A centre for drug discovery and ‘big-data’ analysis has been launched at Oxford University in the UK with £30 million of new private and public investment.

Prime Minister David Cameron joined entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Ka-shing Li at the launch of the £90 million Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery as part of Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division.  

The initial phase of the project, the Target Discovery Institute, has already received £10 million in a first round of funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UK RPIF).

Another RPIF round has provided £10 million for the second phase of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, a Big Data Institute to be housed on the same site as the Target Discovery Institute at Oxford University’s Old Road Campus in the east of the city.

The £10 million in new funds from the UK RPIF has been supplemented by a £20 million donation from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, which in particular will support new research positions at the Centre for Health Information and Discovery.

Two phases

The plan is for the completed centre to house up to 600 scientists. In the £35 million first phase, a new building on the Old Road Campus will serve as the base for the Target Discovery Institute, designed to generate comprehensive disease data through genomic and chemical screening.

The Institute will use high-throughput biology and automation to accelerate the early stages of drug discovery by identifying better targets for drug development in areas such as cancer, diabetes, dementia, psychiatric conditions and inflammatory diseases.

The pharmaceutical industry “is hampered by companies’ inability to embark on such extensive and detailed studied of potential targets”, Oxford University commented.

“This can lead to companies spending literally billions of dollars identifying and developing drugs that are actually not acting on a promising biological pathway,” it noted, adding: “The work at Oxford sees academia stepping in to fill that critical gap”.

Big Data Institute

Through its Big Data Institute, the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery will develop approaches to generating, storing and analysing large medical-science datasets that can inform the understanding and treatment of human disease.

Very large sets of medical data are already routinely collected through electronic patient records, DNA sequencing, comprehensive biological data on disease mechanisms, treatment monitoring, clinical trials, pharmacy records, medical imaging and national registries of hospitalisations, cancers and other outcomes, Oxford University observed.

“Bringing health-related datasets together for researchers to use in an anonymised way, and making use of new tools to scrutinise that data to gain insights, will provide powerful new insights into who develops illnesses and why,” it said.

The university already has “world-leading” expertise in this area through pioneering the introduction of genomics into medical care, leading giant cohort trials such as the Million Women Study and UK Biobank, running large clinical trials and establishing methods for global surveillance of malaria and other infectious diseases, it pointed out.

Increasing access

'What will happen here is more than the promise of harnessing the power of a data-intensive revolution to improve healthcare,” Sir Ka-shing Li commented.

“The work of this centre will identify innovative ways to increase access to healthcare while lessening the burden of cost”, he added.  

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said the Oxford initiative “again shows that charities and businesses want to collaborate with our excellent universities to tackle global challenges like public health”.

The project “builds on the £100 million announced by the Prime Minister for DNA mapping for patients with cancer and rare diseases, and will keep the UK ahead in the global race for better treatments and care”, Willetts commented.

This is the 15th project to be funded under the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, which was first launched with £100 million of public funding in May 2012.

All UK RPIF projects have to include private funding from industry or the charitable sector worth a minimum of double the public contribution.