Introducing the Francis Crick Institute

29 April 2016

It’s often the case with scientific discovery that the greatest advances come from thinking outside the box. Approaching a problem with a different, more discerning gaze reveals unexpected things. 

Over hundreds, if not thousands, of years science has become more and more specialised. For the ancient Greeks, what we’d now call philosophers studied all things. They were biologists in their observations of sea creatures and birds, physicists in their explanations of natural order, chemists when an ailing patient needed a dose of medicine. 

Since then, things have only become more divided, with the high degree of specialisation leading to researchers who have great strength and insight in one particular area, but, as we are now learning, may be lacking the holistic approach that would open even more doors in the world of interdisciplinary science.

Now at the Francis Crick Institute in London, Dr Li is looking forward to the opening of the Institutes new flagship research building. Set to be the largest biomedical research institute in Europe, the new Crick Institute will be situated right in the heart of London. While a location in central London may not seem to be the most frugal choice, the geographical location of the Institute is sure to be hugely beneficial for not just the researchers, but also the scientific community and the general public.

Dr Vivian Li

While its location certainly has some very practical advantages, tissue samples taking less time to get from the hospital to the lab, visiting professors and students are spared an hour long commute; the central location also opens up the institute to the public. With a large lecture theatre outside of security, the general public will have the opportunity to engage with scientists directly. Local schools will have easier access to the facilities, letting students get a real taste of what scientific research is like. Some of the labs will be surrounded by windows, letting visitors look in and see what really goes on at a biomedical research institute.

Working together

Inside, the revolutionary layout of the laboratory space is set up to be conducive to interdisciplinary research. Even something as simple as keeping commonly used devices (like microscopes or spectrophotometers) on a shared bench brings scientists together. No longer are all the brain cancer specialists piled together in one brain cancer room and all the geneticists together in one genetics room; instead space is shared, with chance encounters sometimes leading to groundbreaking research.

Vivian Li understands the importance of this kind of collaboration. Her own research in gut tissue engineering was born out of a meeting with a clinician. Often, researchers in the biomedical sciences won’t always interact with their clinical counterparts at hospitals or other types of care centres. It’s when clinicians, who are more familiar with the direct needs of patients; and scientists, who have the theoretical background and research expertise, work together that novel techniques are created and discoveries made.

In her research on gut tissue engineering, Dr Li is exploring the use of 3D printing. While certainly a bit of a buzzword these days, the ability to custom build a part of or entire organ for transplant has incredible potential.

Engineering gut tissue remains a complex and difficult task. Gut tissue is composed of many different types of cells. Some need to produce digestive enzymes, others to absorb nutrients or provide lubrication. Nerve and muscle cells are also needed to control the contractions and movements of the gut. Despite these challenges, there is definitely promise, and the ability to create gut tissue for transplant without fear of the body rejecting the transplanted tissue would mean many more lives could be saved.

Beyond Biology

Collaboration even extends outside the field of biology. Chemists have always played an important role in biomedical research, but even physicists and mathematicians have proven to be invaluable. With diseases like cancer that lead to rapidly proliferating cells for example, mathematical models of cell growth and death provide new insight into the life cycle of a tumour.

With roughly 100 research groups of its own, the Crick Institute is already quite large, but the potential of exploring new paths in interdisciplinary research is vast. Taking advantage of the world-class universities located in and around London, the Crick is bringing in ‘satellite groups’ of only a handful of researchers from local universities. These smaller research groups come from various disciplines, bringing physicists, chemists, and clinicians into the biomedical fold.

Vivian values the freedom in her research that the Crick Institute affords her. While it is certainly a biomedical research body, there is a relative degree of freedom to research anything. While some institutes are very publication driven, Vivian explains that the Crick doesn’t place as much emphasis on putting out papers.

Oftentimes the pressure to churn out high profile papers in journals like Nature or Science or Cell shifts the focus of research at large, well equipped institutes into ‘blockbuster’ type illnesses like cancer. With the freedom to explore a wider, unrestricted range of diseases, world-class scientists are actively researching rarer conditions. While less common, many of these diseases are by no means less dangerous, and having research space open for studying any kind of illness will lead to many lives saved from diseases that may have been overlooked at a more publications-driven research body.

Dr. Li received the B.Sc. (Hons) in Molecular Biotechnology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2003. She obtained her PhD at the University of Hong Kong in Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine Department of Pathology in 2008, and received the Gold Medal Prize for her PhD thesis. After completing her Ph.D. study, Dr. Li was awarded the Croucher Foundation Fellowship to further pursue her post-doctoral research training with Hans Clevers at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research in the Netherlands. She now works at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

For Dr Li’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.

For more information on the Francis Crick Institute, please visit their website.