Science & Technology

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The Francis Crick Institute: A World-Class Facility for Ground-Breaking Biomedical Research

The Francis Crick Institute: A World-Class Facility for Ground-Breaking Biomedical Research

Laura Riggall outlines why the Francis Crick Institute was built, what it aims to achieve, and its vision for the future

The Francis Crick Institute is a state-of-the-art research facility situated next to St Pancras Station in Central London. Although its construction was only completed in late 2016, at a cost of £700 million, it has already made great impact on the scientific community. Named after the Nobel laureate Sir Francis Crick, famous for co-discovering the structure of DNA, the Institute was founded by UCL, Imperial College London, King’s College London, Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

Commissioned due to the need for a centralised research hub, and to supersede ageing facilities elsewhere, the Institute was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth. As part of her tour of the Institute, she initiated the sequencing of the genome of the Crick’s director, Sir Paul Nurse. Nurse himself was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for investigating molecules that control cell division.

The design of the facility itself is fascinating, and reflects some of the driving mechanisms behind the Institute. High-containment research labs, arranged over four floors, are situated next to offices partitioned only by glass. These large offices, where research groups reside, are open-plan, and those working in different fields are combined to stimulate collaboration. The offices that each of the 120 group leaders inhabit are also glass-fronted to encourage integration, and white boards litter walls in case of Eureka moments.

Interestingly, because much of the lab equipment is sensitive to vibration and electromagnetic emissions (plentiful due to the Crick’s location), the Institute requires advanced methods of air handling, and some of its most sensitive equipment is housed in the third of the building that is below ground level. The Institute also generates its own low-carbon power, and solar panels provide renewable energy.

As the largest single biomedical laboratory in Europe, the Institute currently houses over 1,500 staff and scientists. Led by a stellar senior management team, including fellows of the Royal Society, researchers are working towards seven questions that lie at the heart of the Institute’s strategy. These goals aim to further understand how living organisms develop and age, and create methods of translating discovery into methodology to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases such as cancer, stroke and cardiac disorders.

To answer such questions, experimental approaches range from ecology and evolution, to computational biology and medical imaging. The cutting-edge science undertaken also utilises techniques such as CRISPR, to alter the genome of human embryos. Advantageously, Crick scientists are alleviated of the need to apply for research grants, and are instead funded by an annual £100 million budget. The Institute also collaborates with industry, including pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, to share resources and interchange the learnings of academia with that of industry.

Upon arrival at the Institute, all are greeted by a portrait of Francis Crick, donated by his co-pioneer James Watson. Looking skyward, high glass ceilings and balconies are dizzying, though never fail to inspire and motivate those who walk in.

A tour of the MRI unit four floors below ground level reveals some of the state-of-the-art tools in use. Allowing scientists to study soft tissue in excellent detail, MRI is used to identify pathologies which cannot be seen using other imaging methods. At the Crick, there is a brand new, multi-million-pound preclinical MRI scanner. A very powerful tool, it allows scientists to, for example, see the brain in great detail in both health and disease.

Imaging modalities can also be combined. For example, an MRI-positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, currently being installed, is a revolutionary, hybrid technology combining two of the most powerful imaging tools; whereas MRI allows for detailed structural and functional tissue characterisation, PET offers extreme sensitivity to metabolism.

However, the Institute wasn’t built purely to conduct scientific research away from the public eye. Rather, the Institute creates opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds to explore why science matters to society. For example, regular Meet a Scientist events allow scientists to share insights into their research with members of the public.

The Crick also interweaves both science and art, housing temporary art exhibitions. For example, individuals can now enjoy Deconstructing Patterns: Art and Science in Conversation, which presents the beautiful world of microscopy, an imaging technique used to view cells of the body.

Paradigm, a sculpture made of weathered steel to reflect the industrial heritage of the area, also stands 14 metres high at the facility’s entrance. Designed by British artist Conrad Shawcross, it is one of the largest public sculptures in London. Inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s theory of the ‘paradigm shift’, the American philosopher believed that scientific advancements occur through breakthroughs, rather than in a linear fashion. Thus, Paradigm provides a metaphor for growth and discovery.

Overall, the Francis Crick Institute is a marvel to behold. A home for big thinkers, imaginative and cutting-edge research is being performed everyday by scientists ranging in expertise, skills and backgrounds, yet working in synergy to achieve the Crick’s vision for the future. A visit to the public gallery is wholly recommended. And, if able to delve further into the interior of the Institute, take full advantage of this wondrous opportunity.

Image Credit: Estelle Ciesla

Laura Riggall