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Human interest


Meeting the high cost of human in vivo research

The Medical Research Council’s Experimental Medicine Grants open twice a year to support work that explores the causes, progression and treatment of human diseases. 

All proposals must focus on disrupting a disease or a physiological or biological system in humans, to explore how a disease progresses or develops. The problems that applicants are trying to solve may be immunological, pharmacological, physiological, psychological or infectious in nature. The next deadline is 28 April.

The council’s clinical director Patrick Chinnery, who has been a panel member for the scheme, explains how to keep bids on target.

What differentiates this scheme from others in translational medicine?

The key difference is that the focus here is on the human studies, not laboratory work—although there may be laboratory work done in support—to enhance our understanding of how human physiology and disease works.

Is this a way to move away from animal experimentation?

It’s not primarily driven by that, but that is an inevitable consequence of it. In the last decade, we have witnessed the development of technologies—sophisticated imaging techniques are a good example—that allow us to answer questions in humans in a way that we were previously unable to.

As a panel member, what makes a bid stand out to you?

There are two essentials. First, it has got to pose an exciting question, meaning that the work, if carried out, will address an important issue that will transform how we think about a particular process in a human or a particular disease. Second, it will have considered the remit. The emphasis must be on doing the work in humans, not on all the other things you might bolt on to the side of that. For example, one might take tissue samples into a lab and do a lot of exploratory work on those—that is not the emphasis of this call. The emphasis is on the actual experimental work in the human.

Beyond ignoring those points, what could lead bids to end up on the discard pile?

The bids that fail are the ones that are fundamentally observational—in other words, they are just following things over time. They are not within the remit; there are other ways of getting that kind of work funded. In this scheme you should be intervening to perturb a system, noting the effect it has and if you can validate your hypothesis about that system. 

Another potential obstacle to success is a tendency to try to keep costs down, which reduces the quality of the research. We want definitive experiments here, and they need to be properly designed. The majority of the costs need to be spent on the human in vivo work. 

The bids that did not fare well in past iterations of the scheme were those where the human in vivo work might come in at 20 per cent of the costs. Such bids will have a lot of stuff done in labs outside of that, which is all very interesting but will have rather missed the point. The emphasis must be on direct human measurement and the intervention, and we expect that to be reflected in the costs.

Do you expect most grants to come in at a certain amount?

I think most grants will come in at between £1 million and £1.5m.

Are any branches of medicine excluded from the call?

No. The key issue is that people need to identify a question that would transform the field in their space, which can only be answered by doing an experiment in humans. It could be across any branch of medicine; we are completely agnostic on that point, as we are on what kind of intervention is undertaken. 

Applicants should show that they are in a situation where there is uncertainty and a key bit of knowledge is missing which is stopping us from developing an understanding of how to tackle a disease.

Do you see these more as team or individual grants?

There is a principal applicant, but this is very different from a research associate in a lab in a university just doing all the work. Anything that involves humans involves a multidisciplinary team. A team approach to this is key to success.

Would industry partnerships be accepted?

We strongly encourage partnership with industry. We know the pharmaceutical industry sees this as a high priority, and it is something that traditionally is difficult for them to do because they don’t have direct access to people in hospitals.

Why are such experimental calls relatively uncommon?

Part of the issue is that these studies are expensive, partially because of all the regulatory issues, and partially because the experiments themselves can be expensive. There is a tendency for bids not to be competitive through standard funding mechanisms. 

By identifying a budget—the MRC is setting aside between £10m and £20m a year—we are providing a route where applicants are guaranteed to get a fair hearing for these kinds of expensive studies. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service and also appeared in Research Fortnight. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com