Putting aside all the hype about Imperial’s new and possibly hypothetical science of GM crop derived biofuels, let’s take a reality check on the economic interests behind its core operations.
By far the largest element of Imperial College’s research activity is provided by the Faculty of Medicine. The reality is that nearly 70 per cent of Imperial’s total income is generated from grants and contracts (currently approaching £100 million per annum). This includes almost 200-250 clinical trials within Imperial — and considerably more when taking into account the partner NHS Trusts. For example, research undertaken by Imperial’s Department of Immunology exploits the strong clinical links on its Northwick Park campus, building clinical and therapeutic programmes from a strong basic science platform.
If this sounds like £100m being well spent on world class research, do you remember the terrible ‘elephant man’ phase 1 clinical trials? In March this year Parexel International was an obscure company that carried out drug trials on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. It became famous suddenly when an experiment at its facilities at Northwick Park Hospital hospitalised all six human guinea pigs.
Belatedly, questions have been asked about why the six men were all tested at once, not singly to minimise the risk. You may speculate whether common sense comes second to economies of scale in the contract drug testing business. At least four of the volunteers suffered major organ failure and one of the unfortunate men — 20-year-old Ryan Wilson, from Highbury, London — only emerged from Northwick Park Hospital this week.
In response to the Northwick Park incident, the Secretary of State for Health established a group of leading experts. They will report on the future authorisation of such trials and, until then, all further first-in-humans trials of any monoclonal antibody or other novel molecules targeting the immune system will not be authorised in the UK.
This moratorium must be a financial blow for Imperial, but its leading disaster specialist is on the case. Putting it more simply, so that we can understand, the Secretary of State’s panel includes Professor Sir Leszek K Borysiewicz MB BCh FRCP F Med Sci, Deputy Rector, Imperial College London. He may be pathology’s answer to Red Adair, but he is better known in Wye for making a lot of good people redundant, very brutally and of course that infamous patronising phrase.