The UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC) has launched a £12 million (€16.14 million) initiative in partnership with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to establish regional hubs that will explore better ways of conducting clinical trials.

A call for hub proposals has gone out, with funding for individual five-year awards capped at £3 million. The MRC-NIHR partnership is also looking to enhance the capacity of existing MRC units with the critical mass and expertise in clinical trial methodology to function as regional hubs.

The initiative is being managed by the MRC on behalf of the partnership and is the second tranche of funding under the MRC-NIHR’s Methodology Research Programme, a grant scheme for methodology research across the spectrum of basic and applied health research in the UK. The goal is to develop a high-quality national platform in methodology research and establish the UK as a world-class leader in methodological innovation within health research.

Under the recently established single health research fund, the MRC and NIHR are also developing an overarching strategy for health research in the UK, due to be published early this year. It will include joint MRC/NIHR plans for translational medicine research, public health research, e-health research, methodology research and building human capital.

Scientific leadership
With the latest initiative, the idea is that regional hubs will, inter alia, provide scientific leadership in methodology research related to the design, conduct or analysis of clinical trials. They will also develop effective links with regional and national clinical trial units, to ensure that the methodology research programme is influenced by real-world issues facing trialists and to accelerate the application of new methods to clinical studies; and will establish training programmes in methodological research.

In addition, the regional hubs will be networked together to strengthen further the national methodological platform for clinical trial research. Networking will facilitate information exchange about research projects and issues and encourage cross-hub collaboration, the MRC said.

Last year the UK government’s Comprehensive Spending Review announced a 2.7% above-inflation budget rise for the country’s research councils up until 2011. As Sally Davis, director general of research and development at the Department of Health, noted, the Review has “provided NIHR with the funding to support an unprecedented expansion in clinical trials activity, for the ultimate benefit of patients and the public. However, this research will only be able to provide reliable and relevant evidence if it is conducted using the most powerful and appropriate research methods.”

“The complexity of new interventions, and the speed with which they are developed, presents challenges to those who wish to study their effectiveness,” Davis added. “The new research methodology hubs being established by MRC on behalf of the MRC-NIHR partnership will play a key role in developing the methods to meet these challenges.”

MRC chief executive Sir Leszek Borysiewicz pointed out that the Council had “championed the randomised controlled trial, which is the acknowledged gold standard in testing new treatments. More recently it devised the MRC framework for complex interventions to help researchers undertake more complex evaluations testing combinations of treatments and particularly non-pharmacological interventions. This new initiative will build on these achievements and position the UK at the forefront of clinical trials methodology research.”

The deadline for proposals under the new scheme is 2 April 2008.