New £100 million Rosalind Franklin research institute to improve health through physical science innovation

Oxford University scientists, including those from the Department of Engineering Science, are to play a key role in a new, government-funded research facility, the Rosalind Franklin Institute (RFI).

Rosalind Franklin InstituteBacked by over £100 million of investment, the RFI will be a national centre of excellence in technology development and innovation. Physical scientists, engineers and life scientists will work together to develop new techniques and instrumentation and apply them to key challenges in the health and life sciences – leading to improved understanding of disease, faster discovery of new treatments for chronic conditions that affect millions of people worldwide, new jobs, and long-term economic growth.

Professor Ron Roy, Associate Head of Department (Research and Equality) at Engineering Science said: The RFI is inherently interdisciplinary and intended to promote the creative application of physical science and engineering principles to difficult problems in the life sciences at both the pre-translational and translational stages.  By imbedding physicists, chemists, materials scientists and engineers under one roof and locating them in the dynamic intellectual environment of the Harwell Campus, we hope to promote innovative ways of thinking and foster integrated approaches to challenging problems that reside at the intersection of the physical and life sciences.  Oxford Engineering Science has played a leading role in the conception of the RFI, and looks forward to making substantial contributions to its future.’

Managed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the facility will focus initially on the development of next-generation imaging methods (including techniques that will allow dynamic, real-time imaging of molecular processes or chemical reactions – the microscopy equivalent of a shift from a photograph to a video) and on new chemical methods and strategies for drug discovery.

The RFI will draw on expertise from across the UK. Its central hub will be based at Harwell in Oxfordshire, with linked sites at partner universities including Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford, Imperial College, King’s College London, and University College London.

The development of the RFI has been led by Professor Ian Walmsley, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Oxford. Speaking on the Institute’s key purpose and the University’s role in its creation, he said: 'This is a new joint venture between some of the UK’s leading universities and key partners in industry and Research Councils.

'The aim is to speed up the applications of cutting edge physical science insights, methods and techniques into life sciences by providing an interface between research programmes at the forefront of these areas, co-located at the Hub and connected, dynamically, to the wider UK research base.

'We anticipate innovative new businesses will grow from this effort over time, as the Institute will engage with a range of key industries from its inception. The collaborative structure allows the RFI to make the most of interactions and draw on a wide range of existing research excellence from across the UK.'

The Institute is named after Rosalind Franklin, the pioneering scientist whose work on the use of X-rays to study biological structures played a crucial role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, the famous ‘double helix’.

Professor Dame Carol Robinson, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Oxford, who is leading the RFI’s biological mass spectrometry theme and is, herself, a previous recipient of the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award (2004), said: 'It is fitting that this new Institute bears Rosalind Franklin’s name. She achieved so much in a relatively short life and without her work many of the advances that have taken place since would not have come about. Work in the Institute will include development of the next-generation of physical tools including mass spectrometry, instruments for X-ray science and for advanced microscopy – fields directly descended from her research interests.'

Professor Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a key architect of the RFI vision, said: 'The Life Sciences sector is widely recognised as a key part of the UK economy, employing over 220,000 people and contributing to our health and wellbeing. Less well known is that many of the key life sciences breakthroughs – from unravelling the structure of DNA to MRI scanning and sequencing of the human genome – were only possible due to earlier innovations in the physical sciences and engineering. By supporting collaboration, the RFI will help to underpin and accelerate the next wave of physical sciences innovation and its application to health and life sciences – and keep the UK at the forefront of research.'

The RFI will contribute directly to the delivery of the EPSRC’s ‘Healthy Nation’ prosperity outcome, its Healthcare Technologies programme, and to the Technology Touching Life initiative, which spans three research councils (BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC) and seeks to foster interdisciplinary technology development research across the engineering, physical and life sciences.

Speaking on the value and long-term potential of the RFI, Chair of the Research Councils and EPSRC Chief Executive, Professor Philip Nelson said: 'The UK is currently in a world leading position when it comes to developing new medical treatments and technologies in the life sciences. However, other countries are alive to the potential and are already investing heavily. The Rosalind Franklin Institute will help secure the country as one of the best places in the world to research, discover, and innovate.'

This article first appeared on the main Oxford University website

Published on 28 February 2017