This board supports mechanistic and applied research relating to the physiology and pathophysiology of major human organs and systems, including population health and the impact of environmental factors on health and development across the life course.
The MRC Population Systems Medicine Board supports mechanistic and applied research related to the physiology and pathophysiology of all the major organs and systems with the exception of the brain and the immune system. Our remit also reaches forward to population health and the impact of environmental factors, including the social environment, on health and development across the life course.
We aim to develop scientific knowledge that uses systems approaches from multiple internal and external factors to understand control pathways and mechanisms, their interactions with major organs and how this manifests in health and disease.
This requires integration of knowledge from the fundamental studies of major organs and systems through to population and the impact of the environment on health and disease across the life course. By linking mechanistic understanding of diseases to populations and back, we will build the capacity to unpick the complexities and multifaceted nature of human health and disease through:
- promoting integrated or systems approaches
- harnessing big data
- making greater use of cohorts and cohort-derived data
- developing methodology and resources
- developing partnerships for improved impact.
Our population and systems medicine strategy
Our strategy was developed to address future health challenges including increased life expectancy, rising non-communicable diseases globally, while capitalising on technological advances. We aim to:
- support excellence in discovery science that crosses barriers and silos, including interdisciplinary integrated systems research, and data-driven approaches
- transform health by identifying early-life determinants and trajectories of chronic diseases, establishing personalised medicine approaches to therapeutic intervention, and developing population level interventions to prevent chronic diseases and multimorbidities
- prioritise chronic disease research, examining the contribution of ageing, multimorbidities, obesity, and rare genetic disorders, both within the UK and globally
- support translation of discovery into policy and practice both within the UK and in the global community.
This direction contributes to the Medical Research Council (MRC)’s overarching vision of priority challenges for medical sciences and its ambition to transform health research and innovation through delivery of ground-breaking discoveries.
The Population and Systems Medicine Board supports mechanistic and applied research to unlock the complexity of human health and disease across the life course. Its remit also encompasses population health and the impact of environmental factors, including the built and social environment.
Our scope includes the following areas:
- endocrinology and reproductive health
- maternal health and the early origins of health and disease
- nutrition, metabolic regulation, diabetes and obesity
- trauma, acute medicine and surgery
- inflammation in relation to disease processes and the resolution of the inflammatory response
- medical sociology
- lifestyle, socio-economic and behavioural impacts on health
- health inequalities
- population and disease-related cohorts.
While continuing to support research that focuses on key organs and systems, as well as on population-based research, we have identified key challenges that can only be met with a more integrated approach across our portfolio.
These new emerging directions of research form our current funding opportunity areas, and we encourage the research community to submit applications that focus on three key areas.
Not only does the growing prevalence of chronic diseases bring the added burden of multimorbidity but it is increasingly recognised that some chronic diseases cluster together and may share common underlying mechanisms. The traditional one disease, one mechanism approach to disease categorisation and the development of therapies targeted to narrow regulatory therapeutic indications becomes inefficient when it comes to managing multiple conditions.
While we support the broad range of challenges posed by multiple long-term conditions, we aim to catalyse research on multimorbidity at all ages as a new field that identifies disease clusters and targets interventions according to shared mechanisms and underlying pathologies.
MRC has worked in partnership to develop the Cross-funder multimorbidity research framework that sets out a vision for how the funding community will drive forward the research agenda to tackle the growing problem of people living with multiple long-term conditions (multimorbidity).
An important element of this research involves studying clusters of conditions and the interactions between their trajectories throughout the life course. Building on MRC’s investments in longitudinal studies, we will support research on multimorbidity that uses approaches ranging from population and experimental medicine studies to characterisation of models.
We particularly welcome underpinning mechanistic studies that generate evidence in support of interventions that could successfully target multiple long-term conditions.
Despite being individually infrequent, each occurring in fewer than one in 2000 people, rare diseases collectively have a major health impact, affecting one in 17 people in their lifetime. Funding opportunities in this area support the UK Rare Diseases Framework by encouraging research on rare diseases.
