Last week I blogged about the first half of our USA trip which myself and BBSRC colleagues undertook to gain insights to inform our future strategic thinking about science and funding models. We firstly visited Washington and New York and the second half of the trip was spent in Boston where we heard about some amazing science. We are incredibly grateful for all the time that bioscientists at the Wyss Institute, the Broad Institute, MIT, Boston University and Harvard took to meet with us and talk about their research.
At MIT we met with Professors Mark Bathe and Manolis Kellis to really get an understanding of how advances in computational biology and modelling are providing new insights into function and bridging the genotype to phenotype gap. The ability to carry out in situ multiscale imaging and move from studying one or two genes to hundreds at a time is transforming approaches across biology. At the same time looking at single cell types and studying how long-range genome interactions change over time and impact on gene regulation is also providing new insights into normal and disease-related functions. Studying the similarities and differences between cell types and their interactomes and how they are regulated generates huge quantities of data that requires not just computational developments to analyse but also sophisticated statistics. The use of humans as a model organism to ask some of these questions is becoming more tractable, although model organisms such as drosophila will continue to be important.
At the Broad, Professor Paul Blainey discussed the strong chemical biology ethos that exists there and described the potential for innovations in imaging and microfluidic technologies, as well as new genomic tools, to really accelerate target validation and drug discovery. Clearly this is an area where the UK also has traditional strengths and it will be important to maintain these capabilities going forward to ensure competitiveness in the translation of basic research. We also met researchers in the fields of the microbiome, stem cell biology and synthetic biology at Harvard and Boston University reinforcing these areas as important for BBSRC going forward.
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, to give it its full title, is an interesting model where academics retain their labs in Harvard but also have labs in the Wyss where the thrust is much more on translation of excellent bioscience into practical applications. They have engineered multiple organs on chips, designed vibrating shoe insoles to help people with walking and balance problems and constructed robotic bees. The aim here is to focus on ‘high risk’ research that has the potential to be truly disruptive and their statistics in terms of translation are impressive – including over 1000 patents and 10 start-ups per year. There is also a good mix of scientists from academic and industry with diverse backgrounds, allowing for easy cross talk across disciplines.
Last week I had my first visit to Cereals in Lincolnshire, one of the UK’s largest agricultural shows with 24,500 visitors over two days. BBSRC had a stand in partnership with Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre but BBSRC research was also highlighted on stands across the show – by both industry and academia. Velcourt had a particularly impressive ‘crop’ of joint projects. There was an excellent attendance at the late afternoon reception which I hosted, where representatives from IBERS, Rothamsted and John Innes gave short talks on their phenotyping activities. The spirit of partnership was also evident at the annual BBSRC Science Breakfast on the morning of the second day where a panel presentation on research to meet farming challenges was chaired by Guy Gagen from the NFU and featured talks from institutes and the Soil Association.
Later in the week BBSRC hosted a round table discussion in London with representatives from a number of government departments to examine the broad potential of the bioeconomy for the UK. A number of countries, including the USA, have bioeconomy strategies in place and talking to representatives from funding bodies in the USA, they have found this a useful framework for prioritising funding areas. An assessment the potential impact of bio-based industries for economic growth for the UK is warranted given the number of industries it impacts and this has been confirmed by a very preliminary assessment carried out by independent experts and described in the strategic documents produced by other countries. It will be interesting to see how discussions progress over the coming months.