Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760-779)



  760. I did not think it was Wellcome's at all actually but I give you the opportunity to say so.
  (Dr Goodwin) No, it is not.
  (Dr Dukes) It does sometimes happen in studies evaluating the effectiveness, for example, of a diagnostic system or screening that brings with it, as part of the project, quality control measures which are then embedded or become embedded or develop within the wider NHS rather beyond our purview perhaps but as a consequence of being part of a systematic piece of research. I think that probably is as near as we get to it.

Lord Rea

  761. On the last bit of the question, where do you feel that responsibility for these areas does lie?
  (Dr Dunstan) I have had one try with NIBSC—the National Institute for Biological Standards and Controls. I am not sure how much their area is within that. I have to say I am woefully ignorant about how diagnostics are licensed for use in the NHS. It is not something of which I have any knowledge.
  (Dr Goodwin) I think probably the Medicines Control Agency and the Medical Devices Agency have a role here. Like Dr Dunstan, I am not an expert on this.

Lord Oxburgh

  762. This question really in part follows on but also it has two elements in it. It relates to diagnostics and diagnostic testing on which you have already commented but also to the development of new vaccines. You support this, but to what extent do you then support and promote spin-out activities?
  (Dr Goodwin) The Trust does have a Technology Transfer Division, which is devoted to providing funding to bridge the gap, if you like, between basic research and the point where it could be taken up by industry. That could involve setting up start-up companies. We do have a couple of relevant examples of that. Professor Adrian Hill has been funded to develop DNA-based vaccines for malaria, and the Trust has been involved in the spin-out company resulting from that. Also, we have supported Professor Helen Lee at the University of Cambridge to produce field kits to diagnose sexually transmitted infections. The first kits are now in production for use in developing countries. There is the possibility of a company coming out of that called Diagnostics for the Real World. So we do feel we have a role to play there but it is based on research that we have previously funded.

  763. Could I pursue that? How much research do you support into the development of new vaccines?
  (Dr Goodwin) I could not give you those figures off the top of my head but we can produce them for you[2].

As well as committing over £3 million to support the basic and clinical research of Professor Adrian Hill into malaria and tuberculosis immunology and genetics, which is of fundamental relevance to vaccine development, the Wellcome Trust Development Fund has awarded £343,000 to the University of Oxford specifically for malaria vaccine development.

  764. Who do you have?
  (Dr Goodwin) Adrian Hill certainly has several million pounds.

  765. Would you be able to tell us a little about the Wellcome policy on vaccine development?
  (Dr Goodwin) We do not have a general policy. We do not specifically focus on that but if a proposal comes in, as it did with Adrian Hill via our response mode general funding schemes, that is how we would fund vaccine development.

  766. You neither include it nor exclude it. You view it on its merits?
  (Dr Goodwin) That is right.
  (Dr Dunstan) To go back to the beginning about exploitation generally, I think, as you know, if MRC gives grants to universities. Then it is up to the individual university to deal with exploitation. Within our own units and institutes, we have MRC Technology, which does the exploitation for us. The MRC also has a link with Medical Ventures Management Ltd., which is a company that can actually invest and help. It has first refusal really to help spin-out companies that come from MRC research. I think it has done quite a lot. I am not sure that it has actually invested much in the infections area but it generally is a very helpful link to have. The kind of outputs of exploitation have been from way back, and we mention that in our submission: monoclonal human antibodies for the treatment of RSV for example, which are now available. We have done work on TB vaccines and that kind of thing that has been taken up in a company which I think is called Sequella Inc. in the United States, and so all the mechanisms are there if it is possible to do that.

  767. Could you give the Committee some indication of your policy with respect to the development of new vaccines?
  (Dr Dunstan) You may know that since 1992 or 1993 MRC, together with the Department of Health, BBSRC and what was Glaxo Wellcome but is now GSK, has an investment in the Edward Jenner Institute for Vaccine Research. Our contribution has been about £1.5 million a year. Recently, all the sponsors of that institute have considered the future beyond the 10-year funding that has been committed. It is fair to say that they are all agreed that times have moved on, things have changed and the perspective has to be that in future that kind of investment needs to be nearer the people who are working clinically. Thus, I think it is likely that in future the balance of the MRC's investment in vaccines, which will remain at least as high as it is now and may actually increase, will move away from the Edward Jenner at Compton, which is not near a clinical setting, and closer to various clinical settings that are appropriate in the UK. I felt it was important to tell you that but I am not sure that all of that information is yet available to the staff at the Edward Jenner Vaccine Institute. It is certainly available to their board, but I am not sure if it has been passed on to the staff. I do not quite know the best way to deal with that information.

