Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr R Henderson, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

  I am writing to give you my views on strategic planning in MRC institutes in the context of your enquiry into NIMR. I write as Director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, one of three MRC institutes, which include the NIMR and the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre. I hope this will help to give the committee a wider perspective and be useful in their enquiry.

  MRC institutes provide an important component of the MRC's intramural support for research, supporting as they do a multi-disciplinary portfolio of research in basic and more applicable biomedical and clinical science. Each institute has its own strategy and research programme, fully approved and funded by the MRC, but they share a number of key strategic features. Important among these is the long-term support for research into major scientific questions, which increasingly require interdisciplinary collaborative approaches. In the case of the LMB, such contributions include those such as its early successes in determining the structure of DNA, and in developing the techniques of X-ray crystallography (both of which involved researchers originally trained as physicists), through work on monoclonal antibodies and the sequencing of DNA, and more recently to work on embryonic development and the use of model organisms, as exemplified by the work on C elegans. All this work led to the award of Nobel Prizes which acknowledged revolutionary advances. I am pleased to say that work of comparable importance continues including that on the basis of immunological switching, which underlies the diversity of the immune response, and on the structure and function of the ribosome, which is the target of a number of novel antibiotics.

  I believe that all Institutes need to have a long-term research strategy, developed as part of the MRC's overall vision and strategy. Such research strategies need to be forward looking, build on key strengths, identify new opportunities, and be responsive to the changing social and political environment in which research is conducted. They need to target opportunities presented by long term funding from the MRC (subject to regular, critical independent review), and the consequent obligation to tackle the most difficult of research questions which do not lend themselves to short term funding objectives but at the same time often lead to the most revolutionary breakthroughs. Success of an institute is heavily dependent on the choice and subsequent nurturing of the individual scientists who lead their own research programmes within the overarching strategic framework and whose own interests are also in research of the highest quality. At the same time, the choice of the group leaders of the future is a key mechanism through which the Institute's strategy is developed and realised. In the case of the LMB the early strategy was to support the development of new methods to analyse secondary and tertiary structures of proteins and nucleic acids and their inter-relationship through the genetic code. With time these key strengths were harnessed in the study of cellular mechanisms and development, not least through the choice of model organisms. In the 1960s the strategic decision was taken to work on C elegans, followed later by Drosophila and yeast, and more recently to extend our work on mammalian systems. In the 1990s the opportunity was taken to initiate work towards exploration of higher levels of organisation in the nervous system, but based very strongly on our strengths in structural and cell biology. Looking to the future the strategy involves a continued and expanding commitment to work on neurobiology, not least because of the burden of mental and neurological illness, and continued use of transgenic mice as model systems in which to study disease. It will also see closer interactions with groups involved in clinical research on the one hand, to better understand the nature of disease and to enable translation of research findings into application, and with physical scientists on the other, to expand the range of techniques which can be used to dissect molecular interactions and cellular processes.

  It is obviously not possible to predict with any certainty the direction in which particular research programmes will develop, or even which research programmes will be introduced. The first owes much to the unpredictability of research, which relies on trying out many approaches before finding the most fruitful avenue to follow; the second to the recruitment and retention of key research leaders. However, the institute as a whole will only be successful and strong if there is an overarching strategy, which frames the general nature of research which will be undertaken, and the general philosophy of the way it will be conducted. It also enables an Institute to look ahead to the challenges to come, and ensure that it is well placed to respond to such challenges.

  In the case of LMB, this strategy has focussed on understanding key cellular processes at the molecular level, bringing together exploration of structure and function to provide a complete understanding of cellular events. It has also included the concept of supporting relatively small groups, around internationally competitive scientists, and providing them with access to key techniques and resources, in an environment which encourages interactions and collective success, and avoids unproductive internal competition for resources or unnecessary staking out of territory. The strategies further seek to encourage the development of new techniques and methods; thereby ensuring by the very nature of its research programme that LMB is at the forefront of developments. Finally, the strategy also includes the commitment to assisting major programmes of work to become independent outside of the Institute when they individually out-grow what is possible within the institute itself. So, the LMB spawned the Sanger Institute, to take forward large scale sequencing, it launched a number of start-up companies to take forward breakthroughs in biotechnology, some of which have now been floated on the stock market, or acquired by other larger companies; and a number of senior group leaders left to start or lead their own institutes and Units, including the Wellcome/CRUK institute and the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition Unit in Cambridge, as well as a host of foreign institutes including the Howard Hughes Janelia Farm Research Campus which is both explicitly modelled on LMB and actually directed by an LMB research student alumnus.

  As part of this laboratory-wide strategy, the Divisions at LMB all have long term strategic plans which involve recruitment of young group leaders in key areas, succession plans for likely Division Heads and identification of infrastructure needs for the type of research envisioned. These then feed into the institute plan, which in turn forms part of the Addenbrooke's 2020 Vision and the MRC's own forward planning.

  It is also perhaps worth commenting on the advantages of location, in the case of LMB on the Addenbrooke's Hospital site. When LMB first came to the site in the early 1960s, it was among the very first buildings here, on what was then the site for the fledgling new hospital. It had room to expand and grow, which it did very successfully, and the hospital grew around it, until today the LMB is enveloped and surrounded by the Clinical School and the Hospital. This led us, some years ago, to consider the possibility of moving out of Cambridge, to what was then a vacant site in Hinxton, before the Welcome Trust Sanger Centre was created. The older, established members of the Laboratory favoured such a green field site, with space, fine views and easy access. The younger postdoctoral scientists and students, those who are the future of the Laboratory, favoured a site closer to the centre of Cambridge, because of the links with the University and Colleges, as well as the social advantages. The MRC, then, as now, favoured co-location and juxta-position but not full integration with the hospital and university (the relationship desired was once described by Max Perutz as that of brother and sister rather than husband and wife), and so we remained on the Addenbrooke's campus—half way between Hinxton and the centre of Cambridge. Clinical links have not been formal, but grass roots collaborations have been encouraged. These were of some significance in the development of the LMB's research: Professor Herman Waldmann in the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with Dr Greg Winter in LMB and with clinicians within the Hospital, did some of the first clinical studies on the humanised monoclonal antibody Campath 1, which is now used for the treatment of certain leukaemias. This was the first clinical application of these novel compounds, which today are the basis of a multi-billion pound industry. MRC has a number of key patents in this field, on which royalties are received. On the Addenbrooke's campus now, LMB is an integral part of the overall strategy for the development of the whole campus, and is a key player in the site wide developments planned for the next two decades and beyond.

  In closing, I hope the Committee will recognise the importance of institute research strategies, which can and should be planned over 10-20 years, if the institute is to take the long term perspective required to tackle major research questions in biomedical research. LMB has been fortunate in its interactions and opportunities, and has sought to maintain a consistent but developing strategy, to provide stability and allow exploitation of those opportunities. In the case of NIMR, the strategy will be different but I hope it will help the Committee to know some of the issues that LMB considers important.

22 November 2004

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