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Fifteen years on – the Centre for Life - A jewel in the North East’s crown

It's fifteen years since The International Centre for Life opened its doors – and a lot has happened since then.
The North East, once famed for industries such as coal mining and shipbuilding, is back on the map as a major world player – this time in life sciences and its thanks in no small part, to the work happening at Life.

Based in the centre of Newcastle, the Centre for Life is a science village where almost 600 people from 35 countries work: researchers, doctors and nurses work alongside people in the fields of education, public engagement and business.

Linda Conlon, Chief Executive of the Centre for Life, said: ‘Life is quite unique. It is the only place in the world which brings together researchers, clinicians, business people and educationalists on a single site. What unites us is a passion for science, for helping people to lead better, healthier lives and to understand the fast moving science and technology that drives so much of our world today.’

Life’s aim is to ignite and nurture a curiosity in everyone for science, technology, engineering and maths and encourage the next generation of STEM professionals.

Alastair Balls, Chairman of the Centre for Life, said: “From the outset, our goal has been to make a positive economic, social and cultural contribution to North East England and its communities. Visitors come from all over the world to find out about our model and how it works. International experts want to work on site at Newcastle University and the NHS because Life has a reputation for pioneering research which hits the headlines on a regular basis.”

Life is an independent and self-sustaining charitable trust. It does not receive public funding yet has flourished to become a jewel in the region’s crown – a city-centre life sciences village of international repute, leading the way in terms of scientific collaboration, communication and medical breakthroughs.

Over the last 12 months, the Centre has continued to make headlines, attracting international acclaim for its latest successes. Highlights include:

  • Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine (IGM), based at Life, was named as one of three pilot centres in the government-funded 100,000 genomes project which aims to bring the predicted benefits of genetically-tailored treatment to NHS patients across the UK. The Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, recently visited the site to meet with patients and staff involved in this pioneering project. During his visit Mr Hunt said: “I am proud to be here in Newcastle to announce the first diagnosis in the world in this groundbreaking project. This is a great moment.” "The Prime Minister feels that genetic research is going to be as significant for humanity as the internet has been for us and for our lives.”

  • In February, IVF-based mitochondrial replacement therapies received overwhelming support in both Houses of Parliament meaning that the pioneering treatment, developed by Newcastle University researchers based at Life, could be used as early as next year to enable children to be born free on mitochondrial disease.
  • Life announced an ambitious collaborative learning and research partnership with Northumbria University. The two institutions collaborate on several projects including an MSc in Science Communication and Think Physics, a ‘cradle-to-career’ project aimed at using physics to inspire young people, particularly young women to take up STEM subjects at school and beyond. Northumbria University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Wathey said: “Our partnership not only recognises the unique contribution that both organisations make to Newcastle and the North East’s engagement with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) but also serves as the basis for a continuing programme of activity that reinforces Life’s mission to be the best place in the UK for enthusing and engaging everyone in science.”
  • Life Science Centre attracted unprecedented visitor numbers driven by the world-renowned BODY WORLDS Vital exhibition. Linda Conlon said: “Over 300,000 people visited the Science Centre and the reaction to BODY WORLDS Vital was phenomenal. It attracted new audiences and provided a fantastic opportunity to showcase our other offers such as the planetarium.” At the time of the exhibition’s opening Dr. Angelina Whalley, Curator and Designer of the BODY WORLDS exhibitions, said: “I’m struck by the synergy, symmetry and poetry of having the trailblazing science of plastination that unveils the keenly intelligent human body, presented at Life, the pioneering science village. Our mission dovetails with that of Life - to engage visitors and ignite an interest in the life sciences.”
  • In November, Newcastle University launched the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre which represents the culmination of more than 50 years of excellence in muscular dystrophy research and care at Newcastle University and in the Newcastle Hospitals. The new research centre will help to improve the University’s cutting-edge work to better understand muscle disease, so improving care and treatment for patients. In March, Professor Kate Bushby, head of the Centre, received the 2015 EURORDIS Scientific Award for her research into rare inherited genetic conditions.
  • Life Science Centre secured funding of £425,000 from the Biffa Award scheme to develop a new ‘one of a kind’ science laboratory where visitors step into the shoes of scientists and carry out real experiments.
  • The Centre’s education department, which delivers Europe’s most extensive programme of science workshops for schools, delivered its biggest number of educational experiences to date (45,000) with demand for its outreach activity doubling.

Professor Patrick Chinnery, Director of Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine, based at Life, said: “It has been an exceptional year for the Institute. Newcastle University and NHS researchers were at the forefront globally, underpinning the recent change in legislation for mitochondrial transfer, and announcing the first patients diagnosed through the 100,000 genomes project with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt."

Andrew Hodgson, Chief Executive at SMD and a Life. He said: “The life sciences research undertaken at ICFL is truly world class. Bringing this together with the education and public aspects creates a unique and truly inspirational experience. It is a great honour to be involved with the team to ensure the centre continues to be at the forefront of life sciences for our generation and beyond.”

Life does not receive government funding or subsidies, it meets its operating costs through a range of commercial income-generating activities including property rental, a thriving conference and banqueting business, car park and cafés along with an annual outdoor ice rink.

Linda Conlon added: “The Centre has been self-sustaining from day one. Operating independently means we can explore creative ways to raise funds. This is why we have bars and a nightclub on site. Not only are they important sources of revenue, but they also help present a friendly, welcoming face. The last impression we want to give is of a place where only clever, white-coated scientists are welcome. We are about making science accessible and relevant to everybody and not just the already converted.”

Topping off a successful year, staff are now working with international experts to develop an exhibition exploring the brain having secured a Capital Award of £600,000 from the world’s leading medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust.

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