Wellcome gives biomedical study a £1bn injection

Charity ploughs investment returns into research in genetics and global health, writes Zoe Corbyn.

February 7, 2008

The Wellcome Trust - already the UK's largest funder of medical research - announced this week that it is to plough more than £1 billion extra into its research programme over the next five years.

Indications are that human genetics research is set for a boon, along with the trust's work on global health.

The increase - which will work out at about £130 million more per year - will, says the charity, see its spending rise from £2.5 billion in the last five years to almost £4 billion in the next (factoring in further one-off expenditures).

"It is a very large additional spend," said Mark Walport, director of the trust. "This is a really important opportunity for the Wellcome Trust to work in partnership with others to have a big impact on biomedical sciences."

The reason behind the increase in the budget includes another good year of investment return for the Wellcome Trust, which was established through an endowment that now stands at £15.1 billion. Despite what Professor Walport describes as "tough market circumstances" in 2006-07, the trust's investment portfolio rose by about 17 per cent, compared with a world standard of 11.6 per cent.

Its intention is to push up spending to about £650 million a year (it spent £520 million in 2006-07) and provide a one-off dividend of £500 million that will go towards "special projects" including the trust's contribution to the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI), a new super-laboratory earmarked for London. Professor Walport added the caveat that the figures were subject to market forces: "We are entering an extraordinarily turbulent period of the global economy and we are (operating) on a year-by-year basis, (so) if there were a major global downturn then the figure would start reducing."

So how does Professor Walport envisage the extra money being spent? "What we want to do is have an impact," he said. "We are not intending to spread the whole amount thinly."

He identified four major areas. The first is in research on human genetics, for example understanding how different genetic variants contribute to disease, a priority that he said is part of the reason for its funding the UKCMRI.

"The whole area of human genetics - where we are seeing an explosion of new knowledge - is an area where we will be spending heavily. It is good news for genetics (researchers) in general and those exploiting the knowledge base of the human genome." He added that the UK has seen a lot of money spent over the past few years on collecting detailed clinical information about the population: "It is really an exciting opportunity now for modern genetics (studies) to be applied."

The second area of interest is in strengthening research capacity in Africa by working to increase the amount and quality of science done there. "We have always been major supporters," stressed Professor Walport, pointing out that the trust funds malaria research and the fact that African scientists may apply for trust fellowships. "But there is no use in training very bright people if they then don't have first-class environments in which to work."

Professor Walport said that while the goal is African development - and therefore a lot of money will go directly to African institutions - there was scope for UK universities to tap in through partnerships with African counterparts.

"We are looking for institutional interest and commitment that we can fund," he said.

The trust also has a series of initiatives to support medical research in India, mostly focused on fellowships for scientists there, and Professor Walport also referred to neuroscience research as a fourth area that the trust is interested in exploring further.

In addition, he anticipated that general support for interdisciplinary science will rise. "The interfaces between engineering and medicine, physics and medicine, chemistry and medicine and maths and medicine are incredibly important areas in contributing to health, and we are going to have initiatives to encourage people to come in with good ideas," said Professor Walport, adding that there would also be more support to encourage "groups of scientists" to work together.

"Who should be interested in this?" asked Professor Walport. "Clever biomedical scientists who have interesting and important ideas; people who are trying to work at the interdisciplinary interface; those who are interested in translating biomedical discoveries into health benefits (the Wellcome has a new partnership with the Department of Health called the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, which will also be funded by the £500 million dividend); and those who are interested in the problems of global health ... or how the brain works." So just about every biomedical researcher, then.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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