The Trust That Roared

In 1988, Robert Turner quit one of the best jobs a scientist could have. He was helping Peter Mansfield, the inventor of nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, turn that nascent technology into one of the best diagnostic tools in medicine when dwindling research funds in Britain crippled the effort. "MRI had tremendous potential for brain research, but there wasn't a chance of doing it in Britain," Turner recalls. So the University of Nottingham researcher jumped ship to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Five years later, he's going home. Next month, the 47-year-old scientist will become chief of MRI work at a new $27 million brain research center in London. There, he will have state-of-the-art equipment, a team of world-class scientists--and plenty of money. Says Turner: "Things in Britain have changed." NEW LIFE. The reason is an obscure medical charity in London called the Wellcome Trust. Once known primarily for funding research into tropical diseases and the history of medicine, Wellcome in the past year has transformed itself. It is now dispensing a flood of funds to cash-starved scientists involved in such hot pursuits as molecular biology, brain research, and genetics. What's more, the trust has created three of its own huge multidisciplinary research centers in these fields. "The Wellcome Trust has saved medical research in Britain," enthuses Denis Noble, professor of physiology at Oxford University. It may do more than that: Wellcome is among a handful of charities in the U.S. and elsewhere that are seizing the lead from government funders by backing large, long-term research initiatives.

Britain has become the testing ground for this idea mainly because the budget of the Medical Research Council (MRC), the British government's funding arm, has failed to keep pace with the rising costs of medical research. Over the past decade, the MRC's funding has grown an average of 8% a year, to $350 million last year. But research costs have risen more, so that today, 1 in 13 research grants is funded in Britain, vs. 1 in 3 in the U.S., according to the Association of Medical Research Charities in London. British charities have picked up some of the slack, boosting outlays 14% a year in the past decade, to $400 million last year, including $175 million from Wellcome. But next year, the trust plans to tip the scale: It will hand out $330 million, moving it ahead of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the world's largest private source of medical research funds, says Dietmar Braun, professor of political science at the University of Heidelberg and an expert in medical research policy.

BROKEN WILL. The trust's goal is to fill gaps in government funding. For the past decade, for instance, the MRC has been unable to tie up its funds in long-term grants. That has made it nearly impossible for British scientists to explore the frontiers of medical re- search, where it can take a decade or longer to produce advances, says John Mulvey, head of the lobbying group Save British Science. Wellcome's partial solution is to fund so-called centers of excellence at hospitals, universities, and research labs where scientists work on five-year rolling stipends. In addition to the London brain center, these include a $40 million facility to study the genetic basis of disease and a $75 million center that will sequence genes (table). "We want to fund long-term science [in these areas]," says Ian MacGregor, a trust director. The trust also will give $400 million to fund medical research over five years to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in Research Triangle Park, N.C., a sister organization that itself gave out $6 million last year.

It's all a big change since American entrepreneur Henry Wellcome founded the trust in 1936 and endowed it with 100% ownership of the drug company that bears his name. For decades, the trust used the dividends of its holdings in Wellcome PLC to fund mostly short-term projects at the fringes of medicine. When the value of those holdings skyrocketed in the 1980s along with other drug stocks, Wellcome's directors persuaded British authorities to let them break Henry Wellcome's will, which stipulated that the trust retain all its shares in the company barring "unforeseen circumstances." Roger Gibbs, chairman of the trust since 1989, masterminded two sales of Wellcome stock--in 1986 and in 1992--that netted $4 billion and more than doubled the trust's income.

Thus supported, the trust's three centers are drawing top talent from the U.S. and elsewhere. Mark Lathrop, director of research at the Centre d'Etude Polymorphisme Humain in Paris, for instance, is among those lured to Britain. "Some [research] is more efficiently handled by people with expertise working in a central lab," says Lathrop, who will head the gene center in Oxford.

SENSITIVE ISSUE. John A. Todd, a genetics researcher at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, has been drawn to the same center by its modern equipment. In his search for genetic mutations that cause diabetes, Todd developed a technique to screen genes quickly. However, it needed a $1.5 million automated gene sequencer. Relying on the MRC would have required Todd to share a machine with colleagues in different locations, adding several years to his project. Now that Todd and his 15 researchers are financed by the trust, they have their own machine--and expect results by yearend.

The three centers account for a fraction of the trust's new funds, and Wellcome's directors haven't yet decided what to do with the rest. Nor will they discuss their deliberations. Indeed, Chief Executive Bridget Ogilvie declines to be interviewed. That may reflect an uneasiness with the trust's new leadership role--and its implications for British science. Now that its budget nearly matches the MRC's, competition between the two is likely to increase. Many scientists prefer to work with the trust, since its research priorities aren't subject to political pressures and it is known for having less red tape. The greater concern, however, is that the availability of trust funds will cause the MRC to spend less on basic research. Already, MRC officials admit to making modest cutbacks in cancer research, which has benefited from advances in molecular biology financed by the trust. "There is always a danger that the government will decrease funding because of the charities," says David Weatherall, a trustee of Wellcome Trust and regius professor of medicine at Oxford.

Even if that effect is small, critics fear that the trust and charities elsewhere will skew funding priorities

by focusing on popular causes such as AIDS and genetics while neglecting vital but more mundane targets, such as mental health or screening patients for disease. "When charities make a lot of noise about a popular cause...government spending tends to follow," says Diana Garnham, head of Britain's Association of Medical Research Charities.

ON THE STREET? Wellcome's omnipresence also may make it harder for MRC to coordinate medical research. The trust is discussing spending priorities with the MRC and other funders, but it isn't clear if they'll see eye to eye. "Wellcome is not accountable to the government," says Nicholas Winterton, MRC's director of corporate affairs, "and that raises difficult issues." Indeed, Wellcome directors resist participating in a grand research plan orchestrated by the MRC. Says Weatherall: "I'm not sure that research is best done by committees."

Some scientists also grumble that the trust should do more to improve their job security. Most researchers at Wellcome's centers remain untenured employees of their universities, which means their jobs are vulnerable if they fail to win renewal of their Wellcome grants every five years. "As long as you continue to do good work, it shouldn't be a problem," says Radcliffe's Todd. "But if you don't get your grant extended, you're out on the street."

Still, scientists are so grateful for the money that they will overlook these and other issues for now--and possibly for a long time. The trust still has about 40% of its holdings in shares of Wellcome PLC. A third stock sale in the next few years is a distinct possibility. That would give a lot more researchers the benefit of Wellcome's largess.

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