A real fast-track procedure

A pilot scheme aims to take medical advances out of the lab and into practice more quickly, writes Zoe Corbyn

January 29, 2009

A "faster and slicker" approach to getting medical research out of the laboratory and into the surgery is being trialled by five universities.

The pilot scheme launched by the Medical Research Council aims to put universities in the driving seat by giving them autonomy over how they spend funding in a bid to further the "translation agenda".

The money will be invested in projects to develop new drugs, devices and interventions. If successful, the pilot will be rolled out more widely in summer 2010.

Declan Mulkeen, director of research at the MRC, said it was the first time that the council had taken the equivalent of an open-grant application and devolved decision- making around it to universities.

"The idea is to give universities that are committed to exploring the translational potential of their work long-term confidence that they have got money and can plan ahead," he said.

The approach falls under the remit of the Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme (DPFS), which the MRC launched last April as the flagship project for its translational research strategy. This followed extra funding from the Government to aid the translation of basic medical science into tangible benefits.

While one arm of the DPFS awards standard grants to individual researchers to take their work beyond the bench, the pilot concentrates on empowering universities.

Following an open competition in December, King's College London, the universities of Dundee, Edinburgh and Nottingham, and a partnership between Bristol and Cardiff universities were selected to take part in what is known as the DPFS devolved portfolio scheme.

They will be given the equivalent of a block grant of up to £2 million for the year to make local decisions about which translation projects to support. This will replace the usual process, which leaves choices to a central MRC committee.

However, Dr Mulkeen said the MRC is putting in place checks to ensure that the money is spent wisely.

"We will be working with the universities to make sure that they know what the competitive standards are that would be funded nationwide," he said.

Potentially a permanent fixture

If the new approach proves a success, the MRC plans to incorporate it as a permanent fixture in its grant system, with eight to ten universities involved. The model will be judged on a range of criteria, from whether the universities think it works for them, to whether individual researchers feel they are getting faster decisions, to whether the devolved portfolio is more productive.

"We will also ask whether the universities are being tough enough," Dr Mulkeen said. "We want them to be faster at starting projects but also faster at stopping them (if they are unsuccessful) and recycling the money."

He said an advantage of the approach was that it would allow for "faster and slicker" decision-making, as well as boosting universities' "core competence" in the area of translating research.

"We want universities to get better at translation and at taking those judgments as to when a project should stop and when it should change direction. If you keep all the decision-making central, you are not going to get that," he said.

He added that the pilot scheme would also allow funding decisions to be taken "on the spot when the researcher needs it" rather than having to wait for a decision.

The MRC plans to assess the pilots in the autumn, when the lessons learnt will be shared with other interested universities.

Jonathan Seckl, a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Edinburgh who will oversee Edinburgh's use of the pilot funds, said his institution had some "fantastic" translation opportunities. It was also well placed to make decisions about which projects were worth supporting, with a view to developing licences, spin-offs and deals with industry, he added.

"We are looking to produce a continuous moving (conveyor) belt on to which projects of the right calibre and potential can step, be accelerated through bottlenecks and then step off."

He said that the funding would be used to develop a team to "add value" to academic ideas: "We have enough unexploited activity to keep (them) busy for years," he said.

The grants do come with a catch, however, as they preclude the recipients from applying directly to the MRC for individual DPFS funding. Dr Mulkeen stressed, however, that translational funding streams outside the DPFS would still be open, and that a new scheme aimed at funding first-phase clinical trials, where new medicines are given to humans for the first time, could be expected in February.

The launch of the pilot scheme comes as the MRC faces increasing pressure to deliver translation outcomes. A new industry-led report on biosciences chaired by Sir David Cooksey, an engineer of the MRC translation approach, argues that more investment is needed in the UK to support technology transfer between academia and business.

"University technology transfer should be improved to ensure that research output gets commercialised," says the report, The Review and Refresh of Bioscience 2015, which was released last week.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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