British Medical Research Council launches six new translational medicine centres

London 03 March 2007The Medical Research Council (MRC) is investing more than fifteen million pounds in creating six new research centres to enable scientific research to improve human health more quickly and efficiently. The centres are aimed at translating discoveries into new drugs, therapies, diagnostic tools or methods of prevention; or using clinical knowledge to inform fundamental research priorities.


The centres will focus on transplant medicine, obesity, neuromuscular diseases, genomics and global health, analysis and modelling of disease outbreaks, and the molecular causes and indicators of disease. They 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. The total MRC investment in these centres over the next five years will be GBP15,5 million.

The MRC's chief executive Colin Blakemore stated: "A central feature of the MRC's work is to facilitate the translation of the United Kingdom's excellent medical science as quickly as possible into effective new therapies and health care policies. These centres will be led by six scientists with visionary strategies for translation. An integral part of their plans is the exploitation and implementation of their findings as their research develops."

The Directors of the new MRC translational medicine centres are:

  • Professor George Davey-Smith, Director of the MRC Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology, University of Bristol.
  • Professor Mike Hanna, Director of the MRC Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases, Institute of Neurology, University College London and University of Newcastle.
  • Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski, Director of the MRC Centre for Genomics and Global Health, University of Oxford and Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
  • Professor Steve O'Rahilly, Director of the MRC Centre for Obesity and Related Metabolic Diseases, University of Cambridge.
  • Professor Steven Sacks, Director of the MRC Centre for Transplantation, King's College London.
  • Professor Neil Ferguson, Director of the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling Imperial College London.

The MRC Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology will apply knowledge from genetic analyses to large-scale studies of the health of the population. These investigations will aim to find the factors that are causing disease, which can then be influenced to reduce risk.

Establishing links between risk factors and the development or progression of diseases determines the best ways to prevent and treat them. However traditional techniques have been unable to work out what is actually causing the disease because there are so many potential risk factors. The centre will aim to tackle this problem by applying new molecular-based methods for identifying the causes of disease. This approach requires scientists from across several disciplines to work and learn together.

"Conventional study of patterns of disease has made important contributions to understanding their causes. A notable example is the work pioneered by Sir Richard Doll that identified the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, heart disease and other health problems. Those findings have already saved millions of lives. This centre aims to take this type of work into the 21st century, making full use of the wealth of data and methods we now have at our fingertips", stated Professor George Davey Smith.

The MRC Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases will be the first United Kingdom translational research centre for the study of disabling diseases such as muscular dystrophy. The centre is based at the Institute of Neurology at University College London in collaboration with the Institute of Child Health and the University of Newcastle. It will take full advantage of the largest United Kingdom neuromuscular patient populations at the affiliated NHS hospitals. Its mission is to translate basic science findings into clinical trials and new treatments for neuromuscular diseases.

Research programmes at the centre will cover all major diseases of muscle and peripheral nerves. They will include the study of the molecular processes that occur in muscular dystrophy; research into neuromuscular disease related to ion channels or mitochondrial dysfunction; and investigation of muscle stem cells, genetic neuropathies, and spinal muscular atrophy. The researchers at the centre will also conduct clinical trials of potential new therapies and apply new MRI techniques to monitor disease.

This combined approach will aim to answer questions about the pathophysiology of common neuromuscular disorders and improve the likelihood of translation of scientific findings into patient benefits. The centre will also have major education and training activities to develop the translational neuromuscular scientists of the future.

"Although there have been impressive advances in understanding the molecular basis of many neuromuscular diseases, this has not yet been translated into clear patient benefit or new treatments. We have identified a number of key obstacles to delivering these translational benefits and the centre aims to specifically address each of them. By uniting an impressive team of experts in London and Newcastle, we are hoping to make progress in tackling these diseases", stated Professor Mike Hanna.

One of the great medical challenges is to reduce the massive burden of disease in the developing world due to malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other infections. The emergence of new forms of drug resistance and difficulty producing effective vaccines are major hurdles to disease prevention. Revolutionary advances in genome research provide unprecedented opportunities to overcome these hurdles through the discovery of natural mechanisms of protective immunity and by identifying the molecular tricks employed by parasites and microbes to evade the human immune system and resist drugs.

