Memorandum by Dr Jamshed R Tata, National
Institute for Medical Research
The central premise that embedding NIMR in a
clinical centre in central London would somehow enhance its research
capability and cost effectiveness is flawed. This is borne out
by examples of the impressive clinical applications, mentioned
below, of the research carried out by this institute at its present
Mill Hill location, and which is further supported by applications
of similar research carried out at other biomedical research institutions
not co-located with clinical centres. Good science, whether or
not it is undertaken at clinical research centres, has always
led to useful medical applications. Finally the financial, staffing
and management consequences of moving a major institution to the
centre of a large metropolis goes against much of the current
thinking about moving to city centres.
1. The central premise is flawed
The central premise that co-locating the NIMR
with a major clinical institution in the heart of London would
enhance its research capability, and hence its clinical value,
is unfounded. This is clearly borne out by the Institute's contributions
since it has been established at its Mill Hill site. I cite here
just a few examples in support of this issue:
(a) Sir Christopher Andrewes (himself a clinician
and a past Deputy Director of NIMR) has said that, had he accepted
the offer of establishing a department at a central London clinical
centre before deciding to join the NIMR, he might not have discovered
the influenza virus at NIMR, work which later led to the development
of flu vaccine and the discovery of interferon in his laboratory.
(b) The isolation and determination of the
structure of penicillin by Sir Ernest Chain at the NIMR during
the Second World War, accompanied by collaboration with clinical
(c) The work of Sir Henry Dale (a past Director
of NIMR) and Prof Willy Feldberg's work on neurotransmitters has
had a most profound impact on the discovery and use of drugs in
(d) Prof Rodney Porter's elucidation of the
structure of antibody at the NIMR, work for which he was awarded
the Nobel Prize and before he moved to a clinical/academic centre,
opened up a very fruitful branch of immunology.
One can cite several examples of equally important
contributions coming from independent biomedical research institutions,
collaborating with, but not co-located with, hospital-medical
(a) Sir Peter Medawar's work on tissue transplantation,
first at Universities of Oxford and London and then continued
at NIMR (as Director) was later taken up in many clinical centres
throughout the world.
(b) Robert Edwards' (an ex-NIMR scientist)
work on in vitro fertilisation, in partnership with Patrick
Steptoe at a Manchester hospital, carried out at a university
science department led to the birth of Louise Brown, the first
(c) The development of monoclonal antibodies
by Cesar Milstein's group at the MRC's own Laboratory of Molecular
Biology in Cambridge has had an immense impact on biotechnology
and clinical practice.
(d) DNA fingerprinting, invented by Sir Alec
Jeffreys in a science department at Leicester University is another
(e) The technology of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance
(NMR) imaging, which has revolutionised diagnostic medicine and
surgery, was initiated in a non-clinical laboratory at the University
of Nottingham and an industrial R&D centre in the USA.
(f) The importance of Barbara McClintock's
studies on inheritance in maize at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
in the USA on human genetics.
(g) Finally, one can cite the countless important
clinical applications of research carried out at such institutions
in the USA as Massachussetts and California Institutes of Technology
(MIT and Caltech) and The Rockefeller University, which are not
embedded in clinical centres.
2. Good basic science produces valuable applications
The point in mentioning the above examples is
simply that good fundamental science, wherever it is practised,
always leads to important applications. This is not to say that
clinical research at hospital/medical schools is unlikely to lead
to useful applications. But an inescapable conclusion that can
be drawn from biomedical research undertaken worldwide is that
there is an inherent advantage in conserving and nurturing independent
and detached research centres, encouraged to set up collaborations
with clinical centres.
The disruption caused by the proposed move seems
to have been deliberately minimised or ignored. It will be extensive
and is bound to have serious consequences in breaking up ongoing
collaborative projects within the NIMR and with external groups.
It is not difficult to predict that co-location to a central London
site, with all its problems, inherent in any metropolitan centre,
will cause the loss of staff (especially the promising, younger
members) and create difficulties in attracting their replacements.
Finally, there is no way to estimate the financial burden of undertaking
this proposal. Past experience with all public financing schemes
tells us that, whatever the reassurances to the contrary, the
final cost will be far in excess of what is initially suggested.
This can only lead to the abandonment of new ventures and seizing
new opportunities, which far outweighs the benefits that have
been suggested in the MRC's proposals for the future of NIMR.
22 November 2004