Research must extend links with medical practice

January 8, 1999

British medical researchers have much to celebrate. They have a Medical Research Council that seems to understand their needs (page 26); a host of research charities funding their work, including one, the Wellcome Trust, on a par with America's big foundations; and a substantial pharmaceuticals industry that is keen to fund them and to take up their discoveries. Even politicians love them.

In recent years, UK medical research has been on dodgy ground. It costs money, and funding has to be sustained. Creating centres such as those in Dundee (page 28) and Cambridge has swallowed funds for which there is heavy competition. Their success is a victory for enthusiasts of research concentration, but it has been bought at a price in other areas.

Now, with money a little freer, Wellcome and the MRC's George Radda seem to agree that the next stage is to build on human genome research to turn knowledge into practical medicine. Radda is right that the first priority is talented people. But they need somewhere to work if we are not, as in the past, simply to train them for the US market. Something like Wellcome's planned Cambridge genome campus is essential.

The UK has one under-appreciated advantage that at least in part accounts for the superiority of our medical research: the National Health Service, one of the world's biggest medical purchasers and a huge test-bed for new developments. As Sir John Walker showed in 1997, getting the ingenuity of British biomedical scientists recognised by such experts as the Nobel prize committee for chemistry is excellent. But it is essential that the links between medical academics and the health service are not eroded. Michael Powell (right) notes that there is caution among medical academics about more clinical teaching migrating to local clinics. But given the close links between medical teaching and research, this change should provide an opportunity to open up a route for research to influence medical practice. Not only do we need to reap the economic benefits of the UK's research excellence, taxpayers should also benefit as patients from the research they fund.

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