Established as part of the Medical Research Council of the UK in 1926, the Medical Research Foundation has been providing funding to advance medical research in areas that receive little or no support for over 90 years. With no connections to a particular disease, condition or institution, the Foundation is free to provide funding in a flexible and pragmatic way where it is needed most and will have the biggest impact.
Research Outreach caught up with Dr Alison Simmons, Senior Research and Policy Manager at the Foundation, to find out more about the charity and its fellows, its current research priorities and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is the mission of the Medical Research Foundation?
Our mission is to advance medical research, improve human health and change people’s lives. We fund research in areas of high unmet need; usually where there is a high burden of disease but there are few treatments available. We are the charity of the Medical Research Council (MRC) and are closely connected with them – it’s important we uphold their high research standards.
As we’re seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and the well-being of billions of people depends upon continual medical advances. We understand we need to be bold and ambitious – to fund projects that are not just going to be useful now but which may become useful later on –, and discovery science is a real priority of ours. Our vision is to support these advances for decades to come – the biggest impact comes from long-term commitment to research.
Government and health charities are spending lots of money developing exciting new treatments and therapies, but there are also areas of medical need that receive little or no support. That’s where the Medical Research Foundation steps in. We fund and support the most promising health research where it is needed most.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I started out in research science as soon as I left university. I’m often asked what my first job was, and I always get a strange look when I reply that I spent a year trying to make a vaccine to stop sheep getting chlamydia … but sheep chlamydia is a serious problem, causing the loss of thousands of unborn lambs every year. That job set me off on my path of academic research in immunology and reproductive biology. After a PhD looking at how immune cells influence uterine cancer, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher looking at a type of immune cell called the ‘natural killer cell’ and how they may influence adverse events in pregnancy, like pre-eclampsia and miscarriage. After a while I realised working in a lab wasn’t for me; I love taking a wide view of science and research and interacting with people. I left the ‘research bench’ to work for the Wellcome Trust, managing their immunology portfolio and funding scientists globally studying at the cutting edge of immunology and infectious disease. I moved to the Medical Research Foundation in 2019 where I lead the Research Team and oversee funding in subjects as diverse as hepatitis to eating disorders, so I’m having to learn fast!
How do you decide which projects to fund? Do you have certain research priorities?
Our Board of Trustees set our research priorities, in consultation with the MRC and other funder and research societies throughout the UK. Our key aim is to fund in areas of unmet need – where there are gaps in understanding and where research investment can make a real difference. In the next five years we are investing £25 million across child and adolescent mental health, pain and childhood eye diseases, amongst other areas.
Our mission is to advance medical research, improve human health and change people’s lives.
We also have specific donor priorities – when people have donated money to research a certain subject. For example, we recently funded a fellow to research autoimmune hepatitis for three years thanks to the generous support of a donor whose wife had sadly passed away from the disease.
To decide on which projects to fund, myself and our Chief Executive Angela Hind will develop a strategy for the way in which we want to invest – for example, do we think the most impact will be had by supporting people or projects? We are really interested in supporting researchers who are in the early to middle stages of their career, as that’s when funding can be hardest to come by. We fund to the same standards of peer review and assessment as the MRC – in fact, we often use their committees – and rely on experts to take the final decision.
How do you support research regarding COVID-19, and what are the researchers you fund currently working on?
Many of our funded researchers have had to pause their studies as a result of lab and clinic closures – and some of them have chosen to step away from their research to provide clinical care. We are supporting our researchers and continuing with our planned research funding competitions wherever we can.
Our researchers are helping to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in various ways, from investigating potential treatments and examining how the virus affects the lungs, to helping the NHS prepare for incoming patients.
We’re continuing to profile these efforts on our our website, including those of our Emerging Leaders Prize-winner Dr Tihana Bicanic, who is Principal Investigator at St George’s University Hospital for the national RECOVERY trial. The Oxford University-led trial is investigating some of the treatments suggested for COVID-19 and has already enrolled well over 7,000 patients across 170 hospital sites. We are very proud to fund all these researchers.
As the pandemic is showing us, the problems that science is tackling are international, and so research should be too.
Tell us about one interesting research project you have funded.
I’d like to highlight one of our biggest investments: our National PhD Training Programme in Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Research. I’m really passionate about explaining the importance of researching this subject and the growing threat of AMR. Through our programme we fund over 20 students all over the country who work on different aspects of AMR: from the biochemistry of bacteria to people’s health-seeking behaviour when they need antibiotics. But what makes this programme so unique is that we also fund all the PhD students to be truly interdisciplinary – and understand all aspects of AMR, which is what we need to tackle this problem in the future. We do this by funding additional meetings and training for all the students to come together a few times a year and learn from each other, so they will be able to approach the AMR crisis from multiple angles in the future.
What kind of support services do medical researchers receive from you?
All of our fellows receive a special package of support; they get access to MRC events, an induction to fellowships and the annual fellows symposium – this offers our fellows hints and tips on managing their grant and access to a peer group of fellows. We also hold a special evening reception for our fellows with speakers picked to help all aspects of their career. We’re hoping to be able to offer our fellows a mentoring scheme soon as well – I really think that mentoring gives people insights into their career on a much more personal level.
We also offer our fellows access to funding opportunities to invest in their ideas in public engagement and to change policy and practice. I think it’s so important to make sure research results have real relevance. And in addition to all that, in the next few years, I hope that the Foundation research team will be able to get out and about to visit our researchers, to hear about what they are doing and offer support first hand.
How do you regard the current funding landscape – in the UK and on a bigger scale – and what are its challenges and downsides? How will Brexit impact research funding in the UK?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I would have said the biggest challenge to the UK funding landscape was maintaining a strong scientific workforce – and international researcher collaborations – during and after Brexit. Science is stronger with collaboration and networks. As the pandemic is showing us, the problems that science is tackling are international, and so research should be too.
The real challenge now, for funders, is continuing to make sure that the UK is world-leading and that the best science is supported when we know a lot of medical research charities that support so much of the science that happens in this country are going to be facing financial difficulties.
But I want to finish on the positives – of which there are many. I have been amazed at the speed and scale of collaborative medical research that’s been done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – something I don’t think would have been possible even ten years ago. I hope it has inspired the public, but particularly many young people, of the value and true relevance that a career in medical research can have.