Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Robert Liddington, Burnham Institute, La Jolla, California


  I wish to make two arguments for not moving the NIMR to a central London site. First, the NIMR is scientifically outstanding, and the science within the institute is very well integrated, but it is a precious commodity that may not survive a move to the center of London, owing to the way in which science is actually done at a research institute. Second, the rationale for siting the NIMR next to a hospital is poor. There is no weakness in the selection of research priorities by the basic scientists at the NIMR that would benefit from interactions with physicians. The government should instead be focusing its efforts on encouraging the early-to-mid stages of drug design—medicinal chemistry and animal trials—especially for the treatment of infectious diseases, because this is where a gap exists in the drug design pipeline that makes the creation of new drugs economically unattractive to drug companies. A move to central London would only hinder such efforts.


  Professor Liddington trained in the UK at Oxford (BA) and York (DPhil) universities, and in the US at Harvard University. He held a Faculty position at Harvard Medical School (1990-95) before returning to the UK as Chair of Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Leicester (1995-99). He returned to the US in 1999 to become Professor at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California, and is now Director of the Program on Infectious Diseases. He directs a group of 10 faculty, and also runs a research laboratory of 25 persons funded exclusively via peer-reviewed grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense.

POINT 1:  The NIMR is a precious commodity that cannot readily be transported to another site

  I was recently asked to act as an external reviewer of the Structural Biology program at NIMR. I found the quality of the science to be outstanding—comparable or better than any major department in a US university or research institute. The choice of research topics was absolutely at the cutting edge of modern molecular biology, and highly synergistic with the other research programs within the institute. The level of achievement, as judged by the publication of a large number of papers in the top scientific journals—Nature, Science and Cell—was truly extraordinary. The creation of such an intellectual resource requires strong leadership and the recruitment of key individuals—lieutenants—who provide the day-to-day drive and enthusiasm for this scientific work. Although their academic standing is comparable to a University Professor, they continue to do experiments themselves at the same times as directing and training junior colleagues. Because of this they work long and irregular hours (with modest pay). They are typically in their thirties and forties with young families to support. I doubt that the prospect of a long commute to the centre of London will appeal to these individuals, and therefore they will either find jobs elsewhere or productivity will suffer. Please note that such highly skilled and dedicated scientists may be impossible to replace. Of the four lieutenants in the structural biology division at NIMR I cannot think of more than a dozen other scientists with comparable credentials within the UK.

POINT 2:  The critical step in bridging the drug design gap is the provision of funding for drug lead optimization and animal trials

  New treatments for infectious diseases—whether caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, emerging viruses such as SARS and West Nile, or the work of bioterrorists, are likely to be of critical importance over the next decades. Drug companies have classically focussed their efforts on the treatment of chronic diseases rather than acute ones owing to economic imperatives. Therefore, university researchers and government must change this situation by making the design and testing of treatments for acute diseases economically attractive to industry. Historically, basic scientists have not had the resources to take drug discovery beyond inhibitor design in the test tube. One way to bridge the gap to industrial drug design is for the government to fund the intermediate steps in drug discovery—lead optimisation through medicinal chemistry and animal trials—which can lead to compounds with proven efficacy in animals that are patentable and that can then be developed further by biotech or drug companies. This is a key area for development. Moving the NIMR to the center of London will not further this objective, and will actually impede research by making animal trials harder to perform.

23 November 2004

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