy Gerhard, Nancy Cox or Walter Dowdle at CDC; experts in retroviral and lentiviral research Malcolm Martin at NIH or John Coffin at Tufts; senior American scientists Tom Steitz at Yale, Irvin Weissman at Stanford, Shirley Tilghman at Princeton; or Sir Gus Nossal at the University of Melbourne (former director of SAGE at WHO), I expect they would speak to the dominant position NIMR has, continues to have in biomedical research, and why it would be penny wise and pound foolish to move NIMR to central London.

  I cannot envision in my country a knowledgeable committee that would dismantle the intramural program of NIH and move it to a university. I am sure it would be possible to find those who would like to but I would like to probe into their reasons for doing so and the conflicts of interest involved. Yet, this is being planned for your country. Biomedical science is universal and the repercussions of a dismantled NIMR, Mill Hill, will affect not only your future but ours as well.

10 November 2004

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