Laboratories move to White City: new opportunities and incredible views

As four epidemiology teams settle into their new spaces, we check in with the researchers to find out what they are up to on the White City campus.

In April this year, ground was broken at the site for the new School of Public Health building. Four of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis’ laboratories have now made the move across to Imperial’s White City Campus into the brand new space on the eleventh floor of the Michael Uren Building. Settling in over the past few weeks, the Vaccine Epidemiology Research Group, the Bacterial Evolutionary Epidemiology group, the Fungal Epidemiology Group, and the Faria Research Group have magnificent all-round views of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham from their new spaces.

Imperial’s Medical School Building at St Mary’s was home to these teams for almost 20 years. These laboratories enabled the development of some of the first applications of DNA sequencing to the epidemiology of infectious diseases, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. This is also where many early career scientists were trained, MSc and PhD studies were undertaken. The new building will enable such research and training to keep pace with the rapid advancement of genomic technologies for tracing the spread of pathogens.

Vaccines

At St Mary’s since 2004, the Vaccine Epidemiology Research Group (VERG), led by Prof Nicholas Grassly, studies the epidemiology of infectious diseases and vaccines. The focus of this team is on the epidemiology and mathematical modelling of infectious diseases and vaccination, and the development of novel laboratory methods for surveillance and sequencing of pathogens. For example, the team has developed a method for rapidly detecting poliovirus using nanopore sequencing. This enables people to identify polioviruses in clinical samples in as little as three days, where existing methods require weeks. Another method the team is developing focusses on direct detection of Salmonella Typhi and other infectious diseases in environmental samples. The lab provides training to laboratories around the world, both in person as well as remotely during the pandemic.

Prof Nicholas Grassly said: “This move brings laboratory scientists and epidemiologist together in the same space, alongside other teams with diverse interests, backgrounds and expertise. This makes for an exciting learning environment. I have really enjoyed the creative buzz that has developed following our move and I’m looking forward to our new opportunities for collaboration across the building and following the completion of the new School of Public Health.”

Fungi

Almost ten years ago, Prof Matthew Fisher founded the Fungal Epidemiology Group. This laboratory seeks to understand the drivers that underpin the global surge in fungal infections in humans, wildlife and plants. The team uses genomic epidemiology to trace the origins and spread of new pathogens as they become globalised, and to understand how these pathogens evolve resistance to control by antifungal drugs. The group’s findings have made recent headlines, revealing the origins of the chytrid fungus, which has devastated amphibian species worldwide, and highlighting for the first time the scale and potential impact of antifungal resistance. Recently, the team has been working on using metagenomics to understand the complex exposures and interactions between bacteria and fungi on our skins and in our air.

Prof Matthew Fisher said: “The new infection laboratories in the Michael Uren hub will encourage interdisciplinary interactions and synergies amongst our researchers in a manner that was not possible in our old home at St Mary’s. The birds-eye view of the Wembley Stadium arch is incredible!”

Bacteria

Dr Nicholas Croucher joined Imperial College at St Mary’s in 2013 where he has now established the Bacterial Evolutionary Epidemiology Group. The laboratory focuses on what underlies the diversity of important bacterial pathogens. Using sets of clinical isolates, selected to represent the variation found across species, the team analyses differences in key properties such as resistance to antibiotics, susceptibility to vaccine-induced immunity and the pathogen’s ability to cause different diseases. Understanding these differences between bacteria, and changes with DNA sequence variation, is crucial to understand current bacterial epidemiology and how bacteria are likely to evolve in the future.

Dr Nicholas Croucher said: “The new labs are a great way of bringing together groups with expertise in the genetics, epidemiology and microbiology of different types of pathogens. Though I will miss the reassuring rumble of the Circle Line beneath my desk, it’s nice to have a bit more sunlight, and space to work with other scientists. We look forward to welcoming the rest of the School soon!”

Virus genomic epidemiology

Amidst the COVID-19 response, Dr Nuno Faria joined Imperial in 2020 to set up his Virus Genomic Epidemiology Group (VGE) at White City. The team work focuses on bridging evolutionary and epidemiological insights on virus transmission patterns through multidisciplinary approaches. For example, the group worked on the origins of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and helped setting up mobile real-time sequencing laboratories in Brazil and Angola during the Zika pandemic. The CADDE project led by Dr. Faria has recently identified the first SARS-CoV-2 cases in Latin America. In addition, the team identified the origins and epidemiological characteristics of the Gamma variant in the Brazilian Amazon.

Dr Nuno Faria said: “We are excited for the opportunity to join such a thriving environment at the School of Public Health. Through collaborations within Imperial and national and international policy makers our focus is to strengthen capacity to prepare for, and respond to, current and future outbreaks of emerging and re-emerging viruses, and to deliver scientific research that can inform public health decisions”.

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