University of Dundee

The Scottish Institute for Cell Signalling gets off to a flying start

12 Jun 2009

The SCottish Institute for ceLL Signalling (SCILLS) – established in October 2008 with a £10 million grant from the Scottish Government and based at the University of Dundee - has made its first key scientific appointments with leading researchers recruited from Europe and North America.

SCILLS is a major new life sciences initiative under the direction of Professor Sir Philip Cohen FRS, FRSE. The first three Team Leaders to be appointed are Dr Thimo Kurz, who is relocating to Dundee from the ETH Zurich, Switzerland; Dr Arno Alpi, who will join SCILLS from the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and Dr Gabriela Alexandru, who will come from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, USA.

“I am delighted that the new Institute has got off to such a flying start with three very impressive appointments,” said Sir Philip. “I am especially pleased by the remarkably high calibre of the scientists who have been applying for the five new research team leader positions that I am appointing, and my top three candidates have all accepted offers to join this exciting new venture, despite receiving several other attractive counter-offers from other leading research institutes around the world.

The £10m Scottish Government grant is being used to set up a Protein Ubiquitylation Unit, with the aim of creating a critical mass of leading researchers studying the Ubiquitin System, an area which Sir Philip expects to become the next big area of drug discovery for the pharmaceutical industry.

“In addition to these three new recruits, three other team leaders who are already based in Dundee, and who work on different aspects of the Ubiquitin System, have become honorary Team Leaders in SCILLS. They are Professor Dario Alessi FRS, FRSE, Professor Ronald Hay FRSE and myself. We will add to the critical mass of on-going research on the Ubiqutin system in SCILLS and also act as mentors for the more junior Team Leaders who are setting up their own laboratories for the first time.”

By setting up the new Unit now, Sir Philip believes that new pharmaceutical and biotechnology investment will be attracted to Scotland to capitalise on its leading role in research on the Ubiquitin System.

Further management and support staff have already been recruited to SCILLS. Dr Axel Knebel, formerly CEO of Kinasource, a biotechnology company based in Dundee, will head the Protein Production and Assay Development Team of SCILLS. Axel and the other three members of his team have been fully operational since October 2008.

Two further personnel dedicated to setting up and operating a `high throughput siRNA screening facility’, which is being supervised by Ron Hay, have also been recruited. The Institute’s laboratory manager, chief administrator and additional technical support for DNA cloning and tissue culture have also been recruited and are in place, as is the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Group. The money provided by the Scottish Government is sufficient to support 35 Scientific and Support Staff over the next five years.

“I am very encouraged by the speed with which SCILLS is being set-up,” said Sir Philip. “Bearing in mind that it has only been in existence for eight months and relatively few of the staff have arrived, I am surprised by the strong interest in the Unit that I have already received from a number of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. This gives me confidence that one of the aims of the new Institute, namely to stimulate the biotechnology industry in Scotland, will be achieved in due course. Another significant milestone has been the award of the Institute’s first external research grant of £208,000 from the Medical Research Council, which provides the salaries of the four members of the Protein Production and Assay Development Team for the next two years.”

Notes for Editors

Thimo Kurz, who arrived in Dundee this week with his wife Debbie and their three year old son Noah, was born and brought up in Germany, but carried out the research for his Ph.D. degree at the University of Oregon, USA, before moving to Switzerland in 2003. He met his future wife Debbie, a Californian, during his research training in Oregon.

Arno Alpi, who is Austrian, received his B.Sc. at the University of Vienna and his Ph.D. in Munich, Germany, where his research supervisor was Anton Gartner, who is also now a team leader in the College of Life Sciences at Dundee. Arno moved to Cambridge to carry out postdoctoral research in 2004 and will relocate to Dundee in September 2009.

Gabriela Alexandru, who is Romanian, received her B.Sc. degree from the University of Bucharest before carrying out her Ph.D. at the Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna, Austria under the supervision of Kim Naismith (the current Head of the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford). She has been carrying out postdoctoral research at Caltech since 2002.

ABOUT SCILLS - The SCottish Institute for ceLL Signalling

Launched in October 2008, the SCottish Institute for ceLL Signalling (SCILLS) is the world’s first research Unit dedicated to the study of protein ubiquitylation, an extremely versatile control mechanism that regulates almost all aspects of cell life.

There is increasing evidence that abnormal levels of ubiquitylation may be a cause or consequence of many diseases, such as cancer and chronic inflammatory diseases. For these reasons there is growing interest in targeting components of the ubiquitin system to develop novel drugs to treat disease. Indeed, the first drug that targets a component of the ubiquitin system, Velcade, was approved for clinical use in 2007. This compound, developed by Millenium Pharmaceuticals, inhibits the proteasome and is being used to treat haematological tumours, such as multiple myeloma and relapsed mantle cell lymphoma.

SCILLS is dedicated to the study of how biological processes are controlled and how they become deregulated in disease. The Protein Ubiquitylation Unit is the Institute's first research Division. Its major aims are to advance understanding of the role of protein ubiquitylation and related modifications in cell regulation and human disease, to facilitate the development of drugs to treat diseases caused by abnormalities in this process, to generate reagents and improve technologies on which more rapid progress in this area depends, and to train the next generation of scientists who will advance the subject.