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Finding the Wright appliance of science.

Byline: By Rebekah Ashby

As the chief executive of the Centre of Excellence in Life Sciences (CELS), Dr Fred Wright talks with an unrivalled enthusiasm about turning ideas and research from the North-East's universities into commercial opportunities for regional businesses.

This, he says, is the key to giving North-East life science companies a competitive edge in a tough global marketplace.

Wright's appointment was made by regional development agency One NorthEast, after a worldwide search to attract top talent.

He was selected for his capability to act as a leader in life science, having had vast experience in the field.

His work at CELS will be overseen by the Science and Industry Council for the North of England, where 15 leading academics and business people - headed up by industrialist Sir Ian Gibson - are charged with promoting the region as the place for cutting-edge research and development.

Dr Wright says: "The first line of our business plan points to the major markets that exist for the life sciences.

"It says: `The global life science industry has six billion potential customers. Four more are born every second'.

"This is so because we are all consumers of life science products, from food to diagnosis of disease, to medicines. It is a tremendous opportunity."

Although it could be argued that CELS has only just got off the ground, Dr Wright says it's really beginning to move.

A company called The Centre of Excellence for Life Sciences Ltd has been set up, because he was keen to ensure CELS did not become "just another Government department or a number of committees that would slow things down". As such, its board is made up of a mix of industrialists and academics.

CELS has a five-year business plan and, like any other business, needs to show that it is meeting targets and demonstrating that it can deliver.

Wright says: "Not one place in the UK has a monopoly on life sciences and there are no clusters located uniquely in one region, so that's both a challenge and an opportunity for the North-East.

"The advantage we have here is that we have a manufacturing base - that's what differentiates us. If you want research you would go to Cambridge, but if you want manufacturing you would come to the North-East.

"So if we harness those research strengths in life sciences in the universities with our ability to make things, then we are well on the way - that's what we are about."

According to Dr Wright, the Centre of Excellence must also harness the diversity of research and development (R&D) already taking place in the region, to produce the products, services and companies the health sector will need in years to come.

He says the North-East is already at the leading edge in a number of areas and that CELS' task is to try to capture that research and develop its commercial applications.

"The sequencing of the human genome has opened up many possibilities for treating human disease," says Dr Wright.

"Coupled with increasing life expectancy as a result of better health care, this means we have an ageing population.

"We in this country, the US, Europe and Japan can find new approaches to improve the quality of life as we age."

Dr Wright says a strong and broadly-based bioscientific research portfolio exists in the region, with activities spanning medial, agriculture and environmental areas.

And scientific "hotspots" have been identified, including ageing and health, oncology, human development and plant biotechnology.

Complementary to the development of these hotspot areas, Dr Wright says there is the need to identify and develop enabling technologies, such as bioinformatic tools.

Such technologies have a significant role to play in advancing the development of hotspot areas, either through facilitating faster, more cost-effective analysis, or by facilitating research in areas previously considered intractable.

Dr Wright sees great promise for the North-East in many areas, including stem cell research.

He says: "Most people with diabetes anticipate a lifetime of injecting insulin, but in 10 years or so we will be able to provide pancreatic cells from our own tissue, with no fear of rejection, that have the same capability as the pancreas to produce insulin."

Newcastle is one of three or four UK universities taking the lead in this area, but Dr Wright says it has the advantage of having the clinical experience needed to take things forward.

"We have quite superb research and development within the region that can attract more investment," he explains. "We also have superb market intelligence, highlighting the new, emerging markets across life science industries.

"We can now sectorise, be specific and say this is a need that has been expressed by the marketplace and will need to be met in the next five to 10 years."

CELS is also excited by possibilities for collaboration with Japan, identifying strong common interests, common research and common potential.

Whilst Dr Wright talks with great enthusiasm, as a venture capitalist formerly based in Cambridge, the decision to work in the North-East was not an easy one.

"I didn't come here lightly," he says. "I shared the prejudice of most scientists, that it was necessary to work in the `golden triangle' - London, Oxford, Cambridge.

"I wanted to know if there was a critical mass of innovation. And what is really evident when you come to Newcastle and Durham is there are tremendous concentrations of expertise and world-leading scientists working in the same way as in Oxford and Cambridge.

"I'm now absolutely convinced that this region has the expertise to make a huge contribution."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 23, 2003
Words:926
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