Schools' Day 25: Advances in research
In March, the Institute will play host to our 25th annual Schools’ Day, with 180 15-18 year olds from schools across the country attending to get some hands on experience in our labs and find out more about careers in science. Since 1995, Schools’ Day has been an Institute staple, but while that’s remained the same, so much else has changed.
In the previous post, Hayley explored changes in science education over the last 25 years. But what has happened in science in that time?
1995 was an exciting time for science worldwide. The Human Genome Project was well under way and it wouldn’t be long until our colleagues in Edinburgh revealed the first cloned mammal, Dolly the Sheep, to the world. The 90s saw early success in the use of gene therapies to treat genetic disorders and the sale of the first genetically modified foods. The first legal cases to use DNA identification evidence also took place around this time.
In many ways, 1995 stood at the start of a new era in UK biosciences. The UK government had just created the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to co-ordinate its investment in biological research. And the Institute itself had recently been reborn with a new name and a whole new mission to go with it. While previously work here had focused on livestock and animal health, the new Babraham Institute would seek to understand human biology, health and ageing. This meant a huge shift for the work at the Institute as we stopped working with sheep and pigs and started to focus more on mice and cells.
Since its formation in the 40s, the Institute has attracted leaders in studying the fundamental principles that underpin all of biology, so our new mission drew upon the strengths and expertise our scientists had already developed over the previous decades. Following the discovery of genome imprinting by Azim Surani in the 80s, work continued to understand its place and significance in human development. The same pursuit continues today, led by Wolf Reik, our Head of Epigenetics. Most recently, this has led us to develop an ageing clock to measure the effects of a wide range of factors on the biological ageing of our bodies. This work could help to shape policy and health advice, helping us all to take simple steps to stay healthier and more active for longer.
As far back as the 1960’s, the Institute has been a leader in investigating lipids, the molecules that make up fats and the boundary membranes that define our cells. Most recently, this research has included a focus on PI3 kinase (PI3K) proteins, which use lipids as a means to co-ordinate and control a wide range of activities within cells. This work at the Institute is currently led by Len Stephens and Phill Hawkins who first identified the PI3Kγ protein in 1994. Extensive work on the PI3K proteins over the last 25 years has revealed their contributions to various illnesses, including some cancers. As a result, more than 20 trials have been run using drugs to treat diseases by targeting PI3K proteins. You can find out more about cell signalling and lipid research at the Institute by downloading our poster timeline.
Research into the immune system at the Institute also took a big step forward in the mid-90s. The immune system produces molecules called antibodies that help to lock on to and destroy the causes of illness. Researchers here and at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge were involved in work to understand antibody production and to produce the first highly specific monoclonal antibodies. This led to a Nobel Prize for the MRC-LMB’s Cesar Milstein in the 80s but in the 90s the science of monoclonal antibodies began to be commercialised. Ultimately, this has resulted in the drug Vectibix, which has now been in widespread for the treatment of advanced bowel cancers for almost 15 years.
Around this time, planning also began to develop the Babraham Research Campus with a view to making full use of the country estate that the Institute sits within. The aim; to create a site where academic life sciences research and commercial enterprises co-exist and collaborate to accelerate discovery and development and deliver greater benefits sooner to improve lives for everyone. Initially, companies used available space within existing buildings on the site. But as the Campus became more successful, the need for more, modern spaces became apparent and in 2005, Minerva, the first custom Bioincubator building opened. The Campus continues to grow and is now a world-leading example of success, productivity and collaboration. Today, we share our site with around 60 companies, some of which will join us in running projects for Schools’ Day this year.
2019 represents another pivotal time for UK bioscience and the Babraham Institute. The government recently carried out its most significant shake up of science funding in many decades, creating UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) to give a unified voice to all research across all fields. Meanwhile we’re in the process of recruiting new research leaders to develop exciting new areas of investigation and, after 12 years at the helm, Michael Wakelam is preparing to step down as Institute Director, heralding a new phase in the Institute’s history.
It’s never possible to be certain of the future, and the directions of scientific research are always unpredictable, with each new experiment giving you new knowledge and taking you in new directions. Yet, it’s almost certain that popular interest in science will continue to grow as the need for new breakthroughs becomes an increasingly critical part of building the future. In 1995, Schools’ Day was a front-runner in bringing cutting-edge science to a wider audience, and it seems set to continue inspiring the next generation of researchers for many years to come.