Oxford University is to take more promising research ideas towards clinical testing, thanks to significant new funding from a government programme to support life sciences in the UK.
The aim is to accelerate the path from research findings in a lab to the development of improved therapies that benefit patients.
In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a programme of public funding designed to deliver growth to the life sciences sector. The £180 million 'Biomedical Catalyst', managed jointly by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Technology Strategy Board, is a key part of the government's Life Sciences Strategy.
The first funding awards under the programme were announced yesterday, with Oxford University receiving the joint largest grant.
Fourteen universities have received grants from the MRC of between £360,000 and £750,000, the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts announced at the British Business Embassy's life sciences summit at Lancaster House, London, with the universities of Oxford and Dundee receiving the largest awards of £750,000.
Oxford will use the new funding to establish a 'pipeline' through which novel discoveries made in science laboratories across the city can be brought to the point of clinical development and testing.
Professor Rodney Phillips, associate head of the medical sciences division at Oxford University, said: 'We are delighted to receive this large grant from the MRC. Oxford has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. But it is not always easy for researchers to get the funding they need to see if their novel research could have promise as a new treatment for patients. This new funding should enable a lot more of this initial development work and clinical testing to happen and is very welcome.'
Examples of the type of projects that could receive support include developing tests to aid the design of flu vaccines through having better measures of our immune responses.
Mass spectroscopy techniques, capable of monitoring the interaction of drugs with important proteins that reside in cell membranes, are being developed in Oxford. Such proteins are difficult to study but are of great interest for drug development.
Oxford researchers are also interested in compounds that block an enzyme that could be of interest in many tumours. But first, the approach needs to be evaluated to see if it really is promising for developing new cancer drugs.
The total funding provided through the MRC 'Confidence in Concept' awards amounts to £7.4 million and is expected to fund about 150 pilot projects across the 14 universities.
It is the universities that will have control over the allocation of funding to projects within their institution, allowing them flexibility to pursue the most promising translational research opportunities and respond to new opportunities.
Dr Wendy Ewart, Deputy chief executive of the MRC, said: 'The MRC's Confidence in Concept awards will empower leading UK universities to respond quickly to emerging translational opportunities as they arise. They will give academic researchers the opportunity to generate enough evidence to leverage further investment from a variety of sources to progress the best ideas, helping to bridge the gap between discovery and development.'
Eighteen small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have also been awarded funding totalling nearly £2.5 million by the Technology Strategy Board to enable them to explore and evaluate the commercial potential of an early-stage scientific idea.
Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: 'The UK's world-leading life sciences industry is changing fast and we need to stay ahead of the game. The Biomedical Catalyst will help bridge the so-called "valley of death" that exists between when a bright new idea is developed in the laboratory and the point when a new drug or technology can be invested in by the market. This will support our most innovative life sciences SMEs and academics, drive growth and benefit patients.'