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Foundation for the future: the next 25 years of MRC research

Sydney Brenner

Sydney Brenner

Last week, to mark and celebrate the MRC’s Centenary, the Foundation for Science and Technology organised a one-off debate to discuss what the MRC’s research priorities should be for the next quarter of a century. Louise Wren, MRC Public Affairs Manager, was there to hear a stellar line-up of speakers Dr Sydney Brenner, Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Keith Peters talk about how the future of medical research lies in experimenting with ourselves.

Last Wednesday, I joined a packed auditorium at the Royal Society along with MRC scientists, former MRC Chief Executives and Chairs, and representatives from medical research charities, industry and government. We were all there to see what some of the country’s most eminent scientists had to say about the future direction of UK medical research.

Sydney — former Director of the MRC Laboratory Molecular Biology (LMB) and currently Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Crick-Jacobs Centre in the US — began his talk by describing a moment early in his career when he travelled from Oxford to Cambridge to see Watson and Crick’s model of DNA, an experience which “opened the door to everything”. His list of subsequent achievements is considerable: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work showing how genes regulate organ development and how cells are programmed to die, and also co-discovered messenger RNA, which enables the DNA code to be translated into proteins. Sydney spoke warmly of his career at the MRC which spanned almost 35 years, saying the LMB was an “amazing vehicle” which spearheaded research across the world, benefiting from its open, non-hierarchical approach.

Next up, Sir Paul said that the MRC is an important part of the country’s intellectual infrastructure, one of our national treasures. Also the recipient of a Nobel Prize for his work to uncover key molecules that regulate cell division, he is currently President of the Royal Society and Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute, although he was once turned down for a job at the LMB (quite possibly during Sydney’s tenure as Director!). During his talk, Sir Paul noted that the MRC has always recognised the importance of discovery science. The advances of the last century have resulted in extraordinary improvements in lifespan and healthcare. “Just imagine what is likely to be achieved in the next 100 years,” he said.

Clockwise from top left: Dame Kay Davies, Director of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit, who took part in the private panel discussion; Sir Paul Nurse; Dr Sydney Brenner; Lord Jenkin of Roding, President of the Foundation for Science and Technology; Sir John Savill; Rt Hon David Willetts MP; and Sir Keith Peters.

Clockwise from top left: Dame Kay Davies, Director of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit, who took part in the private panel discussion; Sir Paul Nurse; Dr Sydney Brenner; Lord Jenkin of Roding, President of the Foundation for Science and Technology; Sir John Savill; Rt Hon David Willetts MP; and Sir Keith Peters.

Sir Keith began his speech by recalling some of the MRC’s great successes and eminent figures, noting that we shouldn’t forget the achievements of the past. A clinician by training, his own research interests focus on the immunology of kidney and vascular disease. He is currently Emeritus Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge and an advisor to the Francis Crick Institute, and part of his career was spent at the MRC National Institute of Medical Research. During his talk, he pointed to an extract from the MRC’s first annual report, published in 1914-15 and costing thruppence, noting results that were derived using “a method hitherto only used in physics”. This resonates today in discussions around the Crick; ensuring physicists are based there is a high priority.

So what’s in store for the next twenty-five years? Sydney said he saw “completely clearly” that human biology should be the top priority. “In the last 50 years we have been given all the tools we need in order to bring the investigations to ourselves”. We’re unique, he said, we’re the species that invented science and the only one that can think about the future; this gives us a priority we richly deserve.

Sir Paul said that a major research objective for the future is better understanding the cell: the basic unit of life. He echoed Sydney’s comments: “Ultimately we need to understand human cells if we are to work out the basis of human disease.” Although animal systems are important, we must take all opportunities possible to investigate human beings, he said. There are a number of exciting possibilities, including exploiting knowledge of the genome and its variation across populations. Combining this with other data will lead to more precise ‘personalised’ medicine, tailoring treatments to individuals. Sir Keith reiterated this, saying the linkage of research and health data is vital.

After dinner, MRC Chief Executive Sir John Savill thanked speakers and said that all had inspired him at some point during his career. He made particular reference to a comment Sydney made in 2000: “Man is the experimental animal of the 21st century.” Sir John said there has never been a better time to study man and woman, and the UK’s potential in bringing together biological and health data to understand disease is unrivalled. But patient confidence is crucial and we must reassure people that patient data will be used responsibly in safe havens.

Candidate for a caption competition ... What has David Willetts said?

David Willetts entertains the panel

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts ended the evening by saying the 100th anniversary of the creation of the MRC is worth celebrating. He pointed to three great strengths of British science: our universities; our learned societies; and our research councils. Between them these institutions “make Britain’s intellectual life and its scientific activity still so productive, creative and dynamic”.

Louise Wren

Many thanks to the Foundation for Science and Technology for organising the debate. You can read this summary of the event, and listen to audio recordings of Dr Sydney Brenner, Sir Paul Nurse, Sir Keith Peters, Sir John Savill and RT Hon David Willetts MP on their website. A video recording will also be posted in the near future.

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