Those of you travelling to London by train may have glanced across from the newly developed concourse at King Cross to the huge building site opposite.
That skeleton of a building, being filled in every day, it seems, is destined to be the largest research institute in Europe – the Crick Institute. The Crick aims to bring together hundreds of the brightest minds in the country to tackle the great challenges of biology, health and disease.
This building symbolises the UK’s efforts to globally lead life and health science research. That it stands opposite the gateway to the North, Kings Cross, could be seen as a threat to meaningful research being carried out in the North and North East.
For me it is a symbol of the will there is for solving the crucial clinical challenges of our age and, far from being a threat, it stands to remind us that the next great revolution will not be driven by steam, oil or the internet but by data, genetics and collaboration.
The benefits to health and to the economy of playing our part in this new revolution cannot be overstated. If we unlock understanding of illness from information about how we live our lives, collected from mobile technologies and wearable devices such as the Apple Watch for example, literally millions of lives can be improved and thousands of jobs will follow. That’s the health and wealth prize at stake. And because the prize is so great, we are not alone in seeking the answers in this revolution in medical care.
The world of cutting edge life science research may seem remote from our everyday lives. Understanding our genetic strengths and weakness is not something our GPs offer and it seems the medicines that will spring from this new understanding is just science fiction to most of us.
But the truth is that science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact. The conversion of great ideas to everyday solutions benefiting the population is what drove the industrial revolution, of which the North East played such a vital role. It is these skills, first deployed in the North that we now need to call upon today.
We have all the component pieces to establish a thriving new health economy in the North. The N8 universities (Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) include four of the Global Top 100 universities in life sciences. In addition the north has a well established clinical research base which sits alongside a kernel of thriving small to medium scale life science businesses. But we lack one ingredient - scale.
The new challenges of medical science (prevention rather than cure, ageing related diseases and the generation of targeted therapies) are unlikely to be overcome by a single researcher or even an individual institution. These new challenges require a wider more collaborative approach, across disciplines and sourcing ideas from academia, industry and the third sector.
Bringing people together in one place, as the Crick aims to do, is one way to do this but there are others.
To compete we need to collaborate with our friends across the North.
In the North we have world leading expertise ranging from nuclear and regenerative medicine in Leeds, material sciences and cancer in Manchester, diagnostics and infectious disease in Liverpool to ageing research and innovation here in Newcastle.
Our universities and hospitals recognise each other’s strengths and complementarity and are collaborating through a new partnership: the Northern Health Science Alliance. This new organisation is supporting the clustering in health sciences needed to punch our collective weight; by encompassing eight of the most research intensive universities (N8), the eight leading research active NHS Trusts and four Academic Health Science Networks in the North.
Medicine and Life Science research is now delivered through collaboration and scale and if we are to compete with the rapidly expanding research economies of China, US and Singapore our Northern genius for discovery, development and manufacture must be directed towards working jointly in a cluster as the task is beyond what any one of the great Northern cities can manage alone.
The North of England is an interesting geography. Unlike the perceived physical proximity of the South East cluster made up of London, Oxford and Cambridge and often referred to as the Golden Triangle, the North has never been perceived as one ‘cluster’.
In the US, for example, where there are two leading clusters in health science, the Americans don’t have any problem in flying the 11 hours between them. By comparison, the few miles between Sheffield and Newcastle seem a trivial distance.
Indeed, our US colleagues know that Silicon Valley the iconic hub of the new digital wave has 15 cities and over 20 universities in a valley that takes an hour to cross by car on a good day. The Boston Cluster of medical research covers a space larger than the distance between Berwick to Blackpool.
If we work together we can open up opportunities: early access to medicines for the 14.5m people who live in the North, new business for the 1,000 life science businesses and therefore more work and jobs for the 38,000 high skilled people who already work in this sector here.
For our cluster to work efficiently we must find true specialities to champion knowing that the benefit will be shared between us. Moving everything to Manchester rather than London is not our aim. We want research success in Manchester or Liverpool to mean jobs here and visa-versa.
At Newcastle we are well recognised for our research into ageing – with one of Europe’s largest centres of expertise in ageing based in the city. The Newcastle University Institute for Ageing, located on the former General Hospital site in the west end of the city combines treatment, research and space for business in a unique joined-up approach. Our research aims to understand the causes of ageing and age related disease so that we can develop effective treatment and prevention strategies which will undoubtedly involve lifestyle modifications as well as medicines and pills. We also work closely with the commercial sector and with policy makers.
Importantly, here in Newcastle our work on ageing is informed by, and done through close collaboration with, our two partner Trusts – the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.
Our “Crick of the North” will not be a new building in Sheffield or Gateshead; but will be a new way of working together across a series of networked research centres between our great cities – not in competition but in partnership.