A fond farewell, a bright future: reflections on the London Research Institute

In April 2015 the CRUK London Research Institute formally became part of The Francis Crick Institute. Although the researchers won’t physically move to the new building until 2016, the countdown has now begun. Here we have a personal reflection from Richard Treisman, Director of the London Research Institute, on the move and the opportunities ahead.

In September 1977, an alarmingly long time ago, I started my PhD at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) labs in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I’d realized while I was an undergraduate that I wanted to understand how genes worked, and the ICRF, as it was universally known, was one of the few places in the UK where it was possible to study this directly. Before cellular genes were readily available through DNA cloning, animal viruses provided the only simple way to study gene expression at the molecular level, and the ICRF’s research programme on DNA and RNA tumour viruses was internationally renowned. I remain forever grateful for my undergraduate supervisor Tim Hunt’s advice to “go to the ICRF — there are good people there!”

The Lincoln’s Inn Fields labs had only been completed four years previously, but had already assumed the somewhat shabby, workaday aspect of a long-established research institution. Science in those days was done on a far larger scale than now, and the corridors and labs, fitted out with old-fashioned wooden benches and cupboards, were crammed with equipment and people, and scented by a dense fug of cigarette smoke and overbrewed coffee. To a newly-fledged PhD student, it was a simultaneously intimidating and exciting place, populated with larger-than-life characters engaged in the passionate pursuit of science (and in some cases, each other).

I didn’t know it at the time, but this first encounter with the ICRF would be the start of an association which has lasted (but for a seven year sojourn in the two Cambridges, US and UK) for my entire career, and which has almost spanned the lifetime of the building. I’ve worked there through the 2002 marriage of the ICRF and the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) to form Cancer Research UK, and now, finally, will be witness to the last science to be done in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, as the CRUK London Research Institute (LRI) is reborn as a founding partner in the Francis Crick Institute.

My scientific home has been host to many major discoveries, some of which have profoundly changed how we think about cancer, and indeed, about the basic biology of life. The cast of researchers is too numerous to mention, but their achievements include: establishing fundamental concepts underlying the molecular biology of cancer; revolutionizing our understanding of DNA repair, replication and recombination; providing the first evidence that the normal function of oncogenes is to regulate cell growth and cell death; deciphering how extracellular signals are transmitted into the nucleus and how this regulates transcription; transforming our understanding of innate immunity, and latterly, demonstrating that tumour evolution is the principal way that cancers acquire resistance to therapy.

I’ve missed one achievement from this impressive list — Melanie Lee’s and Paul Nurse’s 1987 discovery that the cell cycle machinery is conserved from yeast through to humans: the experiment that won Paul his 2001 Nobel Prize (in association with Lee Hartwell, and Tim Hunt, by then working at Clare Hall). Paul’s contribution to the scientific trophy cupboard of the ICRF/LRI is unmatched; his impact on the organisation of British biomedical research has been perhaps just as important. As ICRF Director General, he drove the ICRF/CRC merger that created Cancer Research UK and the LRI. Paul has been a prime mover in the establishment of the new Francis Crick Institute, described as the “most exciting project for UK biological science in a generation”, and into which the LRI and our sister institute, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, were incorporated on 1st April.

“As one of the founding partners of the Francis Crick Institute, we will maximise opportunities to increase the understanding of cancer. The collaborative nature of the institute, with many scientific disciplines represented in the same location, provides a unique environment for new collaborations and cross-discipline approaches.”

—Nic Jones, CRUK Chief Scientist

Like all exciting adventures, the journey that has taken the LRI into the Crick has been a rollercoaster mix of planning and hard graft, optimism and frustration, and not a little luck, coupled with a refusal to compromise in the pursuit of a scientific happy ending. Jim Smith, my counterpart at the NIMR, and I have had to tread a difficult path as Directors of the two Crick founder institutes. We’ve had to keep research momentum and recruitment going, whilst maintaining staff morale through uncertain times, all the while planning and working for the future success of the Crick. There have been hard decisions, but also the help and cooperation of colleagues across both institutes who’ve collaborated magnificently in making the design and operation of the Crick as conducive to good science as possible.

And now, we’ve moved into the next stage of the project, where the Crick moves from a building project to a fully fledged research organisation. While we’re currently spread over laboratory sites at Clare Hall, Mill Hill and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the coming year will see our migration to our wonderful new laboratory at Brill Place (appropriate name!) in St Pancras. As the time of the move approaches, the mood amongst the staff is one of optimism and excitement at a new beginning, although I for one will miss Lincoln’s Inn. Working together over the next few years, we’ll do our best to create something unique, something that will be good for us, for UK science, and for research as a whole.

But what of the Crick’s impact on cancer? How will the Crick justify the substantial investment made in it by Cancer Research UK? The answer is clear: despite the fact that over the 50-year lifetime of the LRI’s laboratories our understanding of cancer and how to treat it has undergone a revolution, we still do not understand cells, tissues and their cancerous development well enough. Indeed, our understanding of how cancers interact with host physiology in general, including the immune system, remains in its infancy, despite recent therapeutic advances. The Francis Crick Institute will provide an unparalleled environment to take cancer research to a new level, integrating interdisciplinary discovery research with the clinical and translational opportunities available through our university partners. But most important is for us to assemble a group of outstanding scientists and to nurture a culture of innovation and collaboration that will ensure both scientific discovery and its timely application for the betterment of human health.

 

This story was originally published in Pioneering Research: Cancer Research UK’s annual research publication for 2014/15. Find more at cruk.org/pioneeringresearch

Creative Commons LicenceThe text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.