  768. Could I ask whether you know when it might become available?
  (Dr Dunstan) I can find out and let you know as soon as possible.

Lord Oxburgh: Perhaps you can inform the Clerk. That would be helpful.

Lord Haskel

769. I want to follow this up with Dr Goodwin. Could you tell us a bit more about the role of the Wellcome Trust in the spin-outs. Do you see yourself as a venture capitalist or a long-term shareholder, or just as a funder?
(Dr Goodwin) We do have equity in the companies that we involve in the spin-outs. But we see our role as facilitating that important translation of basic research rather than being a venture capitalist.

Baroness Walmsley

  770. My question refers to something that was referred to very briefly in passing by Dr Dunstan earlier. Do you and do you think you should have a role in funding research into the public perception of risk in relation to vaccine and other areas of communicable disease practice?
  (Dr Dunstan) Yes, I am sure we have a role and we should be funding research in those areas. Indeed, as I think Peter Dukes said earlier, we have done a lot of work in relation to MMR and autism. We have a Consumer Liaison Group, which has helped us enormously with that particular piece of work. They were able as consumers themselves, but ones that did not have a particular interest in this area, to talk to people who were very concerned and actually elicit from them the questions that they felt were important and to which they would like answers. They very much were good facilitators to the relationship, if you like, between MRC and the members of the public who were very concerned. Clearly, this kind of research has many links with the ESRC. I think we would expect jointly to develop a strategy in that area. Indeed, I have mentioned the strategy for the development on infections. That is a half-day discussion at our strategy meeting next week. Another half-day discussion is one with the ESRC people there on perceptions of risk and behaviour. That is not specifically related to infections but it is related widely. It is our expectation that quite a lot of the research that may result from those discussions would be generic and could be applied in this area as well as others.

  771. Are any members of the media involved with that work? Do you brief them as well?
  (Dr Dunstan) They are certainly not present at the strategy discussions because these are in-house discussions. They have been involved in some of the work we have done with the Consumer Group and interfacing with the public.
  (Dr Dukes) Some of that has been more despite them being members of the media rather than because they are. They take part in this not to report the process but because they are fairly articulate, have expressed an interest and have been selected to come through.

Lord Rea

  772. In the admirably speedy response to public anxiety about the link between MMR and autism, by what mechanism was the MRC responding to this and what funding was used? Was it actually taken from other projects?
  (Dr Dunstan) We have actually looked at MMR and autism on more than one occasion at the request of the Department of Health. The first time it was I suppose the old-fashioned way of looking at it, which was to have experts looking at the question and delivering what was then a timely answer. This time round, we were asked to look at it again and we decided that the only way essentially to do this was to involve the public and the people who had concerns. We worked out with the Consumer Liaison Group how best to do that. That was done with MRC funding. It was not particularly expensive. When the report came out, the Department of Health and Scotland actually gave us some £2.5 million to spend on autism research. That is being spent in addition to money that MRC is spending.

Baroness Walmsley

  773. Could I ask Wellcome to answer the same question?
  (Dr Goodwin) We agree that public engagement in this area is extremely important. We do not have a specific programme relating to infectious diseases but we do have a general engaging science programme. It is a response mode programme again, so scientists, or indeed others, can apply to us for funding in any relevant area to promote dialogue and engagement with the public.

Lord Lewis of Newnham

  774. I think this question has partly been answered. If you take something like MMR, it is in the public at large, so that was an obvious source of inquiry. How do you decide on what other areas you are going to be involved? Are you prompted by one of the health organisations or is it done by a response from an application from outside or what?
  (Dr Dunstan) Sometimes we are asked questions, as it were, by the Department of Health. Another one which comes to fruition I think later this week is on chronic fatigue syndrome. That has some infection connotations. Again, we involved our Consumer Liaison Group which has a very good interface with people who have concerns about that. Other questions either come to us because people write in and say, "These are things you ought to be looking at"—and that is relatively infrequent—or they come through our expert research boards. Annually, people look at what the issues and the opportunities are. That is how they draw things to our attention.

