SULSA on a voyage of discovery
It may have “more ideas than money,” but the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA) is also an idea whose time may have come. Based in six institutions, this large-scale research collaboration has recruited a team of leading international scientists, linking up existing labs in Scottish universities to create a network of technologies and people which adds up to more than the sum of its parts… …
When the idea of SULSA was born in 2007, the objectives were simple, but even in the time since it was founded, the goalposts have started to move. With £27 million in the bank from the Scottish Founding Council, SULSA set out to “provide a single voice for the sector” and stimulate research by attracting leading scientists to Scotland. It also aimed to train the next generation of researchers and act as a “knowledge exchange catalyst” for life sciences in Scotland. Two years later, SULSA is already well on the way to achieving its primary aims, but the world has changed – making SULSA even more strategically important than originally envisaged.
It was always believed that one of SULSA’s roles would be to “help researchers tackle diseases that are not currently on the agenda of the world’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors,” but the economic downturn has made the commercial sector even more risk-averse and less focused on innovation, according to researchers who have recently returned from industry to academia, and this makes SULSA’s work potentially more critical in the quest for new drug therapies and scientific knowledge.
SULSA’s initial focus is on three broad research themes: systems biology, cell biology and translational biology. Scotland has always been strong in cell biology, and SULSA’s founders also recognised the need to bring together world-class exponents of cell and structural biology, medicinal chemistry, and bioinformatics, already based in the country, to realise the potential in drug discovery (also known as translational biology). At the same time, SULSA has been breaking new ground in the relatively new field of systems biology (using informatics to model biological systems and process the vast amounts of data generated by biologists).
The story so far…
So far, SULSA has recruited eight professors from all around Europe and North America, including two scheduled to take up their posts by the start of next year, plus readers, lecturers and about 50 PhD research students. It has also built up an impressive portfolio of state-of-the-art technologies, providing easy access to a wide range of facilities for researchers in Scotland, including:
> an OMX super-resolution microscope (one of only seven in the world)
> “next-generation” DNA sequencing facilities and bioinformatics support
> high-throughput facilities for protein production and structural analysis
> imaging facilities to support translational research (including PET/CT and
> high-throughput, small-molecule screening services for drug discovery
> unique natural products libraries (mainly marine and plant extracts) for drug
As well as pooling talents and technologies, SULSA is a catalyst for attracting new research funding to Scotland – for example, the Gene Pool DNA sequencing and bioinformatics facility at the University of Edinburgh, which has recently attracted additional investment of £2.3 million from the UK’s Medical Research Council, on the back of £300,000 funding from SULSA.
Many other projects look set to benefit from SULSA support, as the organisation reaches critical mass and the pooling of resources begins to pay off, but it will also continue to emphasise training – for example, it is supporting teams of Scottish undergraduates to participate in the international genetically engineered machines (iGEM) competition to develop Scotland’s synthetic biology awareness and skills, recognising this will be critical in coming years.
Other countries have also tried pooling resources in similar ways, but Scotland has several advantages, including geography, a disproportionate number of leading researchers and a world-class reputation in fundamental areas such as microbiology and new technologies such as high-resolution imaging and high-throughput, small-molecule screening solutions. In addition, Scotland has already launched similar initiatives in physics and informatics, and SULSA can now learn from their experience, as well as join forces for “cross-education.”
Another of SULSA’s key roles is to mediate the partnerships between institutions when it comes to who owns intellectual property rights on collaborative projects, ensuring that knowledge is shared at the same time as giving due credit when breakthroughs are made.
The story so far is encouraging, and speaking at the first SULSA Symposium in Edinburgh in June, Professor Sir Tom Blundell (University of Cambridge and Chair of the SULSA international advisory board) said: “Scientists south of the border are envious at what SULSA is doing.” Professor David Gani of the Scottish Funding Council echoed these words, saying that SULSA was “one of the jewels in the Scottish research crown,” adding that the calibre of staff appointed was “something we could only have dreamed about” two years ago, and that SULSA was a platform which would help Scotland “weather the economic storm and bounce back.”SULSA is already beginning to gather momentum as an engine of change within Scotland, and Director Mike Tyers believes that the challenge is not just to drive innovation in science but also to change the way that Scotland (and the UK) approaches investment in science. “At SULSA, I think we are already very close to achieving our original mandate,” he says. “But now we have to find new ways of funding new initiatives, pooling our resources with informatics and physics,as what we call ‘life sciences’ changes dramatically over the next 20 years.”