HOK, Rafael Viñoly Architects and NBBJ are understood to be the last three practices in the race to design a controversial £500m “superlab” in central London.

It is understood that the three were selected from a list of 11, which included practices such as Grimshaw, Hopkins Architects, RMJM and Sheppard Robson.

The winner will design the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI), which has sparked controversy among locals who fear it may be used for biological research.

A source said: “The shortlist makes sense. You have the flair, in Viñoly, and two practices – NBBJ and HOK – that have experience of this type of large project.”

Although NBBJ is a relative newcomer to the UK market, it has designed several large hospitals in its native US. HOK also has experience of large-scale medical projects, such as the Barts and The London hospital.

NBBJ and HOK have experience of this type of large project

Source close to the scheme

Viñoly’s practice is familiar with such projects, having just completed the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, US.

The UKCMRI, to be built on 3.4 acres of land next to St Pancras station, will be the eventual home of four partners – the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and University College London. It is due to open in 2013.

Its stated role will be to research cures for cancer, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and influenza, but it is feared that the MRC will move its Mill Hill biohazard laboratory into the centre.

The MRC has denied it will be studying dangerous viruses such as ebola and SARS at the UKCMRI.