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Francis Crick Institute: leader mondiale nella ricerca biogenetica

On 18 July Ambassador Inigo Lambertini and the science attaché Prof. Roberto Buizza visited the Francis Crick Institute, the world-renowned centre for biomedical research and the result of a partnership between six of the main British organisations in the sector: the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK (CRUK), Wellcome, University College London (UCL), Imperial College London and King’s College London.

The project to establish Crick began in 2007 following the publication of the Cooksey Report, an independent revision of the agreements on funding health research in the UK. The centre opened in the summer of 2011, taking its name from the British scientist Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962. The centre became fully operational in the spring of 2017. The director is Prof. Sir Paul Nurse, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2001, and it hosts over 2000 professionals from around 80 countries as well as over 100 research groups.

Crick’s mission is discovery without limits. It carries out world-class research aimed at understanding how living beings work and generating benefits for human health. Its researchers explore biological mechanisms at all scales, from molecules to cells to entire organisms. The aim of the research is to improve understanding of the fundamental processes of life, and it will have the potential to transform the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human illnesses. To carry out its mission, Crick brings together the skills of a wide range of scientific disciplines and collaborates with various types of organisations in the academic, clinical and industrial sectors. This creates a space for discovery without limits and supports the translation of discoveries into health benefits.

Its scientific programme is broad and inclusive, and it aims to explore the biological mechanisms at all scales, from molecules to cells to organisms. Biological knowledge is at the centre of biomedicine, determining important improvements in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human illnesses. Over the years, biological research has brought about better understanding of many illnesses. The scientific approaches necessary for further advancement in understanding have become more multidisciplinary, incorporating unexpected biological disciplines such as evolutionary biology and ecology as well as aspects of physics, engineering and information technology. Crick’s scientific programme has the flexibility to support promising emerging fields of research.

Crick collaborates with a number of Italian universities. Between 2017 and 2022, data from SCOPUS/SCIVAL (Elsevier) indicate that Crick reserachers produced most of their publications with researchers from institutions in the UK (81%) and US (24%), followed by Germany (12%), France (8%), Spain (5.8%), Switzerland (5.6%) and Italy (5.2%). In absolute numbers, in the same period Crick published approximately 4,280 publications, of which 222 (5.2%) were authored or co-authored by Italian scientists from various universities, including Padua (35 pubblications), La Sapienza (24), Turin (22), Bologna (19) and Milan (19).

During the visit the Ambassador and Prof. Buizza met the institute’s director, Sir Paul Nurse, who in 2010 became the first director and CEO of the Francis Crick Institute in London and who was for five years the president of the Royal Society. In 2001 Sir Paul received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine together with Leland Hartwell and Tim Hunt for their discovery of protein molecules that control the division of cells.

They then visited various laboratories and met around 30 Italian scientists who work at the institute, having graduated in Italy.

The researchers explained the strategy employed by the centre to attract talent from around the world based on a rigorous selection procedure and on contracts of a maximum of five years, which can be renewed only for those who remain in the top 10% of scientists in the world in terms of quality of work. Those who are hired are given considerable support for their research projects and have access to cutting-edge instruments and equipment.

The staff expressed their hope that the UK will soon rejoin the Horizon Europe programme and that the mobility of scientists and students between the UK and the EU will return to pre-Brexit levels. Illustrating the difficulties following Brexit, it was explained that one young researcher had to pay the equivalent of four months’ salary to get a visa to work at Crick in 2023.

The visit ended with a promise to collaborate to organise events on subjects of mutual interest in the field of medicine and molecular biology, with a view to strengthening the existing links between the Italian scientific community and Crick, a world leader in the sector.