Tripling size of Wellcome Genome Campus will benefit global science, says Prof Sir Mike Stratton
In the concluding part of our in-depth interview, Prof Sir Mike Stratton discusses the expansion plans for the Wellcome Genome Campus, of which he is CEO.
You can read part I here: ‘I had no confidence of success’ says Wellcome Sanger Institute director
The pivotal role that genomics and biodata will play in our scientific understanding of everything from human health to conservation in the coming decades are at the root of plans to treble the size of the Wellcome Genome Campus.
Prof Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute and CEO of the Wellcome Genome Campus on which it lies, believes the expansion represents an opportunity for science to help better our world.
And he can foresee the day when genome sequencing of “a good proportion” of the world’s population will become a reality.
“Genomes and biodata are the theme of the campus and are clearly going to continue to be transformational for the next 50 years in our understanding of life on Earth, our understanding of disease, everything from helping to manage climate change, to all sorts of other things,” says Prof Stratton, who recently won the inaugural In Search of Wonder Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards.
“We have proposed that the campus will be expanded to about three times its size, and three times the number of people, so about 7,000 people.
“There will be space for new institutes under that theme of genomes and biodata but equally for the growing commercial opportunities. They will be making products from the genomes and the biodata that can be used by humanity to better ourselves and better our world.”
In addition to the world-leading genomics research site that is the 1,200-person Wellcome Sanger Institute, the campus is home to the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute, which stores and carries out research on the “previously inconceivable amounts of data” generated from genomes.
The campus also features a conference centre, a Connecting Science initiative to communicate science and enable training, plus the BioData Innovation Centre, which is home to companies such as Broken String Biosciences, Congenica and Eagle Genomics, while sequencing giant Illumina has a base there, as does Genomics England.
Despite concerns over transport from local residents and parish councils, the opportunity and demand to build on the expertise of this world-renowned campus, and provide a home for more research and innovation convinced South Cambridgeshire district councillors.
In October 2019, they agreed outline planning permission for the development of 150,000 square metres of what is currently agricultural land opposite the existing campus, across the A1301 at Hinxton.
It will be used for research and development, laboratories, offices and up to 1,500 homes. In December 2020, the council rubber-stamped the decision after working through the conditions. Early investigation work has now taken place, with the main site survey due in late summer.
“At the centrepiece of it, we want to have public engagement – a training facility that makes this an open space, in which genomes and biodata can be taught and celebrated, and discussed with the wider public because it’s going to become so much part of their life,” says Sir Mike.
“I was saying that three years ago, and it did have some meaning then, but the pandemic – now everyone can understand the word variant – has been transformative in widening people’s understanding of what genomes are and what they can do.
“We do need a more modern conception of a science campus so alongside the new institutes, the new companies and the public engagement, will be 1,000-1,500 houses, mainly for people who are working on the campus. So people can come here, can work, can go home quickly and there will be facilities for what is essentially a small town.”
But what might such a ‘town’ accomplish?
“There are big projects to be done. This is more like a 50 to 100-year trajectory that we can see,” notes Sir Mike. “We will be moving towards sequencing very large numbers of human genomes, which the UK Biobank is doing, and is leading in the world.”
Already, Sanger has contributed 250,000 human genomes – half of all those in the UK Biobank database of patients.
“There is discussion in the UK about doing maybe five million genomes. Other countries are thinking similarly, which will have the effect, hopefully, of reducing the costs because there will be incentives for people to provide new technologies.
“You can see movement towards – I don’t know when, maybe 25, 50, maybe more, years beyond – sequencing a good proportion of the world’s population and using that information for the betterment of humankind.”
The more genomic information and biodata we gather, the better we can diagnose, understand and treat disease.
The same principle lies behind the extraordinary Human Cell Atlas, for which the Sanger Institute is a leading partner. It aims to map every cell type in the human body, transforming our understanding of biology and disease.
But with 37.2 trillion cells in our body, the international project is a greater undertaking than even the Human Genome Project in which all human genes were sequenced and mapped between 1990 and 2003.
The Sanger Institute sequenced two million coronavirus genomes over the last two years to aid our understanding and tracking of Covid-19.
And it is continuing its work on the Darwin Tree of Life, aiming to sequence the genomes of all 70,000 species of eukaryotic organisms in Britain and Ireland.
This vast treasure trove of data has enormous value to the world.
“The privilege for me of being director of Sanger is that I am the director of an organisation that can contribute to science in a way that maybe only one or two others on the globe can do,” said Sir Mike.
“This comes from the scale of what we can deliver. The coronavirus activities over the last two years have been an exemplar of that, but not the only one.
“It’s the scale across all our areas of research, embracing and encompassing all elements all flavours of DNA and RNA sequencing technology that allow us to explore the structure of the natural world in a way that very few other organisations can do globally.
“It is a huge privilege to see those opportunities be delivered and to see landscapes of human biology which are in darkness being lit up by being able to do sequencing of genomes at such scale.”
In his acceptance speech last month for the Cambridge Independent’s In Search of Wonder Lifetime Achievement Award, which was sponsored by JDJ Creative, Sir Mike stressed that his achievements were also those of others, for science is a team effort.
His passion undimmed, Sir Mike will continue his cancer genetics research once he steps down from his director and CEO positions this year.
“I have been continuing with research whilst I was director and will be continuing afterwards.
“There are whole areas of human biology which have been in the dark, which my colleagues and myself have been beginning to explore and now those possibilities are really quite extraordinary for us to look at them.
“I’m looking forward to spending the next however many years it is doing that.”