Technical reports. The Life Sciences Programme in the UK


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




(2000), "Technical reports. The Life Sciences Programme in the UK", Kybernetes, Vol. 29 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Technical reports. The Life Sciences Programme in the UK

Technical reports

Keywords: Life sciences, United Kingdom

The Life Sciences Programme in the UK

Details of the UK research council's Life Sciences Programme have been highlighted in the first issue of the Life Sciences Newsletter No. 1 (September 1999).They are published under the headings:

  • The research at the interface.

  • The programme springs to life.

  • Councils bring research to life - research councils working together.

  • Projects with life science connections.

  • New networks - early action by the Life Sciences Programme.

The initiative will be of much interest to cybernetists and systemists with biocyberneticians having a particular concern. The programme envisages a high quality of research at the boundary between physical sciences and engineering, and the life sciences. The Life Sciences Programme has a budget of £10 million for its first year including £5 million for initiatives in bioinformatics, tissue engineering and metrology for life sciences. Information provided under the above headings outlines the early progress that has been made. This includes:

Research at the interface. Professor Richard Brook, who is the chief executive of the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) says that:

The research council system in the UK is distinctive in having different councils to cover the full span of subjects. This has advantages in allowing different councils to give attention to the particular characteristics of individual disciplines. It does, however, make it essential to have effective measures to support research at the interfaces between research councils. A particularly important interface is that between the physical sciences and the life sciences. It is here that there are high expectations of exciting and significant research, with wide ranging impacts over many aspects of life. EPSRC has been in close discussion with other research councils to establish innovative programmes at the interface. The themes are of particular promise, so we are giving the highest priority to the development of research which can respond to the challenge. The Life Sciences Interface Programme is EPSRC's response to this challenge. Working with other research councils, we will ensure that research in engineering and the physical sciences continues to make significant contributions to wealth creation and the quality of life in the UK.

The programme springs to life. The report of the initial stages of the programme indicates how quickly it has got underway. The report says:

Dr Lesley Thompson and her colleagues hit the ground running to get EPSRC's Life Sciences Interface Programme underway in record time. The new programme is a part of the council's response to the extra allocation of funds it received from the science budget in the government's Comprehensive Spending Review. At its meeting: EPSRC's Council decided to invest an initial £5 million for the first year of the programme. This budget is to be matched by a similar sum from the other EPSRC programmes. Dr Thompson started as programme manager for the new initiative in March (1999) "My task is to manage the policy and activity at the life sciences interface", says Dr Thompson. "The Programme will fund high quality research at the boundary between the physical sciences and engineering, and the life sciences", she adds. In recent months Dr Thompson and her colleagues have held discussions with the research community, other research councils, government agencies and industry. "The only way we can progress and have a strong and active research portfolio", says Dr Thompson, "is to engage the research community". The main aim of this consultation was to establish where the EPSRC can have the biggest impact on the life sciences with its investment in research in the physical sciences and engineering.

Research at the interface between the UK's EPSRC and the life sciences will involve many disciplines. The report says that:

It will tap all of EPSRC's programmes in mathematics, physics, chemistry, IT and computer science, materials and engineering, as well as subjects supported by other research councils. The EPSRC has already demonstrated its belief in the new initiative. The Council agreed to invest an extra £5 million in the Life Sciences Programme. This is for initiatives in bioinformatics, tissue engineering and metrology for life sciences.

UK's research councils bring research to life. There is no doubt that the life sciences make significant contributions to wealth creation and the quality of life, not only in the UK, but in countries worldwide. In Britain we are told the research councils are working with each other to identify promising areas at the interface between the physical sciences, engineering and the life sciences. The key objectives of the programme clearly outline the aims, they are:

  • Fund high quality research at the boundary between the physical sciences and engineering and the life sciences.

  • Ensure that EPSRC provides the basic physical science and engineering research needed to underpin the life sciences.

  • Maximise the opportunities for advances in engineering and the physical sciences from discoveries in the life sciences.

  • Provide suitable training at the interface between the engineering and physical sciences and the life sciences.

The following examples illustrate specific research activities which are supported already and bring together the life sciences and other disciplines. Those cited include:

  • Healthcare informaticsX-ray vision. A new technique for analysing X-ray images could make it easier to detect breast cancer. Professor Mike Brady and his colleagues at Oxford University remove from mammography images the irrelevant information produced by scattered X-rays, leaving only significant detail in the viewed picture. This approach can not only make it easier to detect tissue that needs to be checked, but can also reduce a patient's exposure to X-rays during screening.

    MathematicsResearch in vein. The mathematics of fluid flow is improving our understanding of how veins in the body collapse when the pressure outside them falls too far. Research at Cambridge University into the flow of fluid through elastic tubes provides new insights into this phenomenon through simulations that reveal the interaction between the complex internal flow and the highly distorted geometry of a buckled elastic wall.

    BiophysicsCell dynamics. Biophysics traditionally deduces the functions of micro-organisms by studying their shapes. Little has been done to investigate the dynamics, the motion, of their component parts. Dr John Singleton and his colleagues at Oxford University are studying the frequency response of tiny protein crystals and other biological specimens. They hope to throw new light on how certain proteins, like those implicated in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, move through membranes in the body.

    Tissue engineeringBiodegradable scaffolds. At the University of Nottingham, Dr Steve Howdle and Dr Kevin Shakesheff have developed a way of making porous matrices composed of biodegradable polymers. The technique uses supercritical carbon dioxide to plasticise polymers and to introduce pores and mix fragile biological molecules into the materials. The polymer composites can act as scaffolds for tissue engineering and may offer advantages in drug delivery.

Networks. It is reported that new networks and centres of bioinformatics and tissue engineering are among the first fruits of the UK's Life Sciences Interface Programme. They are described as:

Networks bring the research community together to identify opportunities and challenges in areas of research. The Life Sciences Programme has approved the creation of UK based Networks that link academic and industrial groups in new or enhanced collaborations that address an interface between life sciences and EPSRC. Networks set out to encourage the transfer of ideas, experimental techniques, models and technological and scientific insights. By bringing together groups with related objectives, EPSRC hopes to encourage mobility between disciplines, between universities and between academe and industry. Networks also encourage innovation and creativity and allow researchers to develop ideas for future support from EPSRC, European or other international research programmes.

Useful contacts for the networks include:

  • Processing and representation of speech and complex sounds, Professor Christopher Darwin, University of Sussex, UK. Tel: +44 (0) 1273 678409; e-mail:

  • Network for engineering life sciences interdisciplinary collaboration (NELSIC), Professor Peter Dunnill, University College, London. Tel: +44 (0) 171 419 3816; e-mail:

  • The mechanisms and modulation of skin permeation, Professor Jonathan Hadgraft, Cardiff University. Tel: +44 (0) 1222 874536; e-mail: hadgraft

  • Mathematics applied to medicine, Dr Helen Byrne, University of Nottingham, UK. Tel: +44 (0) 115 951 3853; e-mail: helen.byrne

  • Solution phase structural characterisation of large and complex macromolecular biological assemblies, Dr Alison Rodger, University of Warwick, UK. Tel: +44 (0) 1203 523234; e-mail:

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