Particular emphasis is on proposals likely to achieve one or several of the following:
- lead to better diagnosis and treatment, including development of advanced therapies for affected patients
- yield mechanistic insights that extend beyond the particular rare disease being studied into fundamental human biology, or a wider range of pathologies or diseases
- address cross-cutting issues that are hampering progress in multiple diseases or groups of diseases, for example platform approaches to the prioritisation or functional interpretation of genetic data.
We encourage suitable partnerships, including in the UK and internationally, with patient groups, health and care providers, research consortia, industry, and data resources.
Innovative data integration
Since 2017, the population and systems medicine board has supported integrated population health. As a result of this and other developments, significant advances have been made through the integrated analysis of large population datasets, for example, combining genetic data with metabolomic and phenotypic data.
We are aiming to extend this approach to support innovative data integration across methodologies and scales when it is required to address research questions. This might include – but is not limited to – analysis and modelling using existing or new data from:
- multiple species
- omics platforms
- real-world, environmental, imaging, social and behavioural measurements.
Responding to this funding opportunity is likely to involve interdisciplinary team science, so applications that include researchers from a wide range of disciplines are particularly welcome. We also aim to maximise the impact of MRC’s portfolio of large investments in population health science and build on our principles of data sharing and accessibility.
To implement our strategy, we actively engage with the scientific community and other funders to identify gaps in knowledge and to monitor emerging areas of research that have a strong potential to impact on human health.
There are several examples of this type of engagement:
- myalgic encephalomyelitis also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)
- microbiome and health.
Institutes, units and centres
MRC helps to fund population and systems medicine research through large-scale investment of facilities and centres, working in partnership with these organisations to promote the translation of their research for maximum benefit.
We also work with a large number of funding partners, research charities and industries to support and promote further research in population and systems medicine.
UKRI and internal partnerships
To augment our data-driven and systems-based approach, we connect our portfolio interests with Health Data Research UK, a new national MRC partner institute for health and biomedical informatics research, and promote interactions with other initiatives in biomedical and health informatics.
We took an active role in work that resulted in the cross-council vision for food, nutrition and health research jointly published by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Our portfolio includes:
- three centres jointly funded with Versus Arthritis
- significant joint investments with the Wellcome Trust such as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) and the Institute for Metabolic Sciences in Cambridge
- Tackling Multimorbidity at Scale – a research programme delivered by MRC and the National Institute for Health Research in partnership with ESRC and in collaboration with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
- infrastructure and research programmes delivered in partnership with the Wellcome Trust including the Wellcome MRC Institute of Metabolic Science
- strong relationships with the British Heart Foundation in a range of areas – for example, the Ancestry Informative Markers in Hypertension Programme (AIMHY) stratified medicine consortium
- responsibility for the cross-board interest area of ME/CFS research, working closely with the ME/CFS charities and funders through the UK ME/CFS Research Collaborative.
MRC’s drive to tackle global health will continue our partnership with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We are also expanding our outreach by establishing links with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organisation.
As part of the joint programme initiative: a healthy diet for a healthy life (JPI HDHL), MRC supported UK researchers’ participation in Determinants of Diet and Physical Activity (DEDIPAC), an international knowledge hub on the determinants of diet and physical activity choice.
By joining forces with BBSRC and other EU funders we took part in international efforts to support multidisciplinary transnational research that investigates causal relationships between diet, intestinal microbiota and health. Two successful research consortia involving UK researchers were funded as part of the JPI HDHL intestinal microbiomics research funding opportunity.
MRC was also a partner in the JPI HDHL transnational funding opportunity for research proposals on nutrition and cognitive function and has supported three of the successful research consortia.
Partnership with industry
MRC continues to work with industry partners in the pharma, biotech, data and food sectors.
In particular, we have been an active partner in three diet and health initiatives:
- the BBSRC-led Diet and Health Research Industry Club (DRINC)
- Priming Food Partnerships initiative
- Innovate UK’s Nutrition for Life.