Lord Haskel

  775. On this question of public perception of risk, do you also have a relationship with the various pressure groups and charities that take a great interest in this and, if so, could you tell us how you handle those relationships?
  (Dr Dunstan) They are not always easy because in areas where there is a lot of uncertainty there are charities, small groups, that take very different views. They are heterogeneous in that way and in that sense it is quite a challenge to deal with them. Peter Dukes may have more to say about that because he has done a lot of work on it. I have described how we think our Consumer Liaison Group has a real role to play in interfacing with these people. We think that when we have looked at something like MMR or chronic fatigue syndrome, or indeed other things that may come up in the future, we actually have an obligation to continue the communication with the groups that have been involved in the review. The kind of thing we are proposing to do in MMR and autism and related areas is to hold at least one meeting a year with interested parties and experts to tell them what has gone on in the past year in research terms, what the new opportunities are, and how it is really going to develop. If we are honest, none of these things are going to be solved in an instant. They are all long-term pieces of research. We need to build those links and keep them going. That is something that is new for us but we are working very hard on it.
  (Dr Goodwin) We are not quite as much in the limelight as the MRC is over this sort of thing, but obviously the main pressure groups that we have to deal with are the animal rights people. We are very much involved with the AMRC in addressing that sort of thing.

Baroness Walmsley

  776. I wondered if either organisation has done any research into the extent to which scientific education prepares members of the public to make decisions about their own perception of risk.
  (Dr Dunstan) I am not aware of any[3]

  (Dr Dukes) I think I can illustrate this. Firstly, in the review of autism that we did, not only did we involve consumers, but we actually put on a research training day for them, so that they were, if you like, more greatly empowered to take part in scientific discussions and fora. That is at a fairly practical ad hoc level, just as an example. Of course, our units—and we have a Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow—do some of this kind of thing, but not necessarily overseen by MRC at the centre.

  (Dr Dunstan) I think it is the sort of thing that ESRC might have a big interest in, too.

Lord Oxburgh

  777. One of the problems that arises when there is suspicion about some medical treatment, be it a vaccine or what have you, is that the popular media tend to lead a story with a clearly very distressed person who believes that they have been harmed by a medical practice or procedure and there is very often no one there to answer that assertion in a sensitive but authoritative way. Does either of your organisations feel any obligation to be prepared to respond on those occasions?
  (Dr Dunstan) We are not geared up at the moment to be able to do that, but it is something that we have been giving a lot of thought to recently and I would expect that we will be able to do it rather better perhaps in the future than we have been able to manage in the past.
  (Dr Goodwin) I think we are in a similar position, and we are very aware of the importance of our media and our press department in dealing with these sort of things.

Lord Oxburgh: Thank you.


  778. Can we just go back to your areas of interest. I would like to ask the MRC whether there is a specific board or panel which looks into infection in the broadest sense?
  (Dr Dunstan) There is one panel that has infections central to its remit and that is the Physiological Medicine and Infections Board, but there are other panels that also fund work that is relevant to infections, we have talked about the Health Services and the Public Health Research Board and we also have a group called the Cross-Board Group that funds co-operative groups, which are essentially the short term three-year type of support with some infrastructure, so they will fund infections work also. It is more spread out than has been described by The Wellcome Trust.

  779. This leads me on to ask about zoonotic infections of both groups. What is the attitude of the MRC and The Wellcome Trust to funding research of zoonotic problems from animals to man both at the basic level and at the clinical level?
  (Dr Dunstan) I think we would be open to proposals in that area. I think some of the work that is done at Mill Hill is very interested in the transfer between flu in birds and man and so the kind of work that John Skemel does is relevant to that.
  (Dr Goodwin) We have always been very interested in funding animal health as well as human health and obviously zoonotic diseases are included and, in fact, we have just launched a new initiative on animal health in developing countries and we are committing about £25 million over five years to that.

2   The Trust has committed considerable resources to fund the research that underpins vaccine development. For example, the Infection and Immunity Panel often considers applications relating to vaccine research at its meetings, which are held five times per year. Some examples awarded in 2003 include the following three year project grants: "Dissecting the mechanisms underlying mucosal vaccination" (£288,901); "Identifying the immunomodulatory effects of immune stimulating complexes (ISCOMS) and targeting these to enhance the potential of ISCOMS as vaccine vectors" (£305,594); and "Development of the self-controlled case series method for evaluating vaccine safety", (£111,678). Back

3   As supplementary information to the evidence session, the Trust would like to inform the Committee that studies of this nature would be considered under the Trust's public engagement "Engaging Science" response mode grants programme, which is described in more detail on our web site Back

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