01086_v1_2010-08-25_a_full_710x240pxThe Francis Crick Institiute in London, the biggest biomedical research institute in Europe, has officially opened its doors for research this week. Scientists have begun to move into the £650 million facility and are taking up residence in their new labs. 

Research at the Crick aims to discover how and why disease develops in order to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat conditions such as cancer, heart disease and stroke, infections and neurodegenerative conditions like motor neurone disease.

Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive Officer of the Medical Research Council, one of the founding partners for the Institute, said: ‘It’s hugely exciting that scientists have started work in this incredible building. The Crick will be an international powerhouse for science and that’s a testament to the outstanding commitment of all those involved.”

A number of scientists and their research groups have been tied to the Crick for several months now, but for the first time these groups can start the complex process of moving into the new building. “The start of 2017 will see the Francis Crick Institute up and running with all staff moved in and research projects ramping up,” the Institute said in a statement.

Understanding gene expression

There are some exciting projects set to take up residence at the Crick in the coming weeks. Dr Jernej Ule, leader of the RNA Networks Laboratory will be leading studies into gene expression and transcriptomics, and the role of transcription dysfunction in conditions like ALS.

“We’re interested in how RNAs are processed, where each RNA molecule passes through many stages of cutting, stitching together, quality control and regulation,” he explained. “Our research focuses on key coordinators of the cellular machineries that carry out these stages. Formed when multiple proteins bind to an RNA molecule, they’re called ribonucleoprotein complexes (RNPs).”

“”Cells can change their gene expression by modulating the make-up of the RNPs. Certain mutations are known to disrupt RNPs, often resulting in neurologic diseases, particularly motor neurone disease (MND), also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It’s a devastating, progressive disease that attacks the motor neurones, or nerves, in the brain and spinal cord, leaving sufferers with limited mobility. The 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge certainly helped raise the profile of MND, but there is still a largely unmet need in MND treatment.”

Making waves

The Crick Institute managed to make scientific waves earlier this year, long before the doors officially opened for business. In September last year Dr Kathy Niakan, a scientist from the Institute, applied for approval to use CRISPR gene editing to study infertility in human embryos. “We believe that this research could really lead to improvements in infertility treatment and ultimately provide us with a deeper understanding of the earliest stages of human life,” Dr Niakan explained. 

After four months deliberation, the UK regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority granted permission for the study. Bioethicist Dr Sarah Chan, from the University of Edinburgh who was involved in last year’s Hinxton Group deliberations on human genome editing, said: “The use of genome editing technologies in embryo research touches on some sensitive issues, therefore it is appropriate that this research and its ethical implications have been carefully considered by the HFEA before being given approval to proceed.”

“We should feel confident that our regulatory system in this area is functioning well to keep science aligned with social interests.”