Business Secretary Greg Clark has announced funding for a series of ambitious technology projects that will transform the way medicines are discovered, enabling the pharmaceutical industry to develop groundbreaking drugs faster, cheaper and better than ever before. The projects are the first wave of major initiatives for the £103m Rosalind Franklin Institute, that has just been launched at the Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire.

New drugs are discovered through a slow and painstaking process of trial and error, often taking ten years and billions of pounds to develop. The Rosalind Franklin Institute (RFI) is investing £6M to create:

• The World’s most advanced real-time video camera, the key to a new technique that uses light and sound to eradicate some of the most lethal forms of cancer.

• A new project pioneering fully-automated hands-free molecular discovery to produce new drugs up to ten times faster and transform the UK’s pharmaceutical industry.

• A ground-breaking new UK facility that will revolutionise the way samples are produced and harness Artificial Intelligence (AI) to generate new drugs for clinical testing within a few weeks.

The RFI will harness disruptive new technologies such as AI and robotics to dramatically improve our understanding of biology, leading to new diagnostics, new drugs, and new treatments for millions of patients Worldwide.

It will pioneer new ways of working with industry, as part of the UK’s AI and Data Grand Challenge, bridging the gap between university research and pharmaceutical companies or small businesses. This will build on the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy and put the UK at the forefront of the industries of the future.

Business Secretary Greg Clark said:

“The new Rosalind Franklin Institute will lead a revolution in drug development and diagnosis to improve the lives of millions of patients. And with over 10 million people in Britain alive today expected to live to 100, now more than ever it is vital that the Government invests in the development of new technologies and techniques which will support people to have healthier lives.”

Professor Ian Walmsey, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research & Innovation at the University of Oxford and Chair of the RFI’s Interim Board said:

“The RFI will pioneer disruptive technologies and new ways of working to revolutionise our understanding of biology, leading to new diagnostics, new drugs, and new treatments for millions of patients Worldwide.

It will bring university researchers together with industry experts in one facility and embrace high-risk, adventurous research, that will transform the way we develop new medicines.”

The namesake of the institute, the pioneering X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, was one of the key figures in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and used a technique with roots in physics and technology to transform life science. The Institute will follow in this spirit, developing unique new techniques and tools and applying them for the first time to biological problems.

The Institute is an independent organisation funded by the UK government through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and operated by ten UK universities.

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC’s Executive Chair, said:

“As EPSRC is the main delivery partner for the Rosalind Franklin Institute, I am extremely pleased to see the Institute officially launched today. Research here at the Harwell hub, and at the universities that form the spokes of the Institute, will help the UK maintain a leading position in the application of engineering and physical sciences to problems in the life sciences.”

UK Research and Innovation chief executive Professor Sir Mark Walport said:

“The UK is home to a vibrant life sciences research community. The Rosalind Franklin Institute’s strength is in bringing this together with physical scientists and engineers at the heart of a campus that fosters innovation and collaboration. Through its pioneering interdisciplinary research and the development of new technologies, it will support advances including improved drug discovery and the faster development of effective treatments for chronic conditions. Through partnership with industry, it will help ensure its insights are more rapidly translated into impacts and drive growth across the UK’s important life sciences sector.”

It operates on a ‘hub and spokes’ model, with a central hub at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, delivered by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The hub, opening in 2020, will house a unique portfolio of scientific tools and researchers from both industry and academia. Equipment and researchers will also be located in spokes distributed throughout the partner network of universities.

The hub at Harwell is a four storey, £40m build, which is being project managed and delivered by STFC. With the façade of the building reflecting the iconic work of Rosalind Franklin, the hub will house the majority of the technologies produced for the Institute, and will have world leading capabilities in imaging and drug discovery, creating a globally unique centre of excellence in life science. It will be home to 150 researchers from industry and academia, working closely with neighbouring facilities at Harwell including the Diamond Light Source and STFC’s Central Laser Facility.

Professor James Naismith FRS FRSE FMedSci Director of the Research Complex at Harwell, and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, has been appointed as the Interim Co-Academic Lead at the Rosalind Franklin Institute. Speaking about the institute he said:

“The institute will produce technologies to fill the gaps slowing down the progress of research in both industry and academia. Identifying these gaps, working with industry and university colleagues, and then working to produce the technologies which will solve them is at the heart of what we will do here. For example, not being able to watch a drug enter a cell in real time holds back our understanding of how they work – this is one of the challenges we seek to solve.

“The technologies we will develop will speed up hugely the process of drug discovery, and help us understand disease better at a fundamental level. For the general public, this means getting better, more effective drugs, more quickly.”

“Rosalind Franklin was an exemplary interdisciplinary scientist. She took a technique – X-ray crystallography – and through her application of it, transformed utterly our understanding of life. What is often not known about Rosalind Franklin was the breadth of her work, which started looking at coal and graphite, and moved on to DNA, and then later to look at the structure of viruses. This ability to move between disciplines, and look at a universe of scientific problems without boundaries is what we aspire to here at the Institute.

“The building at Harwell has a number of features which will make it the perfect place to build new technologies for life science. The building will have exceptional stability and control on the ground floor, making it ideal to develop techniques in EM and mass spec, and spaces designed throughout which are not only ideal for carrying out research, with chemistry and life science labs, but also for groups to work together and collaborate. The design of the building has been put together by scientists for science – it will be a fantastic place to carry out research.”

EPSRC and STFC are part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

Still Images – Architect’s Renders of the New RFI Building to be located at Harwell Campus, South Oxfordshire – credit: “Courtesy of IBI”