Significant new grant will support Crick single cell biology

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The Crick has received a generous £1 million grant from The Wolfson Foundation to support the development of the Crick single cell initiative, a new specialist platform that will increase the capability of researchers from the Crick and around the UK to investigate biological problems at the level of a single cell.

The Wolfson Foundation is an independent charity that supports and promotes excellence in the fields of science, health, education and the arts and humanities. Since it was established in 1955, over £900 million (£1.9 billion in real terms) has been awarded to more than 11,000 projects throughout the UK, all on the basis of expert review. 

By increasing our capacity for single cell techniques, we will be able to observe processes that nobody has seen before.
Julian Downward, Associate Research Director

Until relatively recently, the techniques used in biomedical research hadn’t been sensitive enough to analyse biological processes at a single cell level. This meant that most studies of tissue were based on bulk analysis of hundreds or thousands of cells and it was difficult to identify any variation in the group. 

However, diseases like cancer are often caused by a very small subpopulation of diseased cells that are working against the normal role of the tissue. One of the key challenges in diagnosing and treating diseases is identifying these malicious cells in a large group of normal cells. Single cell analysis techniques have advanced considerably over the past two decades and are now an important part of biomedical research.

By allowing experiments with tens or hundreds of thousands of individual single cells, these techniques have already shown that biological mechanisms, such as the healthy development of the gut, and the development of tumours, all depend on interactions of incredibly genetically diverse mixtures of cells.

As future advances in medicine are likely to require the identification and eradication of rare cells from a large and mixed population of healthy cells, single cell techniques have the potential to revolutionise our understanding and treatment across a range of diseases. 

As well as increasing the research capacity at the Crick, the single cell initiative will include a training programme that will see experts at the Crick advising researchers from institutions across the UK on applying single cell techniques and setting up similar facilities. Science technology platforms (STPs) like our Advanced Sequencing, Flow Cytometry and High Throughput Screening teams designed the training programme as a key part of the initiative.

Associate Research Director and Crick group leader Julian Downward studies cancer-causing genes and has been closely involved in driving single cell capabilities at the Crick. He welcomed the opportunities that the donation will provide: “The single cell initiative will give research at the Crick – not just cancer research, but all the areas we work on – a huge boost. By increasing our capacity for single cell techniques, we will be able to observe processes that nobody has seen before.”

Director of the Francis Crick Institute Paul Nurse said, “The Wolfson Foundation has been an important supporter of our work from the outset. We are delighted to have their support once again for this initiative which will enable us to achieve new levels of insight into human health and disease.”

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