London Superlab Gets a Plan and a Design

LONDON—At a press briefing today, researchers, government and biomedical charity officials,

and architects unveiled design drawings and a scientific vision for a mammoth lab facility here that one participant says will be a “cathedral of science”. Expected to house 1250 researchers and 250 support staff, the United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research & Innovation (UKCMRI) will cost more than £500 million to build and could be ready by the end of 2014—assuming several possible obstacles don’t derail the effort.

The project, first announced in 2007, brings together the U.K.’s Medical Research Council (MRC), the two charities Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK (CRUK), and University College London (UCL). At the briefing, Paul Nurse, the British–Nobel laureate and head of Rockefeller University in New York City who has been leading the development of UKCMRI’s scientific plan, spoke of the four partners’ ambitions. They are to create a multidisciplinary institution dominated by early-career scientists who won’t be constrained by departmental barriers or a focus on a single disease or medical strategy. The institute, says Nurse, has a “simple goal: keep Britain at the forefront of biomedical research in the world.”

Others at the briefing confirmed that UKCMRI will house a “high category 3” infectious disease facility, which means that researchers will be able to work with flu viruses but not even more dangerous pathogens such as the Ebola virus that demand the next level of biosafety. Small animals, such as mice, rats, and ferrets, will be available for experimentation, but UKCRMI has no plans to conduct work on cats, dogs, or primates.

Many details of UKCRMI remain to be worked out, not the least which scientists from MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) and CRUK’s London Research Institute will be selected to join the new institute. The directors of each research center acknowledge that not everyone will move over to the new building; both centers will close and have their land sold off to cover much of UKCRMI’s cost. NIMR staff in particular have worried about how many of them will make the move from their famed home in Mill Hill outside London, and MRC chief Leszek Borysiewicz’s statement that a “large fraction” of NIMR will relocate may not completely ease those concerns.

MRC also still has to gain approval from the U.K. government for its petition for additional funds to build UKCRMI—MRC plans to contribute 45% to 50% of the cost, Cancer Research UK 25% to 30%, Wellcome Trust 20%, and UCL 5% to 10%. And UKCMRI has yet to submit its building plan to the local city council. Some residents are expected to protest the project, complaining that the land was originally designated for affordable housing or arguing that having infectious disease research in the heart of London and next to train hubs could spread pathogens throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.

Illustration: UKCMRI