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The UK Medical Research Council (MRC) will step up its clinical research activities, after indicating that it expects a generous share of the increase in the research budget announced by the Treasury in March.
The council's chief executive, Colin Blakemore, said that government funded clinical trials were imminent, thanks to the increased funding.
This year's comprehensive spending review by the government announced an above inflation rise of 2.7% a year until 2011 in the budget for the research councils. Exactly how much the MRC receives will not be announced until the autumn.
However, when asked if the MRC was expecting a generous proportion of the increase, the MRC's chairman, John Chisholm, said, grinning: “I would have to say that biomedical research has done very well, and I don't think there's anything for us to worry about.”
Professor Blakemore said the extra cash would be used to expand clinical and translational research, which links laboratory work to clinical studies.
His comments follow the launch in March of the MRC's six new translational medicine centres, which are based at the University of Bristol, the University of Cambridge, King's College London, Imperial College London, University College London (together with the University of Newcastle), and the University of Oxford (in partnership with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute) (BMJ 2007;334:493, 10 Mar doi: 10.1136/bmj.39146.416725.BE).
At the time of the launch he said that the new centres would form part of the MRC's efforts to slash the time taken for its pure research to translate into better care at the bedside.
Professor Blakemore said that the MRC planned to invent, develop, and market its own drugs, with or without the support of the industry, so as to speed advances against rare diseases or those that are prevalent in poor countries.
To this end, at last week's strategy briefing he announced that a groundbreaking phase II drug trial, funded jointly by the MRC and the Department of Health, was imminent.
To reduce the potentially huge costs of such a study, he said that patients would be carefully selected so that fewer were needed.
He said that the UK's licensing authority, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, had already indicated a willingness to accept this new strategy of smaller, more focused clinical trials.
The MRC is also in discussion with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry on overhauling “the monolithic clinical trials structure” that he believes is impeding progress.
Professor Blakemore also said that the MRC was holding talks with major drug companies, including Astra Zeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, on joint product developments. “We think that it can be a mutually beneficial relationship,” he said.
“Increasingly, drug companies like to take on new drugs when they've already passed through phase II trials. We can do some of these trials.”
He added: “We have to see the results of our research benefiting patients more quickly. In the past we've done the ground work but not followed it through.”
He conceded that many scientists doing pure or “blue sky” research had expressed concern that their work would be marginalised by the new focus on clinical experiments, but he insisted that they had nothing to worry about.
“It's utter nonsense to suggest that we're pulling the rug from under pure research. It forms much of the basis of what we do.” He said that budgets for pure research would not be cut.
At the briefing it was also announced that the main council would be slimmed down from 17 to 12 members, after a joint review by the MRC and Ernst and Young of its structure.