The Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have made a joint award of £16m to develop molecular pathology tests to help deliver stratified medicine in a wide range of disease areas.
Stratified medicine is an approach which subdivides patients with a shared disease into groups based on, for instance, their risk of the disease progressing or how they respond to treatment. Identification of these different groups can help predict the most effective and safe intervention for individual patients. In addition, by understanding the underlying mechanisms that cause these differences, researchers can develop new interventions for those groups whose needs are currently not well met.
Molecular pathology is a major tool in stratified medicine. Tiny samples of blood or tissue are taken from the patient – usually with minimal discomfort because of the small amount taken and the use of minimally-invasive methods of collection. The samples are then analysed for levels of large molecules (such as proteins and DNA). Combining these results with other information, such as imaging and clinical data, enables the precise subdivision of patients.
Last year, the MRC produced a report that warned that, while UK investment in stratified medicine has reached nearly £200 million in the last four years, the UK capacity for molecular pathology needed to be increased in order to capture the potential patient and economic benefits stratification offers.
To support molecular pathology, the MRC and EPSRC have supported six nodes led by the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle and Nottingham. Each node brings researchers, clinicians and industry together to develop molecular diagnostic tools, to enable stratification, in disease areas such as cancer, respiratory diseases, digestive disease, infections, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and lupus. (See below for more information on the nodes.)
The six nodes are collaborating with 20 industrial partners, including leading diagnostic and instrumentation companies and innovative technology and data SMEs.
Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman welcomed the initiative, saying: “Advances in medical genetics and the use of data are making it possible to design a new generation of 'Stratified' or 'Precision' medicines which work more effectively, with fewer side effects, in more targeted groups of patients. In cancer this is leading to personally-tailored therapies. As an integrated healthcare system underpinned by our £1billion per annum National Institute for Health Research expenditure, the NHS is perfectly placed to pioneer this field. This £16 million investment will enhance our UK-wide capability to deliver 21st Century diagnostics and complement initiatives such as the Precision Medicine Catapult Centre to make sure that ground-breaking medicines and technologies are adopted by the NHS and delivered to patients as quickly as possible.”
Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive at the MRC, said: “These new tools are critical for selecting the right treatment for the right patient. Being able to precisely target a treatment means maximum benefit for the patient – they receive a treatment that works for them and with fewer unpleasant side-effects. But it also delivers economic benefit because money and time are not wasted on ineffective treatments.”
Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC’s Chief Executive, said: “These awards bring together multidisciplinary teams to support innovation and develop molecular diagnostics. Working in partnership with the MRC enables us to accelerate the translation of research towards application in a clinical setting, and builds on EPSRC’s underpinning investment in analytical science.”
Dr Suzy Lishman, President of The Royal College of Pathologists, said: “Molecular pathology will revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat disease, with patients receiving treatment tailored to their particular condition. This £16m award comes at crucial time and will help ensure that medicine and industry work together to develop molecular pathology tests for the benefit of patients with a wide range of conditions. Pathology has always been central to diagnosis but plays an even more vital role in stratified medicine. This investment will help ensure that the UK has the molecular pathology capacity that it needs to provide world-leading diagnostics and the best possible care for patients.”
Doris-Ann Williams MBE, Chief Executive of The British In Vitro Diagnostics Association (BIVDA), said: “Improved access to diagnostics is absolutely fundamental for enhanced patient care of the 21st century, so I am delighted by the creation of the pathology nodes. These will play a significant role in fostering collaboration between industry, clinicians and academia. The Government’s life science policy means the UK is leading the world in the support of diagnostics and the recognition of their intrinsic value to healthcare.”
The six Molecular Pathology Nodes:
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh-St Andrews Consortium for Molecular Pathology, Informatics and Genome Sciences - £2m
The Edinburgh-St Andrews Consortium will bring molecular diagnostics into mainstream medicine by use of modern genome technologies and information across a range of diseases. The consortium will integrate state-of-the-art genomic and epigenomic methods for diagnosis of acutely ill children and will develop ‘liquid biopsies’ for managing cancer through analysis of circulating tumour DNA.
University of Glasgow
Glasgow Molecular Pathology (GMP) Node - £3.4m
The Glasgow node will build on the University’s existing strengths in pathology by improving care of cancer and chronic diseases. Researchers will work with industry to build a multidisciplinary centre of excellence to develop new molecular diagnostic tests.
University of Leicester
East Midlands Breathomics Pathology Node (EMBER) - Institutions University of Leicester, Loughborough University and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust - £2.5m
The air we breathe out contains a cocktail of volatile organic compounds that give a snapshot of the biological processes taking place in the lung and beyond. The Leicester node will help develop breath analysis tests that use the same technology as that used to detect explosives in war zones. It’s hoped these could give an instant diagnosis and help doctors pick the best treatments for a range of conditions, including cancers, respiratory infections and diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
University of Manchester
Manchester Molecular Pathology Innovation Centre - £2.9m
Developing biomarker based molecular pathology tests will be a major focus of the Manchester node with the initial work aimed at creating tests to diagnose, pick the right treatment and asses the response to treatment for a range of inflammatory conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and psoriasis.
The Newcastle Proximity Laboratory - £2.7m
The Newcastle node will focus on developing new lab tests for rare and chronic diseases and will also be involved in training the next generation of molecular pathologists who will be vital in the delivery of precision medicine.
University of Nottingham
Nottingham Molecular Pathology Node (NMPN) for Integrated Multi-platform Biomarker Research and Knowledge Transfer - £2.4m
The Nottingham node will bring together informatics, computational modelling and molecular pathology to find new biomarkers for a range of diseases – particularly those affecting the digestive and respiratory systems and the liver. These new markers will help doctors pick the best treatments for their patients.