Budget Boost, Collaboration Lift SciLifeLab
LIFE SCIENCE RESEARCH
A bigger budget, new sponsorship and a wide-ranging collaboration agreement are all helping the successful Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) research centre shift into top gear for 2012 and beyond. Since its foundation by KTH, Karolinska Institutet (KI), Stockholm University and Uppsala University in 2010, the centre has become a unique resource for Swedish and international researchers.
The plans for SciLifeLab were ambitious right from the start. Now three recent developments have added momentum to its aim of becoming a world-class research centre. In the first, the Swedish government announced in April that it was increasing the centre’s budget for 2013. This was followed by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, Sweden’s largest private financier of research, announcing substantial support for SciLifeLab as part of its SEK 220 million ($31.8 million) programme supporting life sciences and medicine. And the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has announced a substantial financial contribution as part of a five-year collaboration agreement.
“The universities – KTH, KI, Stockholm University and Uppsala University – will continue to be the main stakeholders in the new institution,” says Fredrik Sterky, site director for SciLifeLab in Stockholm and an associate professor of molecular biotechnology at KTH.
How will the collaboration with AstraZeneca affect operations?
“AstraZeneca plans to invest SEK 33 million to SEK 67 million in research projects every year for the next five years, depending on which projects it finds interesting,” Sterky says. “If industry wants to subsidise certain areas, it can of course be rewarding for researchers in those areas. Yet it is essential that those researchers retain their academic freedom.”
Is there a risk that the structure of the new centre will compromise the research climate?
“I don’t think it will affect our core activities much – they will remain academic,” Sterky says. “Industry and academia have been collaborating for many years, so that is nothing new. There may be some unease at the universities about us working more closely with companies, but we will not become a servant of industry. On the contrary, we have a lot to gain from each other’s competence. We will ensure we safeguard our academic independence and our researchers’ right to publish their findings.”
How will SciLifeLab be able to retain its academic reputation?
“The plan is for SciLifeLab to have an annual turnover of SEK 1 billion within a few years. By then we will have 1,000 or so researchers connected to the institute, with 400 working here by the end of 2012.” “It's important that all our researchers and staff are employed by the university. That allows us to maintain our academic reputation even if the government decides to structure it as an enterprise in financial terms,” Sterky says.
Politicians have said one aim of SciLifeLab is to “bring together the sharpest minds.” How would you describe its purpose?
“The purpose is to strengthen Swedish research. Some people talk about an elite level, but I avoid those sorts of terms. But great stuff has been done here, and that will continue,” Sterky says.
Researchers from all four universities can rent space at SciLifeLab: nobody gets preferential treatment, and everyone waits in the same line.
Staff help both internal and external research groups in areas such as analysis of samples and large-scale experiments; assistance includes bioinformatics and IT support for data analysis in biology and medicine. Researchers can also take part in further education in laboratory procedures at the centre.
“SciLifeLab researchers can rent a space for a longer or shorter period, which gives them access to our equipment, staff and other researchers, with potential for collaboration,” Sterky says. “The rent is adjusted to match local costs at the researcher’s own university.”
Work at the centre includes mapping the genomes of humans and other organisms. Study of the structure, characteristics and placement of proteins within cells can also lead to insights into the cause of diseases.
“Sweden’s unique biobanks (repositories of human genetic material from a large segment of the population) are important for us, and really benefit Swedish research,” Sterky says. “There is currently an investigation into whether the biobanks breach Sweden’s personal information legislation, but I am not really worried. The law will probably be amended in the near future, so we can continue with the important task of finding new methods of treatment and develop new medicines.”
How does the work at the centre reflect your motto of “Health and the Environment”?
“We also want to raise the profile of environmental research, which is just as important as our medical research,” Sterky says. “Genomics for example, the analysis of genome material, is at the intersection of medicine and the environment because all of the world’s organisms have DNA.”
Sterky has been researching the DNA of plants for years, and took part in mapping the genome of the poplar species at KTH in the 1990s. Researchers at SciLifeLab are currently mapping the genome of the Norway spruce, a species which has eight times as much genetic material as a human. “This is pure science, which could possibly lead to more efficient plant propagation,” Sterky explains.
Another environmental project now underway involves mapping all the microflora species from the Baltic Sea. This information can then be measured against other parameters, such as salt content and oxygen levels and help address problems such as algal blooms.
“We want to further increase mobility for SciLifeLab’s researchers,” Sterky says. “Through increased corporate collaboration, we hope to find models that will encourage more international companies to set up shop nearby. Then their researchers, those who are also working with one of our universities, will also get access to our facilities and staff.”
Sterky says SciLifeLab has specific advantages as it competes with other leading research institutes. “Our strength comes from our skilled researchers and our unique resources such as the biobanks and Sweden’s extensive collection of antibodies against human proteins.”
By Katarina Ahlfort