The MRC Centre for Genomics and Global Health aims to exploit these new opportunities by integrating state-of-the-art genome research methods into large-scale studies of disease in affected populations. It will link together research programmes in infectious diseases, epidemiology, genomics, statistics and computational biology at Oxford University, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programmes in Kenya and southeast Asia, and the MRC Laboratories in Gambia.

Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski stated: "New DNA sequencing technologies enable us to increase the amount of genomic data on infectious diseases by orders of magnitude over the next decade. Our mission is to build a global data-sharing network that will empower clinical researchers to make effective use of this vast amount of information and to translate it into applications of practical relevance for global health."

Obesity is one of the greatest health problems facing the United Kingdom in the 21st century. Its impact on the nation's health has been compared to that of smoking. One of the clearest links between obesity and ill health is its impact on insulin resistance and diabetes. The MRC Centre for Obesity and Related Metabolic Diseases aims to increase our understanding of the fundamental causes of obesity and how it is related to insulin resistance, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It will complement other MRC research into obesity, helping to speed the translation of findings into better treatment and prevention of these diseases.

The centre will exploit existing links between clinical and basic research at the University of Cambridge, relevant MRC units within the Cambridge area, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Oxford University. It will be located alongside the MRC Epidemiology Unit in the new Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge.

"We want this centre to become a world leader for translational research into obesity, improving our understanding of its causes and consequences. The scientists we are bringing together here come from a variety of areas within biomedical research. We also have strong links with the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and food industries. This centre will enhance these interactions to ensure that any breakthroughs in our understanding of the disease are rapidly translated into improvements in human health", stated Professor O'Rahilly.

The United Kingdom faces a transplant crisis. More than 6000 patients are currently waiting for new organs and this number continues to grow. The MRC Centre for Transplantation will consider ways to overcome the lack of available organs suitable for transplantation, increase the long-term acceptance of transplants and address the rejection issues raised by potential stem cell treatments.

More specific manipulation of the inflammatory and immune systems will increase the number of donor organs that can be used. It will reduce premature failure of transplanted organs and reliance on immunosuppressant drugs, which can have bad side effects. The centre has set itself a number of targets. It aims to develop new ways to pre-treat donor organs and to conduct clinical trials of these methods. It will also investigate and develop clinicalgrade cell therapies to promote long-term graft acceptance without immunosuppressant therapies. The centre will develop new imaging methods for visualising and monitoring the immune system and refine ways to evaluate the biological indicators that help predict transplantation outcome. Looking to the future, it will formulate strategies to tackle immune rejection of stem cell-based therapies.

The centre will work in close collaboration with Guy's and St. Thomas's Hospitals, King's College Hospital and the King's College Centre of Medical Law and Ethics. "By bringing together a wide range of expertise in basic and clinical research at a single centre, we hope to facilitate more rapid and effective solutions to the problems associated with transplantation", stated Professor Steven Sacks.

SARS and H5N1 avian influenza have recently highlighted the need to improve our readiness for new epidemics. Understanding how best to control epidemics using public health measures, travel restrictions, drugs and vaccines is therefore critically important. The MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling will make this the core of its mission. Centre researchers will employ mathematical modelling and statistical analysis, working closely with public health organisations around the world.

Based at Imperial College London, the Centre will also involve staff at the United Kingdom Health Protection Agency. All eight senior scientists at the centre are world leaders in epidemic modelling and have extensive experience of advising governments and international agencies on the control of a wide range of diseases, including avian flu, SARS, polio, HIV, BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. The centre will build on this experience and provide the infrastructure to establish long-term relationships with public health bodies around the world. It will undertake both long-term research and applied "rapid-response" work. An important first project will be the development of the first global epidemic simulator platform.

"This MRC centre has the potential to make a real difference in the world's capacity to plan for and respond to new epidemics and pandemics. It will develop methods to help public health agencies use limited data to project the impact of an emerging epidemic and optimise control efforts", stated Professor Neil Ferguson.

Leslie Versweyveld

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