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Research councils lay foundations for ambitious new global health research programmes
15 Dec 2016
The research councils have together announced the first phase of health research awards from the new £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). They will address issues affecting people in low and middle income countries (LMICs) using the UK’s world-class research expertise.
The MRC, AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC and NERC, are allocating over £20m to 41 short-term projects, across 39 UK research organisations, working in partnership with up to 32 different countries around the world. These will complement existing UK strengths in global health research, exploring new, more diverse opportunities, building broader multidisciplinary links and new partnerships in LMICs.
The awards focus on two areas: non-communicable disease and infection (both MRC-led). New research awards in global agriculture and food systems (BBSRC-led) will be announced early in 2017.
The awards support moderately sized, short to medium-term investments spanning diverse research specialisms. The aim is to target new, innovative and multidisciplinary research that will meet the existing or future health needs of LMICs. A principal objective will also be to strengthen LMIC/UK research partnerships in order to champion world-class research.
Declan Mulkeen, the MRC’s Chief of Strategy, said: “The five research councils involved in the Foundation Awards have been working collectively to provide new and broader approaches to meet global research challenges. It’s encouraging to see these projects tackling the broader environmental and economic factors affecting health, as well as using new technologies to bring cost-effective treatments within reach.
He added: “The MRC has a strong track record in global health research, often in partnership. Infectious disease has been the main focus and remains the largest area of funding, but as countries develop their health needs change. The Global Challenges Research Fund will enable us to tackle a broader range of health problems, for local and global benefit.
“These awards represent a significant win for global research. We hope that many of the research partnerships being supported will move on to even more ambitious work over the coming years.”
Investments made through the GCRF will address global challenges through multidisciplinary research, strengthening capability for research and innovation within both the UK and low and middle income countries.
Case study 1: Climate change and snakebite
The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine will bring together international expertise in land use, ecology and climate change to create better ways of mapping, predicting and managing snakebite in less developed countries. Venomous snakebites affect 420,000 to 1.8 million people each year, mostly poorer people and manual workers: around one in 20 die. Prevention and well-organised health care make a large difference but better insights and data are needed to target limited resources. Working initially with the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka, the team will use ecological expertise to explore how to better predict the effects of changes in climate and land use.
Case study 2: Big data in Africa
A large-scale data project in Africa aims to combine big data from population based cohort studies in order to harmonise data on risk factors for, and health outcomes associated with, non-communicable diseases such as cancers for collaborative analyses. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine will be sharing their expertise in database design and working with a number of research organisations across Africa. The research will look at mortality levels and changes related to baseline risk factors and analyses on prevalence and incidence of fatal HIV-related cancers. It will also explore sustainable funding models for future primary data collection and data pooling.
Case study 3: Exploring disease variability across countries
The University of York will be working with the universities of Sao Paulo in Brazil and Sri Jayewardenepura in Sri Lanka, and with the Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research (IPGMER) in India, to understand the variability of leishmaniasis and why current drugs fail in some patients and in some areas. The disease can be fatal and often results in significant scarring. It affects people in over 40 LMICs leading to reduction in life chances, stigmatisation and social exclusion, particularly for children and women. The team will use new assay technology and telepathology to explore disease variability across several countries, as well as drawing on input from patients, clinicians and economic analysis to explore options for improvement.
Case study 4: Camel to human transmission
The Royal Veterinary College will study the nature of disease transmission from camels-to-humans of the MERS-CoV disease. The college will be working with Jordan’s University of Science and Technology to develop control measures that will be culturally appropriate and developed in direct collaboration with high risk groups, to ensure they can be effectively implemented at a grassroots level.
Case study 5: Immunotherapy for oral cancers
The University of Southampton will join forces with Cancer Research Malaysia to investigate immunotherapy for oral cancers common in the region. Some cancer immunotherapy can be very costly but a common type of oral cancer (15-80 per cent) often develops from a visible precursor lesion. An immunogenic vaccine could provide a cost-effective solution. This project aims to identify common antigens, including novel tumour antigens already identified by the Cancer Research Malaysia team, and construct vaccines for production in plants, using technologies developed by the University of Southampton team. The research is key for low-to-middle income economies such as Malaysia, where oral cancers are especially prevalent but conventional treatment is unattainable for many patients.