The UK’s Medical Research Council will step up its role in pharmaceutical research, after indicating that it expects a lion’s share of the research budget increases announced by the Treasury.

MRC chief executive Professor Colin Blakemore revealed that Government-funded clinical trials were imminent thanks to the funding increases. This year’s Comprehensive Spending Review announced a 2.7% above-inflation budget rise for the research councils until 2011. Exactly how much of this the MRC receives will not be announced until the autumn.

However, when asked last week if the MRC was expecting a generous proportion of the increase, a grinning MRC chairman, Sir John Chisholm, said: “I would have to say that biomedical research has done very well and I don’t think there’s anything for us to worry about.”

Blakemore revealed that the extra cash would be used to expand clinical and translational research, which links laboratory work to clinical studies, in line with recommendations in the Cooksey report. His comments follow the launch in March of the MRC’s six new translational medicine centres based at the the University of Bristol, the University of Cambridge, King's College London, Imperial College London, University College London (together with the University of Newcastle), and the University of Oxford (in partnership with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute).

MRC to invent, develop and market own drugs

At the time, Prof Blakemore said the new centres would form part of the MRC’s all-out effort to slash the time taken for its pure research to translate into better care at the bedside. He said the MRC planned to invent, develop and market its own drugs, with or without industry support in order to speed advances against rare or Third-World diseases.

To this end, at last week’s strategy briefing, he announced that a ground-breaking MRC/Department of Health-funded Phase II drug trial was imminent. To reduce the potentially huge costs of such a study, he said patients would be carefully selected so that fewer were needed. He also revealed that the UK licensing authority, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, had already indicated a willingness to accept this new strategy of smaller, more focused clinical trials.

Monolithic clinical trials structure 'impeding progress'

The MRC is also in discussion with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry on overhauling “the monolithic clinical trials structure” that he believes is impeding progress. Prof Blakemore also revealed that the MRC was holding talks with major drug companies including Astra Zeneca and GlaxoSmithKline on the joint product developments.

He said: “The pharmaceutical industry is in crisis because the number of new chemical entities is going down but the cost of developing them is going up. But we think we can help by working on things that that don’t seem economically viable to them. “We think that it can be a mutually beneficial relationship. Increasingly drugs companies like to take on new drugs when they’ve already passed through Phase II trials. We can do some of these trials.”

He conceded that many scientists doing pure or “blue-sky” research had expressed concern that their work would marginalized by the new focus on clinical experiments, but he insisted they had nothing to worry about.

“It’s utter nonsense to suggest that we’re pulling the rug from under pure research. It forms the much of the basis of what we do,” he said. He said that pure research budgets would not be cut.

At the briefing it was also announced the main Council would be slimmed down from 17 to 12 members, following a joint MRC/Ernst and Young review of its structure.