EPSRC and MRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Systems Approaches to Biomedical Science

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Mathematical, Physical&Life Sciences Div


It is now clear that biological functions or diseases arise from complex interactive networks operating on many different scales. The translational work needed to transform promising new drugs and therapies into commercial products will increasingly require predictive mathematical and computational modelling at the systems level.

The Systems Approaches to Biomedical Science (SABS) Centre aims to meet this demand by training a new generation of responsive research leaders with the ability to generate and apply novel physical and mathematical techniques to solve research problems of relevance to the pharmaceutical, biomedical, biotechnology and related sectors. SABS will address these industry-relevant scientific questions from the real world, and explore them through genuine academic-industrial collaborations.

SABS will provide training and research across a wide range of areas, including the design and testing of new chemical and biological entities, modelling biological systems, and robust analysis of complex datasets. Such cross-disciplinary work will introduce students to cutting edge organic chemistry, chemoinformatics, chemical and synthetic biology, biophysics, advanced computational simulation, bioinformatics, data mining, statistical analysis, physical and structural study of biomolecules, and mathematical modelling.

Over the last 4 years the SABS team have created a wide network of contacts within Oxford and across industry. SABS will continue to work closely with its partner companies (AstraZeneca, Diamond Light Source, e-Therapeutics, Evotec, GE Healthcare, GlaxoSmithKline, Hoffmann LaRoche, InhibOx, Lilly UK, Microsoft, Novartis, Pfizer, Structural Genomics Consortium and UCB), and with 14+ departments across the University. Every SABS student will be co-supervised and co-funded by industry and will be fully exposed to the industrial context of their research in both the taught programme, and in their industry-based research projects. They will develop skills in project management, strategic planning, leadership, team working, commercial awareness, and problem solving all of which will be required to translate innovations in basic and medical science into commercial product development.

SABS will continue to use its ground-breaking and, currently, unique Open Innovation IP agreement, which allows all participants in the SABS consortium to see the results of all research projects. Participating companies regard it as a trail-blazing model for the future of industry-academia collaboration, because it simplifies inter-company research collaboration within the consortium and improves the existing business process for innovation and academic collaborations. From an academic perspective, it allows the students to participate in impactful industrial research whilst still gaining the benefits of research discussion with their peer cohort.

Oxford University has made substantial investments both in infrastructure for graduate training and all research areas associated with SABS. It actively promotes interdisciplinary research with external collaborators, and is currently investing heavily in the new Target Discovery and Big Data institutes.

SABS has demonstrated very strong user pull, and an ability to recruit new companies; three organisations are currently in the process of joining. In this new bid the companies have doubled their cash contribution per student to £30k, and will also cover all associated research and travel costs (currently averaging £8k per student); a clear commitment to the continuation of the SABS centre. Our minimum cohort size of 14 means industry will make a minimum cash contribution to student funding of £2.1m and a further £560k to research costs.

Planned Impact

The main impact of the SABS CDT will be the difference made by the scientists trained within it, both during their DPhils and throughout their future careers.

The impact of the students during their DPhil should be measured by the culture change that the centre engenders in graduate training, in working at the interface between mathematical/physical sciences and the biomedical sciences, and in cross sector industry/academia working practices.

Current SABS projects are already changing the mechanisms of industry academic collaboration, for example as described by one of our Industrial Partners

"UCB and Roche are currently supervising a joint DPhil project and have put in two more joint proposals, which would have not been possible without the connections and the operational freedom offered by SABS-IDC and its open innovation culture, a one-of-the-kind in UK's CDTs."

New collaborations are also being generated: over 25% of current research projects are entirely new partnerships brokered by the Centre. The renewal of SABS will allow it to continue to strengthen and broaden this effect, building new bridges and starting new collaborations, and changing the culture of academic industrial partnerships. It will also continue to ensure that all of its research is made publically available through its Open Innovation structure, and help to create other centres with similar aims.

For all of our partners however, the students themselves are considered to be the ultimate output: as one our partners describes it,

"I believe the current SABS-IDC has met our original goals of developing young research scientists in a multidisciplinary environment with direct industrial experience and application. As a result, the graduating students have training and research experience that is directly applicable to the needs of modern lifescience R&D, in areas such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology."

However, it is not only within the industrial realm that students have impact; in the later years of their DPhils, over 40% of SABS students, facilitated by the Centre, have undertaken various forms of public engagement. This includes visiting schools, working alongside Zooniverse to develop citizen science projects, and to produce educational resources in the area of crystal images. In the new Centre all students will be required to undertake outreach activities in order to increase engagement with the public.

The impact of the students after they have finished should be measured by how they carry on this novel approach to research, be it in the sector or outside it. As our industrial letters of support make clear, though no SABS students have yet completed their DPhils, there is a clear expectation that they will play a significant role in shaping the UK economy in the future. For example, as one of our partners comments about our students

"UCB has been in constant search for such talents, who would thrive in pharmaceutical research, but they are rare to find in conventional postgraduate programmes. Personally I am interested in recruiting SABS-IDC students to my group once they are ready for the job market."

To demonstrate the type of impact that SABS alumni will have, we consider the impact being made by the alumni of the i-DTC programmes from which this proposal has grown. Examples include two start-up companies, both of which already have investment in the millions. Several students also now hold senior positions in industry and in research facilities and institutes. They have also been named on 30 granted or pending patents, 15 of these arising directly from their DPhil work.

The examples of past success given above indicate the types of impact we expect the graduates from SABS to achieve, and offer clear evidence that SABS students will become future research leaders, driving innovation and changing research culture.


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