In search of the superbugs

Funders are pledging £16.5m in the highly topical field of applied infection research, reports Zoe Corbyn

March 27, 2008

From finding out what makes hospitals a safe haven for "superbugs" to examining whether face masks prevent flu, applied infection research is a hot topic for science funders as well as for politicians.

Millions of pounds in funding in the field will be made available from early next year.

The funding is the second wave of cash to flow from the "translation infection research initiative", announced last June. This has seen the seven major funders of infection research in the UK join forces to commit £16.5 million to research that helps to deal with the health threats posed by viruses and bacteria.

"A number of funders recognised there was a weakness (particularly in bacteriology) so we got together to see what we could do," said Peter Dukes, the head of the infections and immunity research management group at the Medical Research Council. The MRC manages the initiative on behalf of the other funders - the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the health departments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the Wellcome Trust.

The focus of the funding is on translating basic science into what is applicable to the clinic. "It doesn't rule basic scientists out - it just connects them into the more applied side," said Dr Dukes. "The MRC got a large increase in its budget through the comprehensive spending review. A lot of that is about strengthening translational research and this (initiative) is very much part of that overall thrust."

The bulk of the initiative's funding is earmarked for "consortium grants" where consortia of experts from universities, public health laboratories and hospitals (and industry where appropriate) bid to undertake the research. "We are looking for consortia that will connect expertise and pull it around big problems," said Dr Dukes, adding that the overall plan, based on the current budget, is to fund three or four grants of around £4 million to £5 million.

So far, a first call for proposals has been issued, which closed last October, and three bids are currently being evaluated, with the winners to be announced at the end of June. But there is also a second call scheduled to open in January 2009, which funders are keen to alert potential bidders to - although exactly how much money will be available is to be revealed only along with the winners of the first call.

"We decided not to halve the £16.5 million between the calls but wait and see what comes through from the first and roll the remainder over," explained Dr Dukes. "But if funders see some good-quality proposals they may well consider adding to the pot available for the second call."

For those interested, Dr Dukes's tip is to involve industry. "The slight disappointment is that none of the current consortia has made much of an engagement with industry. We would be very keen that natural collaborations with industry - not forced or pretend ones - featured more strongly in the second."

Competing for funding under the second call will undoubtedly be the winners of "strategy development grants"; a second strand of the funding initiative. Worth £50,000 each and lasting nine months, five grants were awarded at the end of last year (there are no plans to offer more) to help develop promising proposals into consortium grant bids.

"The strategic development grant is getting the right people in the taxi and deciding where it should go whereas the consortia grant is getting the taxi off and running," said Dr Dukes, although he stressed that a strategic development grant is not needed to apply for a consortium grant and new consortia should certainly not be put off.

The small grants awarded offer an insight into the types of research that consortia are considering.

One project - led by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) with Keele University, University College London and the University of Birmingham - wants to strengthen research into how doctors prescribe antibiotics. The aim is to help reduce the number of prescriptions and minimise antimicrobial resistance.

Another project led by Birmingham and the HPA centres on preventing the superbug MRSA from occurring in hospitals. "The award will prepare the ground for a consortium proposal aiming to identify what does and what doesn't work well in MRSA infection control," according to its brief.

Yet another is to develop a research programme to look at the effectiveness of surgical face masks in preventing influenza transmission. "The absence of a coherent body of research evidence ... is a major block to definitive policy and practical guidance," explains its brief. Yet another wants to develop cheap and easy-to-use kits to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases.

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