Memorandum from Professor Alan R North,
University of Manchester
I am writing to you with respect to the forthcoming
inquiry of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.
I write in a personal capacity. You will see from the attached
biographical sketch that I trained in both medicine and science,
I have held professorships in leading research universities and
institutions in the United States, and I have also worked as a
scientist for a leading pharmaceutical company. I am a Fellow
of the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the
Royal College of Physicians. For more than three years I have
served on the Medical Research Council, and I was a member of
the group constituted by Professor George Radda to develop a Forward
Investment Strategy for the MRC's intramural research programme.
The UK government spends very little on medical
research. Taken in the context of the National Institutes of Health
or even major pharmaceutical research companies the spend is derisory.
The MRC Board that I currently chair is unable to fund many of
the applications that it receives which are rated by peers as
being of the highest international quality. We struggle to recruit
and retain, and continue to haemorrhage leading brains to the
US. Only last week I was dispiritedly writing a letter of recommendation
for a quite outstanding young colleague, actually an MRC employee,
who is seeking to relocate to the United States. I present this
background context because I feel that it emphasises how critical
is the obligation of the MRC to plan for the future so as to get
the greatest possible value for its very limited monetary investment.
I believe that this future must involve two
key elements. The first is a very substantial input into biomedical
research from the physical sciences. Most major advances in life
sciences of the past 30 years have been led by technology developments
lifted straight from the world of physics and/or chemistry. Usually,
these have been made by those who are able comfortably to straddle
the two worlds of physical science and life sciences.
Furthermore, a new biology has emerged from
the genomes in which the world of interacting molecules can be
understood only by sophisticated mathematics. Leading institutions
around the world are developing new institutes and centres to
bring together their biologists with their mathematicians and
physical scientists: Stanford, Harvard, University of Washington,
Princeton all have them. Such institutes will power research and
training in biomedicine over the next decades.
The second element is the need for more translation
of fundamental discoveries in medical research. I see two components,
wealth and health. There are now many examples of the successful
commercial exploitation of fundamental medical discoveries: indeed,
some bring financial benefit back to the MRC itself. In their
early stages, these transitions are much facilitated by physical
proximity between scientist and entrepreneur; hence the success
of "bioincubators". However, it is the health component
that has received much recent emphasis. This is because advances
in genetics and genomics have strikingly narrowed the gap between
disease and the molecular understanding of disease. Twenty-five
years ago, we could do little more than simply describe most human
diseases: molecular mechanisms were something to dream about.
It is the narrowing of this gap between molecular mechanism and
disease process which has so suddenly enabled so-called translational
researchresearch in which the fundamental mechanistic questions
are directly informed by a human disease. This will form an increasingly
important ingredient of medical research in the next 25 years.
Much of the discussion in the past couple of
years, indeed much of the protest, has focussed on the quality
of the science at Mill Hill and the disruption that might be caused
by a move. This is a side-show. The quality of the science at
Mill Hill has never been in question. The MRC has formal procedures
for assessing that quality and I know nobody who disputes the
process or its results. The disruption that would be caused by
a move would be substantial, but forgotten in five to 10 years.
The forward investment strategy must look considerably beyond
I imagine a National Institute of Medical Research
in which physics undergraduate student can be inspired by serendipitously
attending a lecture by the professor of medicine, where a materials
scientist meets weekly with his colleague studying plaque formation
in coronary arteries, where computer scientist and neurologist
collaborate intimately on human cognition and its decline in the
elderly, and where fellows in an interdisciplinary postgraduate
clinical training programme are excited about their future careers.
I can not imagine this in a leafy London suburb.
15 November 2004