Sir Dai Rees obituary | Medical research
As its head from the late 1980s, the research scientist Sir Dai Rees, who has died aged 85, revolutionised the way the Medical Research Council (MRC) interacted with industry. In this respect, he was a visionary: he understood the importance of a successful interface between basic research and industry, including its impact on attracting public funds.
Under his leadership, centres were established with strong industrial links, with the aim of encouraging the practical application of MRC research and inventions. The work of these centres contributed to the development of the “blockbuster” Keytruda antibody for cancer treatment, and of the world’s top-selling pharmaceutical drug, the antibody Humira, which treats rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Dai’s pioneering approach stemmed from his own research as a polysaccharide chemist in the 60s, which had attracted the interest of the food industry. The attraction was mutual – Dai saw companies such as Unilever as repositories of fascinating observations about his field of study.
When linked together, sugars create chains or polymers (termed polysaccharides) with a remarkable range of properties. As a chemistry lecturer at Edinburgh University from 1960, Dai had been encouraged by his mentor Sir Edmund Hirst to understand these properties, tackling problems such as: “Why do hot solutions of some seaweed polysaccharides form a jelly on cooling?”
He discovered that in fibres of one of the polysaccharides, i-carrageenan, the chains form double helices, from which the answer became obvious: at higher temperatures the chains of the helix are separate, but on cooling, they come together and become randomly intermeshed through helical segments, creating a polysaccharide mesh with water trapped in the spaces (ie, a gel).
This and similar discoveries by Dai had ramifications in food processing, and in 1970, he left academia and joined Unilever Research Laboratories at Colworth House in Bedfordshire. There he developed polysaccharides to stiffen fluids, later used in Mr Whippy ice cream and instant desserts, and published a textbook, Polysaccharide Shapes (1977).
Born in Silloth, Cumberland (now Cumbria), to James Rees, a chemist, and Elsie (nee Bolam), a librarian. Dai was educated at Hawarden grammar school, in Clwyd, and went on to study chemistry at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, Gwynedd, gaining his BSc in 1956 and PhD three years later. There he met Myfanwy Parry Owen, a teacher and later a psychoanalyst; they married in 1959.
In 1980, while still at Unilever, Dai was appointed to an MRC committee to consider the future of the council’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Mill Hill, north London. The committee recommended that NIMR develop a more strategic focus and engage with “future exploitation in medical care or in British industry”. In 1982, and to his surprise, Dai was offered the directorship of NIMR to implement the recommendations he had helped to shape.
As director, Dai had a low-key approach. He was naturally reserved and listened carefully before speaking or making decisions. His motto was “be like the wise tailor – think twice before you cut the cloth once”. As a research scientist, Dai had enjoyed chatting about science over drinks in the evening, and as director, he undertook informal consultations with the staff in a similar manner.
He decided to place the research programmes within four new supergroups, each with an over-arching strategic theme. In addition, he brought in new blood, and set about refurbishing laboratories and upgrading the facilities, leaving staff posts vacant to balance the books. His actions allowed the renewal and survival of NIMR during difficult financial times.
He also encouraged direct links between MRC scientists and industry, and in 1986 set up a dedicated incubator for this purpose, the MRC Collaborative Centre. Originally accommodated within NIMR, the centre shifted to an adjacent and refurbished building in 1988.
Within a few years it had grown to an enterprise employing more than 50 scientists. The centre charged industry for the services it provided, one of which was the “humanising” of mouse antibodies, a technology invented at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. Four of the antibodies created at Mill Hill for pharmaceutical companies were later approved for marketing, including Keytruda. Indeed, the royalties from Keytruda currently fund the activities of LifeArc, a UK medical research charity spun from the MRC.
In 1987, Dai was appointed head of the MRC. There, in 1990, he set up the council’s first interdisciplinary research centre, the Centre for Protein Engineering (CPE), in Cambridge. He also facilitated the spinning out of the biotechnology company Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) from further inventions at the LMB and CPE. Within a few years CAT had helped create Humira.
In the mid-90s Dai was an active member of the steering group developing the government’s Technology Foresight programme, which aimed to identify and fund areas of research most likely to lead to practical application.
He was awarded the Colworth research medal of the Biochemical Society (1970) and elected fellow of the Royal Society (1981). In 1993 he was knighted. He retired from the MRC in 1996 and focused on his role as president of the European Science Foundation (1994-99).
Much of Dai’s leisure time was spent exploring inland waterways aboard Think Tank, a vintage wooden cruiser. Boating offered good birdwatching, a lifelong interest of his, and time for reading or being with family and friends.
He is survived by Myfanwy, their daughter, Olwen, two sons, Lewis and Dan, three grandsons, Lorcan, Alex and Owen, and a granddaughter, Olwen.