26th October 2004

Top Award to Sanger Scientist

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award Lecture

Dr Richard Durbin delivers the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award Lecture

Top Award to Sanger Scientist - Dr Richard Durbin delivers the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award Lecture

Dr Richard Durbin delivered the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award Lecture on 26 October 2004. The Award is made each year to "a person who has applied science and technology for the benefit of society." Previous recipients include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the "father of the internet", James Dyson, the inventor of the cyclone vacuum cleaner, and Tim Smit, the Chief Executive of the Eden Project.

Dr Durbin's citation by The Foundation for Science and Technology states that the award has been made for "his development of software to allow the global research community to access genome sequences in a convenient and efficient way".

The development of the Human Genome Project - the international effort to write out the chemical letters in human DNA - resulted in a massive production of DNA sequence as the three billion letters were copied. There was a desperate need to make sense of these data and to provide efficient internet methods to allow researchers access.

One of the most important tenets of the HGP was that all the information in our shared genome should be available to all for free and without restriction. That ethic posed huge difficulties for the teams led by Dr Durbin as they sorted and analysed the outpouring of DNA sequence and designed new systems fulfil the ethic.

"We had worked on a similar but much smaller problem in decoding the genome of the nematode worm C. elegans, said Dr Durbin. "As we started to produce sequence, research teams around the world demanded access to the latest results as quickly as possible: those demands were echoed much more strongly with the Human Genome Project".

"Our commitment to making the human genome sequence freely available could be honoured only by developing databases and programs to deliver large amounts of searchable information to hundreds of thousands of users. That we succeeded is testimony to the efforts of teams here at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and throughout the HGP."

The human genome is equivalent to a 750,000 sheets of printed A4 paper. Buried within that are clues to our health and to disease. Genes - the sections of DNA that contain instructions to make a protein - occupy only some 1-2% of our genome.

Worse for the developers, the human genome sequence was produced as a series of working documents, each new version updating the previous and containing more and better information, much like updates to an encyclopaedia.

A huge effort was made to develop programs and databases to sort the huge amounts of DNA sequence produced, to track the changes, to store it, to assemble it into a coherent genome and to identify genes. Just as important, different research teams had different needs and aims, so finding one solution for all was a tremendous challenge.

Today, the Sanger Institute runs a suite of resources based around a common theme - called Ensembl - that brings together genome sequence, genetic information, variation information, biological information and disease information into one remarkably swift package.

For biology, a new era started with the human genome sequence. For computer biology - as with most computer solutions - solving one problem allows users to see other possibilities. Today, the demands are more intense than ever, as more genome information is acquired and as more sophisticated interpretation is layered on top.

From joining The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute when there was a handful of staff and only six computers to the 700-strong team today using thousands of computers, Dr Durbin is confident the Institute can still deliver. "We have teams that are dedicated to working for the biomedical community - to making a difference," he says. "Each new development in healthcare that uses the human genome sequence reflects the long hours and hard work by all of us in the Human Genome Project. That is quietly satisfying."

Notes to Editors

  1. Dr Richard Durbin is a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge University and one of the founder members of the Sanger Institute. He has also held carried out research at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and at Harvard and Stanford Universities in the USA.

  2. The purpose of the Foundation for Science and Technology is to provide a neutral platform for debate of policy issues that have a science, engineering or technology element.

  3. The Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award Lecture commemorates the second Chairman and first President of the Foundation the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. The Foundation makes an award each year of £2,000 to a person who has applied science and technology for the benefit of society. The award is made as near as possible to the time of benefit to society. Nominations are reviewed by a screening committee of the Presidents of The Royal Society (Lord May), The Royal Academy of Engineering (Lord Broers) and Lord Soulsby of Swaffam Prior chaired by the Rt Hon the Lord Jenkin of Roding, the Foundation's Chairman.

  4. The award winner in 2004 is Dr Richard Durbin FRS and he will deliver his Award Lecture on 26th October, 2004 at The Royal Society and afterwards will be presented with the Award. The Award has been made to Dr Durbin for his development of software to allow the global research community to access genome sequences in a convenient and efficient way.

  5. A person (or persons) worthy of the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Award should have developed a product or service:

    1. for which an outstanding benefit to society can be established;
    2. has used science or technology in an innovative way; and
    3. has integrated ideas across disciplines.

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The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which receives the majority of its funding from the Wellcome Trust, was founded in 1992. The Institute is responsible for the completion of the sequence of approximately one-third of the human genome as well as genomes of model organisms and more than 90 pathogen genomes. In October 2006, new funding was awarded by the Wellcome Trust to exploit the wealth of genome data now available to answer important questions about health and disease.

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The Wellcome Trust and Its Founder

The Wellcome Trust is the most diverse biomedical research charity in the world, spending about £450 million every year both in the UK and internationally to support and promote research that will improve the health of humans and animals. The Trust was established under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome, and is funded from a private endowment, which is managed with long-term stability and growth in mind.

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