Careers in Medical Research Charities

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By Neil Harris

Medical charities are big business and offer numerous career opportunities. They range from running large retail operations through promoting the cause, publicity and education of the public to managing projects and undertaking research. All the big medical charities have the normal business functions of finance, marketing and human resources. Their goal is to improve the lives of sufferers and seek causes and treatments for disease. They provide funds and facilities for biomedical and health research, offering career opportunities, research training and development for a broad range of scientists and clinicians.

There are 114 medical charities in the UK - all of whom are members of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC). Together they generate about £700 million every year, about a third of public expenditure on medical and health research in UK universities. The AMRC has developed peer review systems among its members that ensure that the quality of research carried out is maintained at a high level.

A key advantage of charities being involved in medical research is that their attention is often focussed on those who suffer from a particular disease and they are not deviated from that mission by political developments or media fashions. Instead they work closely with people who have contracted the disease that they campaign for and have a deep understanding of patients' day to day anxieties and needs.

Just over a third of the money is spent on cancer research, a tenth on cardiovascular investigations and 3% on arthritis. But nearly half goes to provide general medical research such as genetic studies that will eventually lead to an understanding of the causes and hopefully discover cures for many diseases.

The Big Spenders

The top four UK medical charities are the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, the Arthritis Research Campaign and The British Heart Foundation. These provide 85% of the total charity research funding. They offer cash for PhD studentships, postdoctoral researchers, faculty staff, support staff and in some cases complete laboratories. Most medical charities progress in a reactive mode and welcome proposals from university departments for specific research that they may consider for funding. Application for grants can often be made through their web sites.

The Wellcome Trust's Sanger Institute at Cambridge, which has sequenced one third of the human genome, is perhaps the most famous laboratory which is charitably funded. It has been associated with Nobel prize winners. Staff at the Institute includes not only biomedical scientists but also statisticians, computer scientists and engineers. The Wellcome Trust is actively addressing the career issues facing ‘basic and clinical researchers' attempting to ‘enhance the attractiveness and security of a career in biomedical research'.

While most medical charities provide funding for short term projects of up to 3 years which are often undertaken by PhD students, some - including the British Heart Foundation - finance professorships in chosen universities. A few, including the Wellcome Trust, have the financial clout to back long term programmes of research lasting for five years or more. This provides the security that leading scientists and clinicians need to develop as researchers, get to grips with the issues and make a long term career in their specialism.

The Arthritis Research Campaign funds the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at Imperial College and the Epidemiology Unit at Manchester University. Together they employ over 160 staff in both clinical and scientific research. Great strides have been made in identifying the genetics and molecular biology of both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis and discovering therapeutic agents to alleviate its effects.

Cancer Research UK has its own laboratories in London and Cambridge. Dr Jason Carroll is a researcher at Cambridge specialising in breast cancer. When researching for his PhD at the University of New South Wales, he studied the basic biology of the disease. Taking an international route to develop his scientific career his next step was postdoctoral research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, working on several different aspects of the condition. Now employed at the laboratories of Cancer Research UK at Addenbrookes Hospital he is investigating how drugs currently prescribed for the disease actually work. Sometimes these pharmaceuticals stop working but the reasons are not fully understood. Jason is intent on discovering why. 'I'm using Tamoxifen as a tool', says Jason, 'to identify the proteins and genes that switch off cancer cells. Here at Addenbrookes we have an ideal situation. We work closely with the hospital to translate basic biology into clinical practice. Our research is clinically applicable, we continually keep patients in mind and get excellent material to work on'.
Unlike most scientific researchers employed in universities, Jason has a permanent contract and can concentrate on his investigations without the continually nagging problem of how it will be resourced in the coming years.

The Cystic Fibrosis Trust is more typical of most medical charities. The gene which causes CF was found in 1989 but work continues to conquer the disease. The trust spends £4 million a year funding gene therapy research and the search for new treatments. This includes the Cystic Fibrosis Microbiology Laboratory at Edinburgh University which provides a sputum analysis service for sufferers but it also investigates new drugs and treatments for the disease. Researchers in several universities in England and Wales are also involved in short term projects for the trust.

Supporting Projects 

Most medical research charities, however, simply look for relevant projects to fund in university departments, reacting to project proposals from academics working in the field of medical or health research. Research is carried out in hospitals, medical schools and university life science departments to improve the diagnosis and treatment of a disease and the quality of life for those who suffer from it. The work includes seeking the causes, designing new therapies, organising clinical trails and advising and educating the public on actions that will prevent them from contracting the disease.

Charities make an extremely valuable contribution to medical and health research and from the point of view of those involved provide funds that are essential for the development of their careers. Take a close look at the Association of Medical Research Charities and its members and you will discover a wealth of career opportunities in research that brings huge benefits to many people.

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