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Experimental Medicine Challenge Grants: Discovery science in humans



The Experimental Medicine Challenge Grants (EMCG) initiative supports ambitious programmes of research into disease pathophysiology, conducted in humans. MRC seeks to generate new and deeper understanding of human disease mechanisms and identification of potential new therapeutic targets, so accelerating translation of basic science to impact on patient health.

Advances in non-invasive techniques such as medical imaging, combined with powerful ‘omics technologies, now allow us to approach the human as the ultimate experimental animal for improving human health. Doing so has the potential to dramatically increase the speed and efficiency by which medical discoveries are translated into healthcare.

Experimental medicine is a broad term and refers to “investigation undertaken in humans, relating where appropriate to model systems, to identify mechanisms of pathophysiology or disease, or to demonstrate proof-of-concept evidence of the validity and importance of new discoveries or treatments.”

The deadline for outline applications for this call is 31 May 2018.

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Aims and remit

EMCG will fund studies which address the biggest gaps in our understanding of the causes and progression of human disease and which will produce major new mechanistic insights, with potential application to new therapeutic or diagnostic approaches and opportunities for “reverse translation” to basic research.

Applications should aim to produce major improvements in the understanding of human disease mechanisms, and must be:

Challenge-led: As well as addressing “challenging” research questions, all proposals must involve an experimental intervention or “challenge” in humans, perturbing the system to explore disease mechanism. A challenge may be pharmacological, immunological, physiological, psychological, infectious etc.

Human-focused: The focus should be on understanding human disease through experimental investigation in humans. While projects may include a small element of non-human work (if informed by or informing the work in humans), the focus of the project should be on human participants.

Ambitious and innovative: Proposals should address important medical questions in new ways. Proposals should be sufficiently ambitious and demanding to warrant funding through this scheme rather than through standard research grant support. Proposals may use novel readouts or technologies.

Experiment-driven: Proposals should be structured around an experiment designed to address a mechanistic question with a clear plan for establishing causal relationships and mechanisms. Proposals may include the use of drugs, other interventions or measures with established safety profiles in new settings/conditions. e.g. repurposing drugs as tool compounds to probe disease mechanism.

Hypothesis-led/defining/refining: EM is more than hypothesis-free characterisation, and is more exploratory than hypothesis-testing confirmatory work. EM is more than just data collection: proposals may include, but should not solely focus on, deep characterisation/phenotyping of subjects.

Exemplar case studies of previous awards are described on the EMCG Case Studies web page

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Funding available

The EMCG scheme will support a range of award scales, from smaller, focused, more exploratory and highly innovative projects (based e.g. on an intellectually sound hypothesis but perhaps lacking extensive pilot data), to large programmatic awards based on a more substantial platform of evidence. 

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MRC-Industry Asset Sharing Initiative

Applicants are encouraged to explore collaboration with industry to facilitate the above experimental approach (however this is not mandatory; please see the Guidance for Applicants for more information on industry partnerships).  Opportunities also exist through the MRC-Industry Asset Sharing initiative.

MRC is working with a number of industry partners (including AstraZeneca, GSK, J&J, Pfizer, Takeda and UCB) to provide researchers access to their deprioritised compounds. This virtual library of compounds available to support experimental medicine studies, and for use in the Experimental Medicine Challenge Grants competition. 

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The normal MRC eligibility rules apply; please see the applicants’ handbook. Please also ensure that you read the terms and conditions governing MRC grants.

Research council units and institutes and university units can apply to this scheme.

Research proposals that are led by commercial entities are not eligible. Applications may, however, include collaborations with commercial parties under the MRC Industry Collaboration Agreement (MICA) framework. 

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Application process and deadlines

There is a two-stage application process: an outline application followed by a full application (by invitation only).

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Outline applications

The deadline for outline applications is 31 May 2018. Your proposal must be submitted through the Je-S system by 4pm UK time on this date. Please allow sufficient time for your administrative authority to approve/process your application before this deadline.

The purpose of the outline application is to ascertain the following:

  • Fit to EMCG call remit
  • Rationale & potential
  • Research strategyQuality and skills of the research team & environment Outline applications should be submitted using the Challenge Grants Outline Form, which should be uploaded as the Case for Support document type, in addition to the information required by the Je-S system. 

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Full applications

If successful at outline stage, applicants will be invited to submit full applications which will be sent out for international peer review and assessed by an independent review panel convened by the MRC. This panel will make the final funding decisions. The deadline for full applications will be in November 2018 (exact date tbc), with decisions in February 2019 (exact date tbc). The full application form will be provided to applicants following the outline stage decision.

Full proposals will be assessed on the standard criteria for an MRC research grant, in addition to the following EMCG criteria:

  • Fit to the call remit: Is the proposal within remit?
  • Rationale & potential impact: Is there a strong scientific rationale for the project? Does the proposal address an important, clearly-articulated and tractable gap in understanding? Is the proposal likely to lead to major improvements in understanding of human disease mechanisms? Is there an appropriate level of evidence to support the proposed rationale? Is it sufficiently ambitious and/or innovative/challenging to warrant funding through this scheme rather than through standard research grant support? 
  • Research strategy: Is an appropriate experimental scientific strategy presented to address the research question? Have the investigators chosen a suitable range of approaches to deliver new insights, and do the individual strands of work reinforce each other? Do the initial phases of the work proposed give confidence in the project?
  • Quality and skills of the research team: Are these appropriate to deliver the proposed research? 
  • Research environment & infrastructure: Is the required research and/or clinical infrastructure in place? Do the applicants plan to make use of NIHR’s Biomedical Research Centres (BRCs), patient cohorts or other established infrastructure across the UK?
  • Experimental design and statistical considerations: Have the applicants described a clear experimental design with appropriate statistics for the conduct and analysis of the research?  Are appropriate staff involved to support this?
  • Risk mitigation & management: Projects that explore new areas will involve scientific risk that results are not as anticipated; EMCG can accommodate this. Are there appropriate plans in place for risk mitigation and management, including milestones or stage-gates if appropriate? 

Please note that MRC reserves the right to amend the review process in the case of high demand  For more information, please see the detailed EMCG Guidance for Applicants page and detailed EMCG FAQs

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Key dates

Outline application

Je-S open for outline application submission 3 April 2018
Closing date for outline applications 31 May 2018 (4pm UK time)
Panel review July/ August 2018


Full application stage

Je-S open for full applications  September 2018
Closing date for full applications  November 2018

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You should contact the MRC Programme Manager for Experimental Medicine, Dr Rebecca Barlow, before submission of an outline: Tel: 0207 395 2204

For other queries please contact: 

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