The past week and a bit was spent on the US West Coast, talking to experts in Big Data, Synthetic Biology (Synbio) and Plant and Animal Health. My colleagues, Melanie Welham and Amanda Collis, and I had some fascinating discussions which really helped put our plans for the next spending review in an international context. For example, in Synbio, it is clear that the approach needs to be truly multidisciplinary with a well-articulated biological problem at the heart of any programme rather than developing the tools and technologies in the abstract. However, investment in platforms is still required. It is also clear from talking to a number of researchers that the USA does not have an integrated Big Data strategy nor an overall Synbio strategy, although there are many well-funded initiatives. I wonder whether there is a need for some global solution for integrating and maintaining databases when funding terminates for a particular area. In the biomedical/health space, this might be something for Gates Foundation or another global funder to address in partnership with more regional funders. Who funds, and what to store permanently and how, is definitely something that needs more debate.
The visit to the San Diego Supercomputer Center was really superb and I learnt a lot about the available data resources they host, many of which I was previously unaware of, such as NIF – the Neuroscience Information Framework (www.neuinfo.org). They also collaborate with industry and recently completed the assembly and analysis of over 400 whole human genomes to assess the effects of a drug in inflammatory disease.
Synbio was the theme of our visit to the J. Craig Venter Institute and we were very happy that Robert Friedman said that ‘UK is seen as a leader in synthetic biology’. It shows how focussed investments and commitment by government and funders can shape a national capability. The Institute’s focus is on vaccines, microbiomes and synthetic genomes. It was also interesting to hear their views on the various regulatory systems around the world for this type of work.
Vaccine development is also one of the research areas of the Immunology department at The Scripps Research Institute headed by Dr Argyrios Theofilopoulos (who coincidentally turns out to have been the head of lab when a friend of mine was working there some years ago). Dr Theofilopoulos’s own work is on autoimmunity and it was useful to catch up on what was happening in the S1P1 agonist field therapeutically.
I had met Prof Teri Melese previously whilst working with GlaxoSmithKline. She is the Assistant Vice Chancellor, Industry Research Alliances at UCSD and an expert in academia business interactions. But I had not met Prof Rob Knight previously and found him to be not only a microbiome expert but also a real enthusiast! Enthusiasm was also evident when we met Dr James Fitzpatrick, Senior Director, Biophotonics and Strategic Technology Initiatives at the Salk Institute – we had a brilliant discussion on 3D imaging and where imaging technology was developing to inform our future scoping.
In San Francisco the Joint Genome Institute made us feel very welcome and gave some excellent presentations on the science especially in terms of work flows, metagenomics and microbiomes. The amazing amount of work going on in the microbiome field has certainly reinforced the need for the new Centre for Food and Health that we are planning in Norwich. The open innovation approach we are planning there in working with industry was something that Henry Chesborough and I enjoyed catching up on at his office in Berkeley.
We met many other scientists both in the Bay Area and at the AAAS meeting in San Jose. As the world’s largest general science meeting, AAAS provided a unparalleled opportunity to communicate the impact and strength of UK science and the value of international collaboration. BBSRC and STFC worked together with the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics to organise a big data session, I was pleased to be able to announce new BBSRC Big Data investment at an international media briefing and RCUK hosted a successful (and very busy) international reception.
In the context of the Animal and Plant Health review, our visit to UC Davis Centre for Animal Disease Modelling and Surveillance and the Department of Plant Pathology gave us much food for thought and potential ideas for further discussions and collaboration.
All in all a trip worth the jet lag (thank heavens for melatonin!).