WTCHG Awayday 2013

On Friday 8 November around 150 staff and students met at the Saïd Business School for the annual Centre Awayday.

The Centre Director Peter Donnelly introduced the day as an opportunity ‘to meet people you don’t normally meet’. At the same time, he said, much of the programme had been devised to encourage participants to look outwards rather than inwards.

Tearing themselves away from the excellent coffee and pastries offered on arrival, participants moved to the Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre to hear presentations from four of the Centre’s newest group leaders: Zamin Iqbal, formerly a post-doc in Gil McVean’s group (assembly of highly variable genomes); Ross Chapman, who joined the Centre during 2013 from Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute (chromatin and repair of double-strand breaks); Chris Yau, who has returned to the Centre after a stint at Imperial College (statistical methods for sequencing of single cancer cells); and Chris Spencer, formerly a post-doc working with Peter Donnelly on Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium GWAS data (analysis of effect sizes in very large data sets).

Xin Lu
Professor Xin Lu described the work of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research

After a break, the first speaker from outside the Centre took the platform. Xin Lu is Professor of Cancer Biology and Director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, located in the Old Road Campus Research Building and so one of the Centre’s near neighbours. Originally based in London, the UK branch of the international Ludwig Institute moved to Oxford in 2007. Its main interest in cancer heterogeneity, trying to understand how environmental and epigenetic factors influence cell fate. Clinically the branch has developed a focus on gastrointestinal cancers, complementing the interests of the Tomlinson and Leedham groups in the Centre.

Professor Nick Hastie, Director of the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, is a regular visitor to the Centre as Chairman of its International Scientific Advisory Board. Fifteen years ago he identified gene, WT1, through genetic studies of a juvenile cancer of the kidney called Wilms tumour. His research into the function of the tumour suppressor protein encoded by this gene revealed a much broader involvement in both developing and adult tissue, hinging on the transitions between mesenchymal and epithelial cell fates. Recently he has identified a role for WT1 in the deposition of visceral fat, regarded as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Nick Hastie
Professor Nick Hastie chairs the Centre's International Scientific Advisory Board

After lunch, four group leaders took up the challenge of describing their work in just five minutes each (triumphantly succeeding). Erica Mancini talked about the structural biology of chromatin remodelling; Craig Lygate from Stefan Neubauer’s lab about the creatine transporter as a therapeutic target in heart disease; Luke Yates (winner of the 2013 NDM Graduate Research Prize) from Rob Gilbert’s lab about microRNAs as potential cancer targets; and Ben Davies on new transgenic techniques for the manipulation of mouse and stem cell DNA.

The Centre has recently entered into a partnership with St Anne’s College to set up the Centre for Personalised Medicine (CPM). Its newly-appointed Director, Ingrid Slade, identified the challenges and opportunities presented by genetic or other means of stratifying patients so as to apply the most effective forms of treatment. The CPM will take an interdisciplinary approach, fostering collaboration and pursuing its mission through education and dissemination of information.

An exciting initiative launched during the past year will bring together the resources of a number of research departments to compile and integrate very large sets of biomedical data. The Big Data Institute will be part of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, funded by the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the Higher Education Funding Council for England and announced in May 2013. Its Acting Director is Gil McVean, head of Bioinformatics and Statistical Genetics at the Centre. Gil spoke about the Institute’s ambition to collect high quality genomic and phenotypic data on 5m people, including health records, and make these data accessible to the worldwide research community.

Illustrating Chris Spencer’s earlier point of the difficulty of finding unequivocal effects in GWAS, Richard Mott talked about findings from the CONVERGE study of major depression in Chinese women, led by Jonathan Flint. This study has recruited 6000 cases and 6000 controls from mental hospitals in China, but to date it has found no significant risk loci for the disease. However, it has found raised levels of mitochondrial DNA both in depressed patients and in non-depressed controls who had experienced stressful events, such as childhood sexual abuse.

Finally Chas Bountra of the Structural Genomics Consortium, also located in the ORCRB, gave an impassioned account of the failure of the current model of drug discovery to make any inroads into areas of need such as Alzheimer’s disease. The philosophy of the SGC is to work in partnership with industry, in a pre-competitive fashion, to solve protein structures and generate potential inhibitory molecules that can then be made freely available to anyone who wants to take them through to clinical trials. The consortium is now embarking on a new public-private partnership to validate pioneer targets in patients. ‘The expensive bit won’t start until 90 per cent of compounds have been rejected’, he says.

With the formal programme over, everyone returned to the SBS’s grand lobby for wine and informal chat after a day full of ideas for future directions in research.