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Tearing down walls to build the future

Professor Mike Ferguson from the University of Dundee tells the story behind the success of the Dundee’s ground-breaking Discovery Centre.

The University of Dundee’s Discovery Centre was opened in 2014 by Nobel Laureate and at that time President of the Royal Society of London, Sir Paul Nurse. In the speech that Sir Paul made that day he hailed it as “one of the great biomedical research centres of the UK”.

Earlier, the Lancet had praised the university’s strategy for the Centre, saying that something “very special” was taking place. It welcomed what it called the “tearing down of disciplinary walls to put chemists next to biologists, industry scientists beside academics”.

Two years before the opening however, all of this seemed tantalisingly close but frustratingly out of reach. Although construction was well underway, our funding was just enough to furnish half the space we were building and no more. The turning point came when we successfully applied for £12 million of funding from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF).

As well as allowing us to both furbish and equip the complete building, the confidence that the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund showed in the Discovery Centre has proved to be the catalyst for other crucial investments. We were recently awarded £14 million by the Wellcome Trust to establish the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research and a further £8 million to power drug discovery programmes in close partnership with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline – a great illustration of how the Discovery Centre is also helping us to make meaningful links with industry.

University of Dundee Discovery CentreSo, three years from its opening, what else has the Discovery Centre achieved? I like to think that it has been true to its subtitle “Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research”.

The main ‘translation’ force is our Drug Discovery Unit, led by Professor Paul Wyatt, which occupies two floors of the Centre. This unit translates discovery science into potential drugs for infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and leishmaniasis, and also into targets for other conditions like Alzheimer’s, skin diseases and cancer.

It does this by bringing right into the heart of the university industry experts and all the relevant technologies. The Drug Discovery Unit has been extremely successful, growing from about 60 staff in 2013 to 100 now, with more being recruited.

Future plans include moving into anti-bacterial drug discovery to battle the huge global issue of antibiotic resistance. Again, the UKRPIF investment in our Centre put us in pole position to dedicate laboratory space to this and to secure further investment from Innovate UK.

The second element – ‘interdisciplinary’ – is arguably an over-used term but, thanks to UKRPIF and our other funders, I believe that we are walking the walk and not just talking the talk. Drug discovery itself is incredibly interdisciplinary (synthetic, computational and analytical chemistry blended with biology, physiology and pharmacology), but the “tearing down of disciplinary walls” extends beyond this. Our Division of Computational Biology includes experts in bio- and chemo-informatics, theoretical physicists, mathematicians and software engineers who work alongside experimental biologists across our Schools of Life Sciences and Medicine.

I strongly believe that bringing together these two powerful forces of translation and interdisciplinary research is absolutely crucial to future progress in science and technology. Thanks to the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund and others who have supported our vision, the University of Dundee has been able to create a place where this can happen. It’s also helping to make the future of the university and of the city a very exciting one.

Find out more about the work of the University of Dundee’s Discovery Centre at

More information on the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund is available from the Research England website. 

Professor Mike Ferguson, Regius Professor of Life Sciences and Academic Lead for Research Strategy at the University of Dundee - 19 Sep 2017