The UK’s Medical Research Council is investing £10.6 million in three new research consortia looking at stratified-medicine approaches to rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C and Gaucher disease.

The awards were highlighted as the government issued a one-year progress report on its Strategy for UK Life Sciences, under which a four-year, £60 million MRC investment programme for stratified-medicine research was originally announced in December 2011.

The three new collaborations, which follow pilot stratified-medicine consortia in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, will combine 34 academic groups and 20 industry partners with charities and patients across the UK.

The £10.6 million funding will be distributed among:

•    STOP-HCV, a hepatitis C consortium led by the University of Oxford. This will aim to develop cutting-edge gene-sequencing technologies to determine why 30% of patients fail to respond to direct antiviral therapy for hepatitis.

    The group of 14 academic institutions and eight industry partners (Medivir, United Therapeutics, Janssen Diagnostics, Oncimmune, Gilead, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Okairos and Conatus) will draw on a clinical database and bio- repository of blood samples from hepatitis C-infected patients established by   HCV Research UK.

    This is a multidisciplinary collaborative enterprise funded by a £1.92 million grant from the Medical Research Foundation and based at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research. Information from HCV Research will help the STOP-HCV consortium decipher the genetic make-up of both the hepatitis C virus and infected patients.

•    The MATURA consortium, led by Queen Mary, University of London, will search for biological and genetic markers in blood and joints that could be used to predict how rheumatoid arthritis patients will respond to anti-inflammatory drugs.

    Co-funded by a £1 million grant from Arthritis Research UK, this project combines 12 academic groups with nine industry partners: Activiomics, Amgen, Complete Genomics, Genentech, Janssen Research and Development, MedImmune, Pfizer, Qiagen and UCB Pharma.

•    The GAUCHERITE consortium (project leader: the University of Cambridge) will examine at least 85% of all UK patients with Gaucher disease, a rare genetic disorder in which a build-up of fatty chemicals causes bleeding, skeletal pain and swelling of internal organs.

    The goal is to stratify these patients by the nature of their disease to enable better targeting of therapy. Currently there are five treatments available for Gaucher, but the complexity of the disease means patients may respond differently to drugs.

Stratified-medicine programme

Under its full £60 million programme for stratified-medicine research, the MRC received 30 outline applications in 28 disease areas, which were whittled down to six shortlisted applications by an expert panel comprising clinicians, academics, representatives of pharmaceutical, biotechnology and diagnostics companies, and disease charities.

The MRC has developed a rolling programme for consortia development, under which other disease areas will shortly be competing for funding.

The Council invested £11.5 million in the three pilot consortia for COPD, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

The diabetes consortium – the MASTERMIND partnership – was recently awarded £2 million by the MRC to launch a pilot study as part of a joint MRC/Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry scheme to explore stratification in Type 2 diabetes.

If this pilot phase is successful, the consortium will get a further £4 million to complete the project.

The MASTERMIND consortium involves over 20 partners, including academic institutions across the UK, healthcare providers and the pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Takeda and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

DNA mapping

As the government launched its Strategy for UK Life Sciences: One Year On report, it also announced funding of £100 million to introduce high-technology DNA mapping for National Health Service patients with cancer and rare diseases.

Over a three- to five-year period, up to 100,000 patients will have their whole genome sequenced under the programme, which be voluntary and will include an opt-out provision without any impact on NHS care, the government said.

Whole genome-sequence data “will be completely anonymised apart from when it is used for an individual’s own care”, it added.

The two components of the investment are:

•    Training a new generation of British genetic scientists to lead on the development of new drugs and treatments based on genome sequencing, “building the UK as the world leader in the field”. At the same time, the wider healthcare community will be trained in harnessing the DNA-mapping technology.  

•    ‘Pump-priming’ DNA sequencing for cancer and rare inherited diseases, as well as developing the NHS’ data infrastructure to ensure the new technology leads to better care for patients.

First in the world

 “It is crucial that we continue to push the boundaries and this new plan will mean we are the first country in the world to use DNA codes in the mainstream of the health service,” stated Prime Minister David Cameron.

As Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies pointed out, single-gene testing is already available across the NHS for a range of applications, from diagnosing cancers to assessing patients’ risk of side-effects from treatment.