The UK government has launched the first two of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Translational Research Partnerships (TRPs) it promised last March as part of the budget-related Plan for Growth.

Known in their pilot phase as Therapeutic Capability Clusters and now managed by the NIHR Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure (NOCRI), the TRPs for early-stage research in inflammatory respiratory disease and joint and related inflammatory diseases have debuted with start-up funding of £1.3 million from the government, which said they would “usher in a new era for clinical trials”.

The basis for the TRP programme will be a new wave of NIHR Biomedical Research Centres and Units, which received a five-year funding boost of £800 million (previously £775 million) from the government earlier this year.

The inaugural TRPs include input from National Health Service Trusts and universities/colleges, with 26 participating organisations in the Inflammatory Respiratory Disease Partnership (addressing conditions such as asthma, allergy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, acute lung injury and respiratory infection) and 27 in the Joint and Related Inflammatory Diseases Partnership (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, synovitis).

Collaborative efforts

The partnerships are set up to facilitate collaborative efforts between the NHS, university clinical researchers and life science companies in designated fields of interest. The rationale is that the TRPs will attract investment from pharmaceutical companies by providing access to a unique network of top clinical scientists, offering world-class research expertise, technologies and infrastructure as well as cohorts of well-characterised patients for early-stage research.

The TRP approach has emerged “as pharmaceutical companies search for an alternative to the traditional model for discovering new drugs and treatments”, the government noted, adding that the early response “has been very positive and shows that industry and clinical academia are ready to move towards a more open and collaborative way of working, where partners share the rewards such as intellectual property”.

Single agreement

A key feature of the new set-up is a single legal agreement for collaboration with TRPs, rather than companies having to negotiate with NHS Trusts and universities individually. Access to the Partnerships is via the NIHR Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure, “providing an easy and consistent point of entry for industry”, the government pointed out.

NOCRI will co-ordinate the establishment of any further Translational Research Partnerships, building on the Therapeutic Capability Cluster pilot and working with other funding partners including medical research charities.

The cluster pilot ran until the end of March, after which the government decided to make the initiative a long-term programme under the auspices of NOCRI. The Office used the learnings from the pilot to build the TRP programme, with the new name reflecting more accurately the Partnerships’ role, it said.

The official launch of the inaugural TRPs signals that the Partnerships are “now open for business”, NOCRI explained. In other words, the participating universities and NHS Trusts have all signed one legal agreement to work together using a single set of business processes that will encourage collaboration with industry on translational research.   

Right environment

“These National Institute for Health Research partnerships are a perfect example of how the Government is creating the right environment for life sciences industries,” stated Health Minister Lord Howe. “They will make the UK much more attractive to pharmaceutical companies to invest in by cutting red tape – accelerating the progress of early-stage health research projects from the lab to benefiting patients.”

According to Sir John Bell, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, whose report last January on the regulation and governance of health research was a wake-up call to UK stakeholders, the TRPs “demonstrate that the NHS is ready and willing to work with Industry in early development, the most difficult but most important part of the development pathway”.

The initiative also shows that UK academic centres and their associated NHS Trusts are willing to work together to attract programmes to the UK, Sir John added. “The NIHR TRPs set a standard for collaboration and translational research which is unequalled internationally,” he claimed.

Stressing that the way forward for drug development lies in collaboration with clinical academic investigators, Dr Allison Jeynes-Ellis, medical and innovation director at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said TRPs  offer “an efficient and effective way for companies to work with some of the UK’s leading translational research experts” through NOCRI. 

“I believe companies will see great advantages to working with the Partnerships and consequently they will attract ground-breaking research into the UK,” she added.