New UK initiatives at the forefront of global biological and medical research

New UK initiatives at the forefront of global biological and medical research

A £6.7 million funding programme aims to support the UK’s role as a key partner in the ambitious global Human Cell Atlas initiative, which will provide a basis for understanding human health and disease by mapping every cell type in the human body.

It is part of three new major bioscience initiatives with £55 million of funding that have been announced today, by Life Sciences Minister Lord Henley.

These multidisciplinary research programmes will be delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and aim to accelerate the production of benefits and economic impact in three areas identified as strategic priorities:

  • The funding will support the UK’s contribution to the Human Cell Atlas, an international collaboration that aims to comprehensively map every cell type in the human body through cutting-edge gene expression and imaging technology.
  • Physical scientists will collaborate with biological and biomedical scientists to develop better technologies to answer key questions in the life sciences that will have important implications for medicine and healthcare.
  • Researchers will ensure the UK is prepared for the spread of bacterial plant diseases that could threaten crop production, forestry, horticulture, woodlands and wider biodiversity, such as Xylella fastidiosa which has devastated olive groves in southern Italy.

Life Sciences Minister Lord Henley said: “From looking at tissue development to bringing together the biology and physics communities to better understand human health, the Strategic Priorities Fund will boost our world-leading reputation in science and research.

“These projects will help us understand our own health better and through our modern Industrial Strategy we have today announced the Life Sciences Sector Deal to diagnose disease early and back business to create high-paid, high-quality jobs for the future.”

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: “This investment will bring together world-leading UK researchers from across disciplines to target challenges that are important for health and wellbeing.

“The UK’s scientists are proud of their important contributions to the iconic Human Genome Project, and now we are providing further support for UK scientists to join the latest global effort to chart the human body in unprecedented detail – the Human Cell Atlas.

“We need to ensure the UK’s biosecurity, and this new funding will also tackle the spread of bacterial plant diseases by bringing together our existing expertise in plant pathology with state-of-the-art genomic and other new technologies.”

The programmes will be delivered as part of UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund. The Strategic Priorities Fund supports high quality, multi - and interdisciplinary research and development priorities and aims to ensure that UKRI’s investment links up effectively with government priorities and that the system is able to response to strategic priorities and opportunities.  

The Life Sciences Sector Deal announced by the government today will support healthcare innovation and back businesses to create high-paid, high-quality jobs as part of the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy. The deal signals a vote of confidence in UK industry, with global biopharmaceutical company UCB investing around £1 billion in research and development.

Summaries of the projects:

The Human Cell Atlas initiative

Funding: £6.7 million

A £6.7 million funding programme aims to support the UK’s role as a key partner in the ambitious global Human Cell Atlas initiative. The HCA is an international collaboration that aims to provide a basis for understanding human health and disease, and for diagnosing, monitoring and treating disease by comprehensively mapping every cell type in the human body through cutting-edge gene expression and imaging technology. The Atlas has been compared to the Human Genome Project both in its scale and its ambition.

The MRC-led Strategic Priorities Fund investment, has enabled 13 awards to be made to researchers at Universities across the UK. This month, the research groups will begin projects to analyse healthy human tissues from the earliest stages of development through to adulthood and old age, to reveal exciting insights into the changes in biological function as our cells and tissues develop.

Partnerships with the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) will ensure the effective coordination and curation of data to make it accessible to researchers across the world. The investment includes the establishment of new specialist training programmes in data analytics that are essential to the success of the HCA partnership and the UK’s capabilities in cutting edge quantitative cell biology. This early investment during the development phase of the HCA initiative will support the UK’s role as a key partner in this global endeavour and lay the foundations for further collaborative activities.

This programme is being led by the Medical Research Council and the awards have been made with a contribution from the British Heart Foundation.

Physics of Life

Funding: £31.2 million

The UK has biological and biomedical science that is the envy of the world, and a correspondingly strong physical science community in relevant sub-disciplines. Some of the greatest developments in life science research have been underpinned by developments in the physical sciences, such as the optical and electron microscopes.

The project funding will be spent on a suite of 10-15, peer-reviewed, major research projects of 3+year duration. The research areas that will be supported are those that bring together the tools and capabilities of the physics community to tackle key questions in biological and biomedical sciences. These will be informed by past investment in the Physics of Life Networks. Each will demonstrate integrated interdisciplinarity and include activities that develop a growing mutual understanding and knowledge-base within their teams.

This programme is a collaboration between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

UK Animal and Plant Health: understanding and countering bacterial plant diseases

Funding: £17.7 million

Climate change and increased international trade heighten risks to UK plant health and biosecurity from the emergence and spread of bacterial diseases.

This collaborative programme will enable research to counter diseases that threaten crop production, forestry, commercial and amenity horticulture, woodlands and wider biodiversity with severe economic, environmental and social impacts.

In a first phase of the programme a broad consortium of institutions led by the John Innes Centre has been awarded £4.85 million to address the urgent need for evidence to inform the UK’s response to the potentially devastating Xylella fastidiosa, a highly infectious bacterium that has proved impossible to eradicate following outbreaks in continental Europe.

If Xylella reached the UK, there would be risks to numerous trees and plants, with potentially widespread damage to rural and urban landscapes, and restrictive control measures on the horticultural trade.

A second phase of the programme will support multidisciplinary research on a wider range of bacteria that threaten plant health.  By bringing together existing expertise in plant pathology with state-of-the-art genomic and other new technologies - enabled by the SPF - the UK is well placed to become a world leader in countering those threats.

This programme is a collaboration between BBSRC and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Scottish Government, which are providing £1.1m of funding in total.

Notes to Editors

For further information contact James Giles-Franklin (james.giles-franklin@ukri.org, 07702 611906) or Hilary Jones (hilary.jones@ukri.org, 07892 770105) in the UKRI press office.

Further information on the calls is available on our funding opportunities page.