12 September 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 624
By Anjana Ahuja, Penny Bailey, Bill Bynum, Nic Fleming, Chrissie Giles, Perry Gourley, Mark Henderson, Roger Highfield, Marek Kohn, Mun-Keat Looi, Henry Nicholls, Tilli Tansey and Jon Turney
Published by the Wellcome Trust
On 25 July 2011 the Wellcome Trust turned 75, and to celebrate they have commissioned a collection of 15 stories based on some of the most interesting people they have funded.
As the UK's largest non-governmental source of funds for biomedical research, the Wellcome Trust has been vital in supporting many scientists and it's encouraging to see the range of work that they will fund. From cutting edge neuroscience ('Mapping memories: Eleanor Maguire and brain imaging') to the interaction of science with the public, and even as an art form ('Helen and Kate Storey: science and the art engaging the public'). Not only that, but the scope of their work geographically, from New Zealand ('Graham Liggins, lamb' lungs and babies' lives') to Brazil ('Beautiful creatures: Ralph Lainson and his parasites').
This collection of stories is a fantastic way to learn more about this institution, covering its early years; the vision of their founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, and the story of the Trust's first scientific employee, Henry Goy. The majority of accounts describe the more up-to-date work of the many prestigious recipients of funding, and perhaps the most engaging is that of Professor Sir John Sulston. He was instrumental in the success of the Human Genome Project, being the co-founder and first director of the Sanger Centre, which was established for that very project.
The story, by Times Science Editor Mark Henderson, describes the origins of the Human Genome Project from its inception in the 1980s; through getting funding from the US Department of Energy, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the UK Medical Research Council (MRC); and the start of human sequencing in 1990 to the publication of anther Wellcome Trust funded project, the 1000 Genomes Project in October 2010.
Professor Sulston appears rather humble, crediting a lot of the work to other scientists: 'There was tremendous thought potential … but there was a lack of willingness to go out and get it'. Indeed, his own background is hardly lacking in scientific achievements, having played a major role in multiple genetic studies of the nematode worm, C. elegans, including the sequencing of its genome.
The Wellcome Trust step into the picture as saviours to the UK side of the Human Genome Project. Much of the early work was done at the NIH in the USA, but there was soon demand to form a UK centre. With the Wellcome Trust having secured £2.3 billion from the sales of shares in Wellcome plc (a pharmaceutical side to the Trust), they had the money to help. This led to the foundation of the Sanger Centre (now Sanger Institute) in 1992, on the outskirts of Cambridge in the abandoned Hinxton Hall, with Professor Sulston at the helm.
Henderson goes on to describe the potential competition to the Human Genome Project in the form of a private venture, Celera, Dr Craig Venter's sequencing company. Had they sequenced the genome first they could have claimed ownership of the data, and restricted access to it.
The difficult subject of the race between Celera and the Sanger Institute (and collaborators) to finish sequencing the human genome is well explained, without unnecessary criticism of the private company. Professor Sulston comes across as unwillingly sandwiched between the two sides, claiming the announcement of an incomplete human genome sequence in 2001 'isn't science, it's politics'.
However, it was clearly the start of a bigger project, one that would lead to a much better understanding of our genome, and its role in our development. Indeed, the Wellcome Trust has gone on to fund the SNP Consortium; the first large genome-wide association studies, the Case Control Consortium and the 1000 Genomes Project.
The role of the Wellcome Trust and the people they fund, such as Professor Sulston and the Sanger Institute, have definitely played an important part in the development of modern biomedical research. These anniversary stories are well worth a read, not only to find out more about one of the UK's most prominent scientific funding bodies, but also to see the development of some of the most interesting aspects of this science in the last 75 years.