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The MRC at 100

David Willetts

David Willetts

2013 is the MRC Centenary year and we’ll be taking the opportunity, here on the blog and elsewhere, to celebrate past discoveries and look to the future of medical research. To kick things off, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts reflects on 100 years of publicly funded medical research, and why we must play the ‘long game’.

When the Medical Research Council’s forerunner, the Medical Research Committee, was established in 1913 to combat tuberculosis, its members may have thought the disease would be conquered within a few years. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1940s that MRC researchers carried out the first randomised controlled trial of streptomycin, the first TB drug. And it was the 1960s before Professor Wallace Fox showed that drug treatment at home was just as effective as that in sanatoria, leading to their closure and huge savings for health services.

This example from the first half of the MRC’s existence illustrates just how long it can take for medical research to come to fruition and change people’s lives. But this long journey from the laboratory bench — or increasingly the computer screen — to a patient’s bedside isn’t consigned to the past. Today it takes around 15 years to develop a drug, and many fail along the way.

That’s why efforts to support the translation of research from the UK’s laboratories into people’s hands are so important. The MRC does this via initiatives such as the MRC/TSB Biomedical Catalyst, which aims to accelerate academic and small-business research across the ‘valley of death’, and by encouraging closer working between MRC researchers and the biosciences sector, including the first-of-its-kind compound-sharing collaboration with AstraZeneca.

The MRC doesn’t focus just on laboratory-based science; the organisation’s longevity has had benefits in other types of medical research. There are some key questions about human health that can’t be answered with traditional lab experiments: will exercise help my memory as I get older? Does poverty increase the risk of a heart attack? Does children’s growth in the early years determine whether or not they become obese?

Finding the answers to these questions needs the foresight and commitment to study people from birth into adulthood and old age, something the UK and the MRC have been undertaking for more than 60 years by studying groups of people, or ‘cohorts’ drawn from across the social spectrum.

The National Survey of Health and Development, for example, which began in 1946, was one of the first to reveal the life-long health impacts of low birth weight, and the influence of early life circumstances on school attainment. The insights gained through this study have influenced many areas of Government policy, from education and family support to healthcare and public health.

The relative roles of genetics and our lifestyle and environment in whether we develop a disease are subtle and complex, and only long-term studies of large numbers of people that pull this diverse information together will provide answers.

The UK is uniquely placed to carry out this sort of research. We have a large and diverse population, a historic strength in genetic and cohort research and a unified healthcare system. The UK Biobank, set up in 2006 and part-funded by the MRC, is a cohort of half a million adults in middle age. Participants have provided a range of information about their lifestyles, physical characteristics and health, and they will be followed for at least 25 years. The centralised infrastructure of the NHS means we have the ability to track the health of participants through their health records and prescriptions. The MRC is also assessing a plan to spend £10m on analysing the genomes of a subset of UK Biobank participants.

Scientists can use this information to unpick the mechanisms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and many other conditions which touch our lives. This leads to better diagnosis and more effective treatments, benefitting patients, driving growth and keeping the UK at the very forefront of medical innovation. Long may this continue.

David Willetts

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