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Accessible version of the MRC WIMM timeline content with references.

 

1988       Construction complete

David Weatherall lays the last stone of his vision – the Institute of Molecular Medicine – on the grounds of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. It is funded by the MRC, the Wolfson Foundation, University of Oxford, the Wellcome Trust, the EP Abrahams Trust and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

In 1989, the Institute is officially opened by HRH Princess Anne and is home to over 20 research groups carrying out ground-breaking research. They’re tackling a range of medical conditions including blood diseases, HIV, cancer, and neuromuscular disorders, and understanding how our immune system works.

1989       Gene therapy for muscular dystrophy

While investigating the genetics of the inherited muscle-weakening disease, muscular dystrophy, Kay Davies and her group prove that a shortened version of the dystrophin gene can be used in gene therapy to treat the disease in the lab. Their ground-breaking discovery forms the basis of all gene therapies that are currently in clinical trials to treat the disease.

Together with Tony Monaco’s team, Davies also identified the position of several important disease genes on the human X chromosome. She later becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society and receives a Damehood in 2008.

1992       Prize-winning pioneering research into our immune system

Alain Townsend receives the prestigious Louis-Jeantet prize for his pioneering research into how our immune system works. He discovered the previously unknown process of what happens when a virus infects a cell. The cell breaks down the virus into small pieces and then presents these fragments on its surface, signalling to the immune system that it is infected and triggering an immune response. This fundamental discovery transformed the world of immunology and vaccines.

1992       Unravelling the genetics of alpha thalassaemia

Based at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit, Doug Higgs and his team identify the location of the alpha globin genes. Faults in these genes cause the inherited blood disorder alpha thalassaemia, which affects millions of people throughout the world. Their work on the genetics of alpha thalassaemia transforms the diagnosis and treatment of patients with this and related diseases through the development of genetic testing and counselling.

Importantly, together with David Weatherall and John Clegg, this world-leading research on the globin genes has established many of the general principles underlying human genetic disease. Higgs has received many prestigious awards for his work, including the 2013 Royal Society Buchanan Medal for his contribution to biomedical sciences.

 1992       Disrupting cancer’s blood supply

Adrian Harris set up the Oncology department at the Institute when it first opened in 1989. In a ground-breaking paper in the Lancet, his group is the first to show that the number of new blood vessels in a breast tumour is significantly linked to the tumour’s ability to grow and spread, opening up a whole new field of research. Drugs designed to stop cancer’s blood supply have since been developed and approved in over 6 different tumour types.

Later, Harris plays a major role in a study showing that a tumour’s genetic profile can predict how it will grow and spread. This discovery underpins the idea of stratified cancer medicine, where a patient is given treatment tailored to the molecular makeup of their disease.

1993       Nobel-winning research into how cells sense oxygen

Landmark research by clinician scientists Peter Ratcliffe, Chris Pugh and Patrick Maxwell unravels the mechanisms by which cells sense oxygen. All animals require oxygen to survive, and low oxygen levels are implicated in many human diseases such as cancer and anaemia, so knowledge of the processes by which cells sense and maintain the correct oxygen levels is crucial to understanding life and health.

Ratcliffe’s discoveries turn current scientific thinking on its head and lead to him winning several prestigious awards, including the Albert Lasker Award in 2016 and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2019, together with American scientists William Kaelin Jnr and Gregg Semenza.

1993       New treatments for cystic fibrosis

Deborah Gill and Steve Hyde in Chris Higgins’ group are the first to show that the inherited disorder cystic fibrosis can be treated with gene therapy in the lab. Cystic fibrosis affects around 1 in every 2,500 newborn babies and causes severe problems with the lungs and other organs.

Following this discovery, the researchers go on to set up clinical trials to test gene therapy in patients and later establish the UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium.

1994       Vaccines for meningitis

Richard Moxon founds the Oxford Vaccine Group – a pioneering clinical trials unit for developing and testing vaccines. Moxon and his team previously identified the genetics of the bacteria Haemophilus infuenzae type b (Hib), which is the main cause of childhood meningitis. This led to a vaccine for meningitis being developed and rolled out as part of the infant immunisation programme in the UK in 1992.

Moxon’s group go on to sequence the genome of Hib and are one of the first groups in the world to demonstrate that this technique can be used to find new targets for vaccines. This technology underpins the development of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine for COVID-19.

Moxon has received the European Society Award for Excellence in Clinical Microbiology  and Infectious Diseases, the Fred Griffith Review lecture by the Society for General Microbiology, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007 for this work.

1995       Breakthrough in fighting malaria

Each year, a million children in Africa die from malaria caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum. In 1995, malaria expert Chris Newbold and his team, unravelled the mystery of what makes it so lethal and hard to treat. They found that Plasmodium has multiple versions of a gene called var, which enables the parasite to disguise itself from the immune system by altering the molecules on its surface.

