Publicly funded health research and the role of the NC3Rs

To many people, the 3Rs are all about minimising harm to animals. But one of the successes of the NC3Rs has been to demonstrate that they are about so much more. A 3Rs approach fosters more robust, reproducible and translational science, bringing benefits to the scientific community and wider society.

In terms of health research, our engagement of UK scientists in the 3Rs agenda has led to new discoveries about disease and potential new therapies that will ultimately benefit patients and their families. Impacts of this nature can be seen in the case studies we publish in our Research Reviews and in submissions to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Research funded by the NC3Rs has led to a new treatment for childhood epilepsy which avoids the side effects associated with the ketogenic diet, to clinical trials of sodium channel blockers as therapy for multiple sclerosis, and more accurate identification of genotoxic compounds by pharmaceutical and chemical companies worldwide, reducing costs and speeding the development of safe products. These examples are testament to the translational power of 3Rs research, showing that the NC3Rs has an important role to play in the UK health research landscape. 

This role is further illustrated in a new report published by the UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC). 'UK Health Research Analysis 2014' is a country-wide assessment of health research funded through public and charitable sources. The analysis provides a snapshot of research relevant to human health that was ‘live’ in the calendar year 2014. The focus is on the directly funded, peer reviewed research awards of the 64 participating funders, but there is also an assessment of indirect funding to support research infrastructure. Over 17,000 awards with a combined spend of  more than £3 billion were submitted for analysis, each of which was classified according to the two dimensions of the Health Research Classification System (HRCS):

  1. Area of health and disease being studied – e.g. Cancer, Cardiovascular, Neurological;
  2. Type of research activity, along the continuum of basic to applied research – e.g. Underpinning Research, Aetiology, Detection/Diagnosis

This is the first time that the NC3Rs has taken part in the HRCS data analysis exercise. All our research grants and early career awards that were active in the calendar year 2014 were submitted. (CRACK IT awards for commercialisation of technologies with 3Rs potential were excluded). Of the 123 awards submitted (total commitment value of £24.1m), three awards were excluded with no HRCS codes and four awards were classified as infrastructure. This left 116 awards with a total commitment value of £21.9m.

The distribution of these 116 awards across the health categories is shown in Figure 1 below. Our largest commitment is in ‘Neurological’ disorders, ‘Cancer’, 'Other', ‘Infection’ and research of ‘Generic Health Relevance’. This distribution is broadly similar to that for all 64 funders combined (see page 47 of the report), with the exception of the category 'Other'. In the case of the NC3Rs, this category includes awards specifically aimed at improving animal welfare but with sufficient relevance to human health to be coded under the HRCS (e.g. research to identify novel methods of assessing pain).

Figure 1: Proportion of NC3Rs commitment value by health category for awards live in 2014 (data not included in the UKCRC report).

Figure 2 shows the distribution of NC3Rs commitment across the eight research activity categories. Around 40% of our portfolio is attributed to the category ‘Aetiology’ and 41% to ‘Treatment Development’. Aetiology looks at the risks, causes and development of disease, whereas Treatment Development refers to the translation of basic research into experimental medicine in preclinical settings and/or model systems. In both cases, the majority of our awards in these two categories were assigned to the sub-category ‘Resources and Infrastructure’. Together these findings reflect the fact animals are used in health research principally for defining the initial causes of disease and for the pre-clinical testing of new treatments, and that much NC3Rs research is focused on developing improved techniques to replace, reduce and refine this use of animals.

Figure 2: Distribution of research activities amongst NC3Rs health-related awards live in 2014 (figure reproduced with permission; annualised value of awards for 2014 is £5.9m).

One of the reasons why we participated in the HRCS analysis, was to be able to benchmark our research portfolio against that of other UK funders. The report shows that NC3Rs invests proportionally more in Treatment Development than do the research councils – around twice that of BBSRC and EPSRC and four times that of MRC. (The average across all 64 participating funders is 13%). This reflects the fact that a significant proportion of our portfolio is for awards which aim to use 3Rs approaches to improve the discovery and development of therapeutic interventions, and to apply the 3Rs to the safety assessment of pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

The UKCRC report is a rich source of information and alongside the previous quinquennial reports illustrates how the UK health research landscape is changing. NC3Rs research investment is an important part of this change.

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