The Dunn School: a world-class department for biomedical research
Written by Professor Matthew Freeman FRS FMedSci, Head of the Dunn School of Pathology
The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology (more simply, the Dunn School) is a world-class biomedical research and teaching department labouring under a rather complex and misleading name. We do no clinical pathology, and never have. Since the department’s foundation in 1927, the ‘pathology’ in our title has described a broad range of medical research, with an emphasis on fundamental mechanisms. Our current focus is the molecular and cell biology underlying human disease.
The ‘Sir William Dunn’ aspect of the name is also a bit obscure. Dunn was not a scientist but a businessman and member of parliament who bequeathed a considerable fortune to ‘relieving human suffering’. About 10 years after his death, the trustees of his estate decided that the best way of achieving that goal was to endow a department of biochemistry in Cambridge and a department of pathology in Oxford (the Cambridge Biochemistry Department no longer commonly uses the Dunn name). Given the amount of pioneering science that has come from these two departments, this was a powerful example of the significance of far-sighted philanthropy.
Despite its emphasis on basic mechanisms rather than clinical research, the Dunn School nevertheless has an extraordinary record in transforming human healthcare. Most famously, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley and their colleagues, including Ethel Florey, Margaret Jennings and the team of ‘Penicillin Girls’, isolated, purified and proved the therapeutic value of penicillin. This epoch-changing breakthrough, made during the first years of the second world war, was the pioneering achievement that led to the age of antibiotics, and has saved hundreds of millions of lives. Unsurprisingly, it is regularly selected as the most important medical breakthrough of the 20th century, and perhaps the greatest drug discovery story of all time. Florey and Chain shared the 1945 Nobel Prize with Alexander Fleming, who had first reported the antibacterial properties of penicillium mould.
But the Dunn School’s translational history does not stop at penicillin. Other highlights include the development of the first cephalosporin antibiotics in the late 1950s – still the most prescribed antibiotic class in the world – by Edward Abraham, Guy Newton and their team. Henry Harris’s discovery of cell fusion methods led directly to the development of monoclonal antibodies, the basis of the majority of newly licensed drugs in the last decade. George Brownlee’s expression of recombinant Factor IX has been used to treat some forms of haemophilia; and his expression, with Ervin Fodor, of flu virus antigens is currently the basis for annual vaccine production. Herman Waldmann has developed a monoclonal antibody, Alemtuzumab, that recognises T lymphocytes that is being used to treat leukaemia, transplantation rejection and multiple sclerosis.
As current head of the Dunn School, I contend that it is not a coincidence that a department whose primary goal is to understand the underlying biology of disease is also so translationally successful. History is clear: the revolutions that transform human health grow from basic science.
So what next? By definition, we can’t predict future breakthroughs, so our strategy is simply to recruit the very best biomedical scientists in a broad spectrum of relevant research fields, and then support their efforts. Prominent among a very large number of exciting areas, led by almost 40 group leaders from around the world, are current strengths in cancer, immunology, cell biology and microbiology. To be a little more specific about just a few exciting topics, there is much effort on DNA damage and repair, the use of stem cells in regenerative medicine, signalling pathways that control physiological and pathological processes, parasitic diseases, and
mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis and antibiotic resistance. There is of course a rather dark irony about the department that gave the world antibiotics, now having to try to solve the problems that stem from the developing resistance to antibiotics.
The Dunn School also has a major role in teaching preclinical medical students. Many readers of this newsletter will remember lectures in the department. As a personal aside, my wife Rose trained in Oxford and remembers being lectured by the then Professor of Pathology and head of department, Henry Harris. From the perspective of a nineteen year old, she remembers that he was not only intimidating but also as old as the hills. She finds it disconcerting to be now married to the Professor of Pathology and head of the Dunn School.
Beyond the preclinical medics (and undergraduates studying for the biomedical science degree), the Dunn School of course also trains both clinical and non-clinical graduate students. Whether they will become doctors with an understanding of the importance of research, or the next cohort of top biomedical scientists, our graduate students are central players in our successful research output. Equally, the postdoctoral fellows, on the next rung of the research ladder, must also be credited with doing so much of the work on which the Dunn School’s progress depends. We put a great deal of effort into ensuring that the careers of our extraordinarily diverse and multinational population of young scientists are supported.
Biomedical science is moving into a golden age. The long anticipated era when disease is treated with approaches based on a real understanding of its mechanisms has just begun. There is far to go, but the Dunn School is well placed to be as influential in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. Thanks to the generosity of far-sighted philanthropy from Dunn onwards, we are fortunate to have first class scientific facilities and modern buildings; this enhances a reputation that allows us to attract the very best students, postdocs and group leaders in the world, and an innovative and outstanding research and teaching portfolio. With our history, there is always a temptation to dwell on the past; in fact, there is a very strong case that the best of the Dunn School is yet to come.