Newbold and his team went on to be part of the international effort to sequence the genome of the human malaria parasite. Published in 2002, this has become the blueprint for developing new drugs and vaccines to fight malaria. In 2019 at the BioMalPar conference, Newbold received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his research.

1995       Revealing the molecular basis of an inherited disorder

ATR-X syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability, characteristic facial features and alpha-thalassemia – a blood disorder that reduces the production of the oxygen-carrying molecule haemoglobin. In 1995, Richard Gibbons, working in Doug Higgs’ lab, identifies the faulty gene responsible for ATR-X syndrome, ATRX. This marks a major step forward in our understanding of the disease, leading to diagnostic tests and antenatal screening.

Later, Gibbons and his colleagues also helped show that the ATRX gene plays an important role in cancer.

1996       Royal prize

The Institute wins the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Medicine,Health & Welfare for creating an environment in which scientists interact with clinicians to apply the new methods of cellular and molecular biology directly to medical research.

The award reads:“This is an exceptional and successful new approach to a crucial field of science. It has rapidly established recognition as a world-class centre of excellence and has a profound influence in the development of molecular medicine internationally.”

1997       The foundations of T-cell receptor therapy

John Bell’s lab makes significant progress in understanding the molecular mechanisms that drive autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. In particular, they carry out fundamental work into the structure of T-cell receptors – structures on the surface of immune cells that play a critical role in the body’s immune response by recognising and killing infected cells.

Bell and his team are the first to develop a way of making genetically modified T-cell receptors in the lab, laying the foundations for their use in treating diseases. This leads to the setting up of biotech spin-out, Avidex, in 1999.

1998       MRC Human Immunology Unit opens

The MRC Human Immunology Unit is established. The Unit is a centre of excellence for immunology research, highly respected in the UK and worldwide for its research into how our immune system works and how it responds to infections, autoimmune diseases and cancer. The Unit has also partnered with researchers in Africa and China to target infectious diseases including malaria, typhoid fever and influenza.

1999 Vincenzo

2000       A new name for the Institute

After 11 years at the helm, David Weatherall retires as Director and the Institute now formally takes his name to become the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine.

Amongst other accolades, in 2010, Weatherall receives the Lasker-Koshland  Special Achievement Award  in Medical Science. Two years later, Weatherall receives the American Society for Hematology’s Wallace H. Coulter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hematology for “a more than 50-year career in hematology combining seminal discoveries, visionary translational research leadership, and a passion for global health initiatives.”

2001       Breakthrough in understanding the HIV virus

Together with Sarah Rowland-Jones and Rodney Phillips, Andrew McMichael makes a crucial breakthrough in understanding HIV by showing that the virus changes its genetic code to escape immune cells. His lab goes on to develop and test HIV vaccines in early clinical trials. McMichael’s work contributes significantly to our understanding of how our immune system responds to viruses, leading to many prestigious awards and a knighthood in 2008 for services to medical sciences.

2003       Skeletal abnormalities linked to ageing fathers

Andrew Wilkie, Anne Goriely and their colleagues publish the first evidence that men have an increased level of small DNA changes in their sperm as they age. These alterations are at the root of a range of genetic conditions affecting the head and limbs of children born to older fathers. In these conditions, foetal skull bones fuse prematurely (craniosynostosis), giving rise to unusual head shapes. Around 1 in 2000 babies are born with craniosynostosis and Wilkie and his team go on to identify several genes that cause the condition. Wilkie becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2013 in recognition of his significant contribution to this field.

2003       Unlocking the secrets of DNA damage and repair

Ian Hickson and Leonard Wu publish key insights into how cells repair damage to their DNA and how, when that process goes wrong, it could cause cancer. Studying Bloom’s Syndrome, an inherited disorder which is linked to an increased risk of cancer, the team identified that the Bloom’s gene plays a vital role in this repair process by making sure damaged DNA is not rearranged whilst it is being mended. If the gene is damaged, so-called ‘crossing-over’ takes place, leading to potentially harmful genetic changes. This important work on DNA repair led to Hickson being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2010.

2006       The Institute is highly commended

The Government invites Sir David Cooksey to undertake an independent review of the public funding of health research in the UK. The review highly commends the Institute for its innovative approach, successfully encouraging collaboration between lab scientists and clinicians to improve understanding, diagnosis and treatment of a range of human diseases.

2008       Immunocore is founded

Bent Jakobsen co-founds Immunocore – one of the biggest biotech companies in the world – which is developing novel T-cell receptor therapies for cancer, autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases. Jakobsen was a key part of John Bell’s Immune Receptor Group at the Institute from 1993-2000 and previously set up spin-out company Avidex in 1999.

Other biotechnology companies that have been started by Institute scientists include Oxford Immunotec, Orbit Discovery and Zegami, highlighting how research at the Institute leads to innovative therapies and tests that impact health and care.

