Professor Paul Riley Interview Transcript
Following his appointment to the Directorship of Oxford's Institute for Developmental and Regenerative Medicine (IDRM), DPAG's Professor Paul Riley gave a special interview outlining plans for the IDRM going forward, why its work is so critical and what the major challenges will be in the months and years ahead.
Tell us more about how the creation of the IRDM came about?
When I first joined Oxford and was physically in place in 2012, I was asked to come to a meeting with the then Head of the Medical Sciences Division Alastair Buchan and Professor Georg Holländer in Paediatrics. Georg had an idea for an institute called the Institute of Developmental Medicine and I was asked to comment and to give my thoughts. Basically I'd just come from the Institute of Child Health at UCL in London and the Institute of Child Health is a very similar concept, but of course it has Great Ormond Street Hospital attached to it, which is one of the largest paediatrics hospitals, certainly in the country and in Europe, and is very successful in supporting research as well as obviously patient care. So I thought that it might be challenging to compete with that entity in Oxford, and so my sense was we might need to rethink the idea around this new institute. Subsequently, I went to another follow-up meeting with Georg, and this time with our Regus Professor of Medicine Professor Sir John Bell, and John asked me for some further thoughts on this. I actually suggested at that point, why don't we build in regenerative medicine into this developmental institute concept and John was very positive about that, and Georg likewise, and suggested we could get support for that both internally in the University and also with external funders. One of the first things that John did was he went to the British Heart Foundation, Peter Weissberg was Medical Director at the time, and asked if they would be willing to support and Peter Weissberg was very positive. Indeed, we went on from there with a strategic application which secured a £10 million pledge towards the Institute, and that really got us moving in terms of generating the budget for the building to happen, and also in terms of our thinking about the concept for the building. For example, if it had just been for a cardiovascular institute, I think the BHF would have been a little less enthusiastic, and they were very pleased to hear that we were thinking about the merging of disciplines; cardiovascular, neuroscience and immunology. Really that's how it started way back in 2012 and here we are 8 to 9 years on, looking forward to the completion of the project and the opening next October.
What is the clinical need that the IDRM is designed to meet?
The major unmet need is in the context of being able to regenerate diseased and injured tissues in the brain, the heart and the immune system. This is to tackle both birth defects and acquired diseases, so non-communicable diseases which have a major impact on global health, and the fact that there really aren't any efficacious therapeutics in these areas. If you take cell therapy as is being used in both basic research moving through clinical trials, this has been very disappointing in all of these areas, and in particular in the cardiovascular setting where benefits to patients has been marginal and very short-term. So we're taking an approach where we target resident cell types in these organ systems and we want to restore embryonic potential in adult cells that are ordinarily gone dormant, that have become quiet or quiescent, and the plan is to use developed drugs and strategies to reawaken these cells, restore this embryonic potential and enable them to perform like they do during development, which is to rebuild the organs that are damaged and restore the tissues that are lost.
As the new Director, what are your first steps for the IDRM?
As the building is being constructed as we speak and progress is looking very good, and we're on target for project completion by the end of July moving into August, I think we're now considering the two or three major areas that we need to put in place. One of course is recruitment; it's very important that we find the right people and the right research base to populate the Institute. We're very keen to promote early career researchers looking towards bringing new, young, motivated, ambitious fellows to populate the Institute. That recruitment drive is ongoing as we speak. Then of course, one of the things we want to do is to make sure we've got the right environment to nurture research programmes and to facilitate the work that people will do as occupants. So, things like ensuring we have the right key equipment, the essential infrastructure to carry out the research, those two things hand in hand are ongoing as we speak, and of course are very important to ensure the success of the Institute from day one of opening.
What do you anticipate will be your main challenge in the months and years ahead?
I think the biggest challenge, not helped by the current pandemic, the situation with COVID-19, is really securing funding to ensure that we can both recruit individuals as I just mentioned, but also to ensure that research programmes can be fully supported. Research is not cheap, it's an expensive business, and we're beholden to key funders and stakeholders to make this happen. I think that securing funding around the likes of strategic funds, not just individual projects, but also to sustain the Institute at the level of centre or unit status, these are going to be some of the big challenges, particularly in the restricted funding climate that we envisage after the pandemic has hopefully settled down.
What aspect of the project are you personally most looking forward to?
I think the first thing to say is that I'm very excited about the prospect of both taking on the role as Director of this new Institute, but also in just seeing it come to fruition. I think one of the key elements for me will be seeing it populated by world-leading, exciting new talent, and also the mix between not only existing Oxford researchers but also incoming new recruits from both a national level but also internationally, and getting that blend of different expertises. We're very keen to take an interdisciplinary approach, both across the three themes; the cardiovascular, immunology and neuroscience themes, but also in terms of disciplines and in terms of approaches we take. This will not just be all bench work and experimental biology, this will be merging with computational biology, mathematical modelling, machine learning, AI and data science, so we bring all these facets in which Oxford has expertise, but we will also recruit in to expand on that. So I think the idea of this nurturing environment and a blend of interdisciplinary research across the three themes most excites me, and particularly when driven by our younger fellows and younger recruits who we hope to be able to support and mentor towards research success. And of course then there's the element of new discoveries; you can never put a price on the delight at finding something for the first time, the real thrill of being the first to observe something that could lead to a very important therapeutic development. And then downstream, very excited about the prospect of seeing our basic science discoveries come to fruition and materialise as drugs and therapies to treat patients, because that's ultimately our end goal.