UK Institute to harness disruptive technology to transform drug discovery

Business Secretary Greg Clark today 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 was launched today 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. 

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."

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.  

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.

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