2010       The role of autoimmunity in neurological disease

The group was initially led by John Newsom-Davies (see centre, middle row) until he retired in 1998. By then they had made breakthroughs in the diseases that affect the nerve muscle junction and cause muscle weakness.  From 1998, Vincent extended the work to the central nervous system, and by 2010 the group had identified three novel targets for autoantibodies that are linked to different forms of inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). 

By showing that these brain diseases are driven by the immune system, they initiated the use of immunotherapy that removes or reduces this harmful activity. In 2011 Vincent was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and subsequently she received awards from the World Federation of Neurology and the American Epilepsy Society, and the International Prize for Translational Neuroscience of the Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation.

2010       Bowel cancer in focus

Walter Bodmer is one of the UK’s leading geneticists. Over the years, Bodmer has played a significant role in improving our understanding of bowel cancers and human genetics. His ‘People of the British Isles’ study has contributed substantially to our understanding of population genetics in this country.

Bodmer was instrumental in founding the Institute’s Oncology department. In 2010, his lab at the Institute shed light on how bowel cancer stem cells grow and mature into different types of cell, giving rise to more or less aggressive tumours. This research is helping to inform the development of potentially more effective future cancer treatments.

Bodmer has received numerous awards for his contributions to science, including the Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 2013.

2011-14    Institute expands its world-class facilities

Infrastructure at the Institute grows to allow the researchers to do bigger and better science. In addition to the cell-sorting Flow Cytometry facility established in 2004, a Transgenic Facility is set up in 2011. Later the world-class Imaging Centre housing super-resolution microscopes opens in 2013 and a new Genome Engineering facility is established in 2014 to provide scientists with a range of genetically modified model systems for their research.

Also that year, the Oxford Consortium for Single Cell Biology is established, linking facilities at the Institute with those at the nearby Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics.

2013       A new type of blood stem cell

Together with Claus Nerlov’s lab, Sten Eirik Jacobsen’s group identify a new type of blood stem cell that specifically produces platelets – cell fragments that play a critical role in blood clotting. Since many disorders and therapies, including cancer treatments, can result in life-threatening reductions in platelets, this discovery opens up avenues for new platelet-boosting therapies.

2014-19   Athena award for gender equality

The departments within the Institute sign up to the Athena SWAN charter, formalising their commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEM.

2016       MRC Centre for Computational Biology opens

Embracing the power of 21st century technology, the MRC Centre for Computational Biology opens. This centre integrates bioinformatics, mathematical modelling, data visualisation, and artificial intelligence to help understand complex human systems and treat disease. Using sophisticated software, researchers can analyse the difference between healthy and diseased tissues or single cells, spotting trends and patterns and generating 3-D images of cells and structures.

2018       Supporting young people into science

Building on decades of welcoming school leavers into the Institute for work experience, the WIMM joins forces with In2ScienceUK to launch a formal scheme supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to follow a career in STEM. The scheme gives them insights into a career in research and helps boost their skills and confidence.

2018       A brand new map of our gut cells

Alison Simmons' lab provides fundamental insights into the underlying causes of inflammatory bowel disease. Using highly specialised techniques to study individual cells in the gut, her group redraws the cellular map of the large intestine, revealing four new cell states. Up to four in ten patients with inflammatory bowel disease fail to respond to treatment, so this important work will inform the development and refinement of new and existing therapies for the condition.

2018       Monitoring for blood cancer in Down’s Syndrome babies

In 2013, Irene Roberts’ lab, in collaboration with Paresh Vyas’ group, discovered that babies born with Down’s Syndrome were at an increased risk of developing blood cancer (leukaemia). They found that these children are frequently born with alterations in a gene called GATA1, which leads to abnormal development of blood cells. As a result, new national guidelines are introduced in 2018 to routinely monitor Down’s Syndrome babies from birth to spot any signs of leukaemia early on.

2019       Women in leadership programme launches

Although great strides have been made in gender equality in the workplace in recent years, there is still some way to go. While just over half of graduates and PhD students in life sciences are female, this gender balance disappears higher up the academic ladder with only a quarter of UK Professor Faculty positions in STEM being held by women. To help change this, the WIMM launches a leadership programme specifically to empower, support and mentor women scientists, organised by Catherine Porcher.

2020       Tackling COVID-19 head on

Scientists at the Institute join the global fight against COVID-19. Research is centred on:

  • Understanding the immune response (Alain Townsend, Ling-Pei Ho, Alexander Drakesmith, Tao Dong)
  • Developing and testing vaccines and treatments (Alain Townsend, Ling-Pei Ho)
  • Understanding why some people are more at risk (Paresh Vyas, Adam Mead, Bethan Psaila)
  • Developing faster testing (Jim Hughes, James Davies, Adam Mead)

Research at the nearby Jenner Institute led by Adrian Hill – who was a Wellcome Senior Fellow at the WIMM when it first opened – leads to the development of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine, one of the first to be approved in the UK.