Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Develop new approaches to small molecule medicine

Apply for funding to research starting points for small molecule medicinal drugs.

You must be a researcher working at one of these institutions:

  • UK higher education institution
  • UKRI unit or institute
  • eligible independent research organisation
  • eligible public sector research establishment.

You must take direct responsibility for completing the research.

The full economic cost of your project, including work conducted at AstraZeneca, can be up to £250,000. MRC will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

MRC is preparing the transition of our funding opportunities to the new UKRI Funding Service.

You may need to apply to the next round of this opportunity using the new service. Check this opportunity in early 2024 for confirmation on how to apply.

Who can apply

This funding opportunity follows standard UKRI eligibility criteria and is open to UK-based researchers who can show they will direct the proposed research and be actively engaged in carrying it through.

Only these institutions are eligible:

Research proposals that are led by commercial entities are not eligible. Applications may not include collaborations with additional commercial parties.

What we're looking for

The MRC-AstraZeneca Centre for Lead Discovery (CLD) aims to support academic researchers in discovering potential starting points for small molecule medicinal drugs.

Academic researchers will benefit from unprecedented access to over two million molecules in AstraZeneca’s compound library, as well as its state-of-the-art high-throughput screening (HTS) facilities.

MRC will provide funding to support up to five projects. As capacity is limited, projects will be prioritised for funding and for time slots within the facility. The timeframe for commencement of the studies will vary, although the expectation is within 12 months of the funding decision.

AstraZeneca may offer to fund a project in its entirety if, based on the application, it considers that route to be the most appropriate funding mechanism for that individual study. In such cases, these will be taken forward through direct collaboration with the company without any further MRC involvement. Applicants who do not wish to accept this offer may continue to seek MRC support through the initiative.

Post-award support

Assay transfer and HTS activities will be conducted at the AstraZeneca facility in Alderley Park, Cheshire, prior to the relocation to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus planned for 2022, with costs met by MRC. Typically, applicants will not be able to request costs associated with this component of the project.

The MRC panel, in consultation with technical input from AstraZeneca, may agree to provide limited funding to support assay optimisation prior to transfer of the assay to the HTS platform. If this work is conducted within the research organisation, AstraZeneca will nominate a contact to provide advice.

Following the completion of the HTS campaign the panel will consider providing:

  • additional limited funding to facilitate re-synthesis of tool compounds arising from the screen
  • additional in-vitro selectivity data
  • preliminary in-vivo PK.

Costs will be limited and the studies will need to be delivered and reported on within a three month window. It is envisaged that these activities will take place at clinical research organisations, but may also be available directly from AstraZeneca or within the applicant’s host institution.

Minimum assay development guidelines

There are a number of minimum assay development guidelines which when considered as a whole will need to provide evidence that minimum requirements have been met prior to application. The less well developed the assay, and the more work that is required prior to transfer to the CLD, the less competitive the proposal will be.

For more detail on minimum assay requirements, you must read the guidance for applicants (PDF, 378KB).

How to apply

Proposals must be submitted using the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system.

When applying select:

  • council: MRC
  • document type: standard proposal
  • scheme: research grant
  • call, type or mode: MRC AZ Centre for Lead Discovery.

Please bear in mind that all proposals have to be submitted via your research organisation’s administrative department. Please ensure sufficient time to complete their parts of the proposal before the MRC deadline dates.

Before preparing your proposal, read the application guidance (PDF, 378KB).

To submit an application, you must complete the case for support form (Word, 43KB).

Submit the case for support form as a PDF, along with all other documentation detailed in the application guidance.

Standard MRC terms and conditions will apply to this scheme:

How we will assess your application

Applications will be assessed by expert peer review and prioritised for funding by MRC, via a bespoke expert assessment panel including members of:

  • MRC’s Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme panel
  • MRC’s research boards
  • external experts.

AstraZeneca will not be involved in the funding decision but will provide guidance to MRC to confirm that:

  • projects are technically feasible
  • there are no third party agreements preventing AstraZeneca from undertaking the project
  • no equivalent screen has been conducted as part of AstraZeneca’s internal research and development programme, or through any prior open innovation collaboration.

Assessment criteria

The panel will consider all applications against the three criteria outlined below.


Does the identified need exist?

Would meeting this need have any of these results:

  • significantly reduce disease burden
  • provide a valuable commercial opportunity
  • alleviate an important development bottleneck?

If the need is not significant now, will it become so in the future?

Has the applicant identified the key competing solutions and their status or are they aware of other similar or complementary research underway elsewhere?

Has the applicant identified the key competitive advantages of their proposed solution?


Is there a good medical or scientific rationale for the project?

Is there a reasonable body of evidence to support the proposed rationale?


Are there any barriers to future development?


The panel will, independent of AstraZeneca input, determine the applications that merit support. If modifications to the approach or provision of additional data would potentially make a re-application worthy of support, declined applications may receive ‘positive feedback’. With positive feedback the 12 month moratorium on re-submission of a same or similar application is waived based on your ability to address the feedback provided.

The decision of the panel is final and will not be open to appeal and MRC reserves the right to amend the application process.

Contact details

Discuss your proposal

You are encouraged to discuss your proposal with the MRC programme manager before submission.


Additional info


‘Classical’ development of new investigational medicinal products has been based on the manufacture of active chemical substances (drugs), and accounts for approximately 90% of the drugs available for treatment of medical conditions today.

HPS is a tool that has been used by big pharma for decades to search for small molecule starting points for their internal research and development pipeline projects.

The MRC-AstraZeneca CLD will form a unique opportunity for academic and industrial drug discovery projects by supplying HTS infrastructure (NiCoLA-B, the most advanced drug discovery robot in the world).

Whilst some academic institutions have developed drug discovery screening facilities the AstraZeneca facility will offer:

  • access to advanced compound management facilities
  • a large compound collection
  • advanced screening robotics
  • multiple state of the art assay platform technologies which together do not exist in academia.

AstraZeneca has carefully curated a collection of approximately two million compounds within its corporate HTS collection. The full collection is available for screening within this initiative, if suitable assays are derived. It will provide the same opportunity for applicants as for AstraZeneca’s internal research and development teams, thereby maximising the chance of the academic groups identifying tractable hits which may be advanced into chemistry development programmes.

Find out more about the collaboration with AstraZeneca on YouTube.

Find out more about NiCoLA-B on the AstraZeneca website.

Intellectual property

All projects funded under this initiative will be collaborative studies between academic researchers and AstraZeneca. The investigators will work under a pre-agreed standard collaborative research agreement, jointly signed by the research organisation and AstraZeneca, based closely on the Lambert Agreement for preclinical studies. Release of funds will be contingent on receipt of the signed agreement by MRC.

The research organisation will own all generated intellectual property (IP). AstraZeneca will have the first right to negotiate for an exclusive licence to any arising and relevant background.

AstraZeneca can declare an interest (in writing) in exercising their option at any point in the project and up to six months after the project ends. If AstraZeneca do not exercise their option or are unable to agree terms, any jointly generated IP will be assigned to the research organisation at the relevant period with AstraZeneca signing away any claim over exploitation or profit.

Supporting documents

Application guidance (PDF, 378KB)

Case for support form (Word, 43KB)


  • 8 August 2023
    Closing date changed from 'Open - no closing date' to '15 November 2003, 4:00pm UK time'.

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