LIFE SCIENCES - New awards benefit British universities

LONDON, ENGLAND-The first awards have been made from the new UK Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), originally established in 1998. Forty awards were made, totaling about £150 million ($240 million). One of the projects funded was the refurbishment of and equipment purchase for the Centre for Biophotonics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

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LONDON, ENGLAND-The first awards have been made from the new UK Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), originally established in 1998. Forty awards were made, totaling about £150 million ($240 million). One of the projects funded was the refurbishment of and equipment purchase for the Centre for Biophotonics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

Replenishing the aging equipment base in academe has been recognized as a problem throughout the UK. The decaying infrastructure, in particular the poor and outdated nature of the technology available in the UK university environment, was one of the major problems highlighted by the National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education (1997), which included both industrialists and academics. The committee also decided that a viable and internationally competitive research base is essential to the future industrial and commercial strength of the country.

The London-based Wellcome Trust-the world's largest medical-research charity-worked with the UK Government Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to find a solution. The result was a joint fund of £600 million ($960 million), set up in July 1998, to provide a 'one-off' program that addresses the infrastructure problems of the universities. In addition, the Treasury agreed to provide a further £400 million ($640 million) to the Office of Science and Technology/DTI baseline funding over the next three years. The Trust also granted a further £100 million ($160 million) to fund a new third-generation synchrotron. In total, therefore, these new funding schemes will provide an additional £1.1 billion ($1.76 billion) for the UK universities science research base over the next three years.

In March, the Higher Education Funding Council for England made a contribution of £100 million to the JIF; this contribution is available to support applications from English universities. The total amount of the fund, therefore, now stands at £700 million ($1.12 billion).

The fund is targeted at the biological, physical, engineering, and social sciences and provides for buildings, major equipment, and other elements of infrastructure of the universities. Funding is available for major refurbishment projects, single items of equipment, and new buildings and facilities to house centers of national and international importance. The scheme is not intended to expand the size of the research work force. It is intended that the money be allocated between now and March 2001.

The Wellcome Trust has an asset base of £12 billion and an annual expenditure of £400 million; as an endowed charity it is free of any commercial imperatives and independent of government. Its aim in investing in the UK university system is to help to maintain the UK's world-class science base.

Life sciences study

The Centre for Biophotonics, based in the department of physiology and pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde, initially will focus on multiphoton microscopy, a technique that produces high-resolution three-dimensional images of living cells. Application of the technique to biology and medicine calls for close interaction between developers and users, and the new center will bring together biomedical scientists and optical physicists to create a regional and nationally important resource. Several different projects will be using the facility, ranging from bioengineering researchers looking at the function of living cells in artificial medical devices to cell biologists following intracellular signaling in intact tissues. The latter work ranges from calcium signaling in neurons and muscle cells lining blood vessels to a wide range of subcellular localization studies using proteins tagged with green fluorescent protein (see image).

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Muscle cell from an artery in the lung is stained with propidium iodide (red) to show the nucleus and an antibody directed against a plasma membrane potassium channel (green).
Click here to enlarge image

Allister Ferguson, one of the lead investigators, said, "The new center will bring together several areas of expertise within the university and beyond. It will enable the rapid transfer of ideas from the optical laboratory into the life-sciences laboratory. The award builds on imaging technology that we have been working on for many years. At last we will have our own university-based imaging facility where we can work closely with researchers in the life sciences."

The other lead researcher, Alison Gurney, added, "Optical imaging techniques are enabling huge advances in biomedical science. The new center will provide state-of-the-art facilities to visualize individual components of living cells and tissues at high resolution and to follow them as they change with time. Its applications are wide ranging, from the study of single-cell physiology to the engineering of artificial organs. We look forward to working with optical physicists and influencing future developments in optical technology."

Bridget R. Marx

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