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Professor Paul Riley will lead the scientific vision of the first institute of its kind in the world to physically merge the disciplines of developmental biology and regenerative medicine in a common goal to treat some of the world’s most prolific diseases.

A profile of Paul Riley, and an image of the IDRM building.

The University of Oxford’s newly established Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine (IDRM) is a unique flagship institution dedicated to meeting an ambitious challenge. Two thirds of all deaths world-wide are due to non-communicable diseases, many of which are cardiovascular, neurological or immune system disorders that have a developmental origin, representing an urgent unmet clinical need. Professor Paul Riley has been appointed Director of the IDRM to oversee programmes that will lead to the development of new drugs and therapeutic strategies to tackle these chronic illnesses. Notably, this will be brought about through a formal merger of developmental biology and regenerative medicine in the form of 220 world-leading cardiovascular, neuroscience and immunology researchers integrating their expertise to foster multidisciplinary collaborations. Alongside Professor Riley, the primary investigators will be Professor Georg A P Holländer (Hoffmann and Action Medical Research Professor of Paediatrics) and Professor Matthew Wood (Professor of Neuroscience).

To meet the clinical objective, Professor Riley will oversee the implementation of four key goals. First, to further our understanding of the cellular and molecular processes that control normal development of the heart, brain and immune system. Second, to get to the bottom of what causes both congenital disease and increased susceptibility for disease acquired in adulthood. Third, to identify therapeutic targets to reactivate resident cells and repair the adult heart, brain and immune tissues following disease or injury. And finally, to establish new therapeutic strategies designed to replace and restore damaged tissues arising from birth defects or acquired adult injury and disease. The scientific programmes at the IDRM will combine experimental and computational biology with machine learning and mathematical modelling, working across disciplines with University colleagues in Big Data, Target Discovery, Maths and Biomedical Engineering. Clinical translation of cell-based therapies will be achieved by working with clinicians at the John Radcliffe and Churchill Hospitals in Oxford.

Professor Paul Riley is the Chair of Developmental and Cell Biology and BHF Professor of Regenerative Medicine at the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG). Understanding the development of the heart during pregnancy is the Riley lab’s first principle to inform on adult heart repair and regeneration. His team focus on exploiting the full regenerative potential of activated epicardial cells and lymphatic vessels to identify new therapeutic targets for repairing the hearts of patients suffering from cardiovascular disease. In 2008, Professor Riley was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Council on Basic Sciences for the landmark discovery that a protein called Thymosin beta-4 could mobilise dormant cells from adult epicardium to form new blood vessels in the heart, a major step towards finding a DIY mechanism to repair injury following a heart attack. His team have a track record of challenging dogma in the scientific world with innovative ideas on the heart’s healing process and breakthrough discoveries in support of these. They were the first to demonstrate that the lymphatic vessels of the heart respond to injury and can be manipulated to clear immune cells to improve outcome after a heart attack. Earlier this year, his team uncovered for the first time a direct role for immune cells called macrophages in creating the scar that repairs the heart after damage, which upended the long-standing concept that only myofibroblasts contribute to this scar and revealed a new target for efficient replacement of lost cardiac tissue.

Head of the Medical Sciences Division Professor Gavin Screaton said: “I am delighted to welcome Professor Riley as Director of the IDRM. Having made lasting impacts on both our understanding of the development of the cardiovascular system and the treatment of heart disease through award-winning research, his leadership of the IDRM will now shape and influence our national science policy. He also has a proven track record in public engagement through his extensive work with the British Heart Foundation, which perfectly places him to inspire the general public to participate in IDRM’s research programmes. Ultimately, Professor Riley’s directorship will help secure the opportunities we need to translate the IDRM’s research into tangible benefits for human health.”

Professor Georg Holländer said: “I am delighted that this new Oxford Institute has found in Paul an excellent scientist to be its first director. Paul has been instrumental from the start in developing and promoting the unique concept of IDRM. Advances in post-genomic technologies, high-throughput analytical techniques, imaging, bioinformatics and disease modelling provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand the links between biological development, and human health. This knowledge builds the important basis of the Institute’s aims to design and develop new therapies. I have no doubt that the Institute will be thriving under Paul’s leadership and I very much look forward to this new Oxford Institute with its worldwide unique scientific concept."

Professor Riley said: “It is truly an honour and a privilege to assume the inaugural Directorship of the Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine. The IDRM has been a long-term vision and aspiration which will transform the local, national and international landscape in regenerative medicine.  I am indebted to senior colleagues at the University, major donors and the British Heart Foundation for bringing the new Institute to fruition and now look forward to establishing an environment to nurture scientific talent and foster world-leading interdisciplinary research programmes, culminating in new treatments for birth defects and acquired disease.”

Following his appointment, Professor Riley gave a special interview outlining plans for the IDRM going forward, why its work is so critical and what the major challenges will be in the months and years ahead.