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The reinvention of Dundee

Sir Philip Cohen has played a major role in the emergence of Dundee as a major international centre for life sciences. As he himself puts it, the city is no longer famed for “jute, jam and journalism” but “biochemistry, biomedicine and biotechnology.” Today, the sector employs over 8,000 people directly and indirectly and contributes an estimated 16 per cent to the local economy.…

The reinvention of Dundee

When Sir Philip arrived at the University of Dundee in 1971, the Biochemistry Department had only six members of staff, a handful of Ph.D. students and not a single postdoctoral researcher. The Biochemistry Department had started life in a converted stables for horses used in funeral processions and to carry the mail, but with the opening of a new building in 1970, the Medical Sciences Institute, Sir Philip was the first of several other academics who were recruited, and there was a surge of new appointments starting from the end of the 1980's.

The MRC-PPU was set up in 1990, at a time when the idea that protein kinases and protein phosphatases might be important drug targets was considered remote, but almost every pharmaceutical company now has a major programme in this area. Today, there are over 200 staff, working in 14 laboratories, and the Unit is involved in one of the largest-ever collaborations between the pharmaceutical industry and a UK University, currently in partnership with AstraZeneca, Boehringer-Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck-Serono and Pfizer.  

SCILLS was set up in 2008 and, like the MRC-PPU, its facilities include a DNA Cloning Service, a Protein Production and Assay Development team, an siRNA screening facility and one of Europe’s leading mass spectrometry centres. The Protein Ubiquitylation Unit is the first division set up in SCILLS and it already has eight Programme Leaders and a total of 60 scientific and support staff – and is about half the size of the MRC-PPU.

The College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee now has a total of more than 1,000 scientific and support staff from over 50 countries, located in the Wellcome Trust Building, a £14 million facility which opened in 1997 and the Sir James Black Centre, a £21 million facility which opened in 2005. The actor Sir Sean Connery set the ball rolling in 1991 with a donation of £62,500 – a quarter of his fee for his walk-on part in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves – followed a few years later by £10 million from the Wellcome Trust, the largest-ever donation to a Scottish institution.

“In 1997,” says Sir Philip, “I suddenly realised that what we’re doing is important to the local economy.”

"The reinvention of Dundee". Science Scotland (Issue Eleven)
Printed from on 06/07/20 11:02:07 AM

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