Medical research funding could swell by Pounds 60 million a year if the Wellcome Trust's sale of its shares in the Wellcome drug company to Glaxo goes ahead. Trust funding could reach that of the Medical Research Council, raising questions about the power balance.
This week the Wellcome Trust, a research charity that owns 39.5 per cent of the drug company Wellcome plc, agreed to accept Glaxo's Pounds 9.4 billion bid for Wellcome.
The trust could make Pounds 3.5 billion from the sale, of which Pounds 1 billion would be in cash and the rest would be shares in the merged company, provisionally called Glaxo Wellcome. This year the trust is expected to have spent Pounds 156 million on medical research. The Medical Research Council spent Pounds 246 million last year.
The prospect is welcome in the medical research world, but there are fears about balance, for example because the trust will not fund cancer or Aids research. There is also no guarantee that the money would be spent in the United Kingdom. The trust has recently spent Pounds 400 million on the Burroughs-Wellcome centre in the United States.
Nicholas Wright, director of clinical research at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said: "It's always dismayed us to some extent that the Wellcome Trust will not fund cancer research. I would have thought that if there are large amounts of money to be spent then they would want to think again. The Cancer Research Campaign is turning away alpha-rated research because of lack of money."
Diana Garnham, of the Association of Medical Research Charities, said that the money could make a "significant impact". But she warned against universities seeing it as a solution to problems such as overhead costs. "The Wellcome Trust, with the best will in the world, won't solve the problems."
Colin Dollery, dean of medicine at London University, said: "It will mean that the trust has immense power. When you are that size the decisions you make about big initiatives do shape the whole national research arena. It will have to behave almost as if it is a Government agency. But I have every reason to believe that they will behave responsibly."
There are fears that the merging of the two companies, with resulting redundancies, could have a damaging effect on the employment of British science graduates. Professor Dollery said: "I have been worried that the centre of gravity of research has moved to the US. Both Glaxo and Wellcome have research centres in North Carolina. I sincerely hope that the focus will not move there."